Chef John Currence speaking
Award-winning Chef John Currence speaks at a 2017 Move on Up Mississippi event. Credit: Move on Up Mississippi

John Currence had his first taste of bourbon as a youngster, in a goodnight kiss on his parents’ lips.

Currence, now a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, Oxford restaurateur and author, probably was 4 or 5 years old at the time.

“My parents would be out at supper and would come in to kiss my brother and me goodnight when they got home late,” often crawling into bed to cuddle and kiss their boys. “I remember being half-awake as a little one on those nights, with that sweet whiskey breath on my dad, on my mom, as they whispered to us and … snuggled up next to us.

“That was one of the best smells in the whole world. And I kind of like to think, oddly, that that was my first taste of whiskey.”

Decades later, that taste would hold a place in the title trinity of Currence’s book, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some. Now, bourbon is the marquee draw for the inaugural Oxford Bourbon Festival & Auction.

The festival will make its splash in Oxford May 18-20 with three days of celebration that include bourbon-themed private dinners with notable chefs, a live concert by The War & Treaty, exclusive bourbon tastings, an auction of rare bourbons, bourbon-themed trips and a Milk Punch Brunch. Festival proceeds will benefit Move on Up Mississippi, a nonprofit founded by Currence and dedicated to improving the lives of Mississippi’s underserved children.

More than a dozen award-winning chefs from around the South are involved, including Mike Lata (FIG and The Ordinary, Charleston), Matt Bolus (404 Kitchen, Nashville), Edward Lee (610 Magnolia, Louisville) and such great Mississippi talent as Vishwesh Bhatt (Snackbar, Oxford), Derek Emerson (Walker’s Drive-In, Jackson) and David Crews (Delta Supper Club, Cleveland).

Building on a couple of years of private dinner fundraisers, the festival boosts the footprint and appeal of the foundation and adds a destination draw for Oxford.

“There’s such a fascination with bourbon right now,” Currence says.

Involvement of bourbon labels, such as Sazerac, Maker’s Mark and Angel’s Envy, and generous friends “has been absolutely overwhelming,” and managing enthusiasm to keep the inaugural event a manageable size has been the challenge. With the auction and additional activities, the festival taps into the a well-heeled, socially conscious clientele willing to travel to pursue their interest, for what Currence terms a “a win-win-win-win-win scenario.”

Count Rich Grain Distilling Co. in Canton in a “win” column. Distillery owner David Rich’s Mississippi-made bourbon will be among those at the festival’s tasting event, plus he has donated a few bottles from the first release (which sold out within days, sometimes hours in stores) for the auction.

Rich, an Ole Miss grad, enjoys any chance to get back to Oxford, he says, “but I’m especially excited for this festival. For a young company like mine, any chance we get to showcase our products and put them in front of customers is great,” plus he is glad to help out a good cause, with Currence’s nonprofit.

Event ticket pricing ranges from $35 for the bourbon tasting and $40 for the concert ($85 VIP) to $250 for the private dinners; visit moveonupms.org for event details and tickets.

Move on Up Mississippi, approaching four years in existence, is still finding ways it can best contribute to the state’s landscape, Currence says. A story by a friend’s son in his high school paper — about homeless kids in the Oxford school community — drove home board members’ desire to help. A charrette with county nonprofits last fall aimed to find the greatest community need for children.

Move on Up Mississippi continues as a clearinghouse, granting money to programs in place with criteria that match the nonprofit’s goal to help in childhood health, well-being, nutritional education and activity. Help thus far has ranged from partnering with the Interfaith Compassion Ministry to bridge the gap between income and cost of living for the working poor in Oxford to working with the SNAP benefit program at the Oxford Community Market. This year’s grantees will be announced at the festival.

Move on Up Mississippi drink and napkins
Move on Up Mississippi grants money to programs that help with children’s health and well-being.

As any bourbon lover knows, there are any number of ideal ways to enjoy it. One of Currence’s favorites? Late-night “porch dates” with his wife, Bess, at home — not far from the Square in Oxford.

“When the weather’s right, we’ll sit on our front porch swing — we live on a route where the kids come home after the bars close — and we can turn down the lights and sip a drink and watch the kids come home and listen to what they talk about, in this totally secretive way, almost like spying,” he says.

Context and conversation are as much aswirl in the flavor of the moment as the spirits in that glass.

“It’s interesting to me how academic it’s become — and clinical at times — that folks will sit down and examine these whiskeys. … I certainly like the taste of a sip of 1970s Old Fitzgerald and can understand how nuanced it is, compared to whiskey that’s made today,” Currence says. But realistically? Throwing a few cubes of ice in a glass and taking whatever the bourbon of the day may be — Weller, Bulleit Bourbon or Buffalo Trace — and slapping it over the rocks, works great.

people around table for fundraiser event
Move on Up Mississippi hosts fundraisers throughout the year to support its mission. Credit: Move on Up Mississippi

“Everything else is about the conversation of whoever you’re with at the time,” he says. “I like good whiskey — for my first drink. After that, I have very firm rules. I don’t waste good whiskey on the second drink.

“If you want to give me a sip of your Jefferson’s Reserve … let’s do it and have a short pour for the first drink, but then let’s move on to the Buffalo Trace and tell stories.

“There’s nothing in the world that I love a whole lot more than that first crisp fall morning, getting ready to go to the Grove and getting a giant plastic tumbler and just filling it with an obscene amount of Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s and pouring Coca-Cola over the top of it to go to the first football game of the season.”

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Sherry Lucas

Sherry Lucas

Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.