Food & Drink

How much bourbon does it take to make a winning Derby burger?

Maurice Williams is a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby burger competition. This year’s winner featured onions pickled in a bourbon mix.
Maurice Williams is a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby burger competition. This year’s winner featured onions pickled in a bourbon mix. Kentucky Derby Festival

Maurice Williams of Louisville is a man of strong opinions about burgers: He likes them simple and easy on the condiments, with a particular dislike of good pieces of meat drenched in ketchup.

Williams, who works for El Toro, an internet targeting company, is now the two-time winner of the Derby Burger Champion competition, the only cooking competition associated with the Derby and now in its sixth year.

The competition is sponsored by the Kentucky Beef Council and coordinated by the Kentucky Derby Festival. The March 20 cook-off was held at the Kroger in Middletown, just east of Louisville. Williams’ winning recipe will be available to try at Kroger’s Fest-a-Ville during its nine-day run April 27 through May 5, at BeerFest on May 3 in Louisville, and as a featured menu item at Louisville’s Napa River Grill.

Williams’ burger, the SmoFried Cafe Burger, was selected as the 2017 overall winner. It featured ground beef covered in coffee and cocoa powder, provolone cheese and pickled onions served on a toasted pretzel bun.

His first win, in 2016, was with the SmoFried Cheese-Stuffed Angus Burger.

Williams had received suggestions about making a Derby burger with bourbon. The problem of how to use bourbon for the 2017 entry initially stumped Williams. He tried to make some cucumber pickles with bourbon, “but they just didn’t taste right to me.”

Then he hit upon the mixture of bourbon and onions. That did the trick.

He used Woodford Reserve for his pickled onions. The mixture leftover after pickling the onions is used to brine chicken. (Williams offers other tips at his blog,, and he is now formulating dry rubs for beef brisket, pork and chicken.)

“I’ve been cooking pretty much my entire life, or at least interested in it,” Williams said. “Once I was about 25, I started to figure out some things, and the stuff I made tasted better after that point.”

Before that, Williams said, he cooked “definitely a lot of atrocious meals.”

Other finalists for this year’s burger competition included the Mint Julep Bacon Cheeseburger, Winner by a Nose and the Pineappple Mango Pico Burger.

The Mint Julep Bacon Cheeseburger was the second effort for Scott Wisdom, quality control manager at Blendex in Jeffersontown. Blendex specializes in custom batters, breadings, marinades, sauces and rubs.

Wisdom prefers Lexington’s Town Branch bourbon for his recipe, in which bacon is glazed with a bourbon syrup to give a sweet and salty flavor to the top of the burger.

Technically, Wisdom said, it’s his second year entering the burger. Last year it did not place: “I didn’t even get a call saying they liked this.”

Wisdom picked up cooking after a childhood when “I really thought I was related to someone named Gatti’s or Papa John,” he said.

Eventually, Wisdom said, “I started experimenting, and here we are with a third-place burger.”

Next year, he plans to enter again. But for now, Wisdom said, his colleagues at Blendex may have another plan for him: Cater the company picnic.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

SmoFried Café burger, by Maurice Williams

2 lbs. Angus ground chuck — 80/20 blend

3 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 cup Kona coffee

1 cup cocoa powder

 1/2 lb. sliced provolone cheese

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 pretzel buns

In a large mixing bowl, gently work 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of cracked black pepper into each pound of Angus ground chuck.

In a separate mixing bowl, combine the Kona coffee with the cocoa powder.

Separate the ground chuck into four equal parts and pat evenly. Place each patty in the coffee and cocoa blend, making sure to cover all of the surface.

Once the patties are coated, place them on a grill or in a cast-iron skillet and cook over medium heat for 12 to 15 minutes per side.

Place the cheese slices on top of the burger patties immediately after cooking.

Mix the extra virgin olive oil with the remaining 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and brush over top of the pretzel buns.

On the grill or in the oven, toast the buns for no more than 90 seconds.

Transfer the burger patties to the pretzel buns and top with the desired number of bourbon pickled red onions (recipe below).

Bourbon pickled red onions

2 cups Woodford Reserve bourbon

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup natural local honey

8 sprigs fresh thyme

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1 red onion, thinly sliced

2 Mason jars

In a large stock pot, bring to a boil the Woodford Reserve Bourbon, apple cider vinegar and honey.

In each Mason jar, add four sprigs of fresh thyme along with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns.

Using a mandolin, slice one red onion on the second-to-thinnest setting, and divide the slices equally between the Mason jars.

Once the liquid has reached a soft boil, pour it over the onions in the Mason jars, making sure to cover all of the other ingredients, as well.

Seal the Mason jars and allow them to reach room temperature before refrigerating them for two days prior to serving.

The mint julep bacon cheeseburger, from Scott Wisdom

1 cup warm water

1 ounce bourbon (Wisdom comments: “You can make it 2, just sample remaining 1 ounce for quality assurance purposes.”)

2 ½ cups sugar

1 bunch of mint, separated

 ½ lb. thick-cut center-cut bacon

1 lb. 80/20 ground beef

2 slices Swiss cheese

“Handful” torn basil

 ½ cup mayonnaise/aioli

Juice of  ½ lemon

2 ciabatta rolls

 ¼ cup mixed greens

Salt and pepper to taste

Add water, bourbon and sugar to a small pot over low heat, creating a simple syrup. Roll  ¾ of the bunch of mint into a tight ball, bruising the leaves and releasing the mint oils. Add to the syrup and allow to steep. Cook syrup until it coats the back of a spoon, and allow it to cool slightly.

Separate bacon slices and pat dry. Dredge each strip in the simple syrup, coating thoroughly, and cook bacon as normal. During cooking process, baste each strip with more syrup until a nice crust forms. Just before service, add a final coat of syrup.

Take remaining mint leaves and chiffonade into very thin ribbons and add about a tablespoon to ground beef. Separate ground beef into two patties and season liberally with salt and pepper. After letting the patties rest for 20 minutes, cook on an open fire/charcoal grill until medium rare. When patties are turned, add the sliced cheese and allow to melt.

While burgers are grilling, finely chop 2 large basil leaves and mix into mayonnaise along with lemon juice (add juice slowly to your taste)

Toast ciabatta rolls and slather mayonnaise on the bottom half of the roll. Top this with remaining basil and mixed greens. Add patties and top with the bacon and more mayonnaise. If you are feeling fancy, spear the top of the roll with a mint sprig.