If you happened to have been driving through Bardstown, Ky., last weekend past the Barton distillery, heading in the direction of the Nelson County Fairgrounds, then you wouldâ€™ve noticed a very distinct smell. Driving past Barton and its jet black wooden rack houses, the smell on a breezy day can fill your car with a sweet scent of caramel or praline. Itâ€™s the wonder of driving past a bourbon distillery with millions of gallons of bourbon aging just yards away. But a mile down the road, a whole other fragrance dominated the area last weekend: smoke.
June 5 and 6, the fairgrounds played host to the Bourbon City BBQ Festival, an annual barbecue competition that attracts some of the top teams from the Midwest and South to compete. For the past two years, despite heavy competition, a Louisville-based team by the name of Blue Chip BBQ has won the competition.
Started in 2009 by Charlie Jackey, along with his son Jeremy and his best friend and brother-in-law Dennis Cheatham, Blue Chip BBQ has become one of the top teams in the country.
â€œWe all like to cook,â€ explains Charlie Jackey, who balances his hobby of competitive barbecue with his full-time plumbing job. â€œIt also helps that weâ€™re pretty competitive people.â€
â€œThe team is my son and Dennis, who lives 100 yards from me,â€ he says.
â€œI never really liked [Charlie Jackey],â€ jokes Cheatham.
The reality is that a love of cooking for family members on weekends with the grill â€“ and the occasional smoke â€“ soon manifested itself into trying out competitions, during which Blue Chip BBQ honed their skills and started claiming prizes around the country. Now, wherever they travel, they do so knowing they have friends in that community, bound by their love of hog and hickory.
â€œBarbecue people are some of the best people you could meet,â€ says Charlie Jackey. â€œIf you were competing right now and we ran out of an ingredient or had an emergency, we know we could go to another team and get help. Of course they could say, â€˜Sorry, tough luck; itâ€™s competition,â€™ but itâ€™s not like that.â€
And disasters have happened before â€“ most notably, when Blue Chip missed the deadline for submitting one of their cooked meats to the judges… by 3 seconds. Automatic disqualification from that category.
Well, the principle of a barbecue competition is simple: take some meat, cook it, eat it and let some judges eat it. Theyâ€™ll score it, and then the person who cooked that meat just right is the winner. But there are more intricacies. For example, while only the use of charcoal is required, grilling is out of the question. If youâ€™re a competitive barbecuer, then youâ€™re smoking your meat.
Competitions require the same meats to be prepared every time: pork, chicken, brisket and ribs, which means two things. First, each meat requires a different skill and expertise, and second, the fact that each meat has a different cook time means competitors are usually working through the night to get ready for the next day.
Last Friday evening at Nelson County Fairgrounds, the field was full of those cooks ready to battle. At Blue Chip, their small trailer has three inflatable mattresses and two bunks where theyâ€™ll rotate and take shifts tending to the meats while the rest of the team sleeps.
The cooking has to be timed perfectly so that the various meats can be sliced, diced and presented immaculately in a box thatâ€™s to be delivered to a judge in a 10-minute window, with a new meat scheduled to be dropped off every half hour. For the less-experienced teams, this leads to a frantic dash, running from station to smoker and back. For Blue Chip BBQ, whoâ€™ve gotten their cooking down to a precise, Swiss- watch science, the process is a little less frantic â€“ but equally nerve-wracking. After all, the meat still has to taste great.
In fact, watching the Jackeys and Cheatham is a little like observing a NASCAR pit crew, except a little stickier and a lot more delicious. In a way, you get to lick and taste the car. Take the ribs, for example. A little before itâ€™s removed from the smoker, the meat is inspected by Jeremy Jackey like a soothsayer. With toothpick in hand, he tests for tenderness, looking carefully at each strip of meat between the bone for any sign of weakness. When itâ€™s eventually removed, the sauce (already being heated inside the trailer) is applied with gentle strokes by the elder Jackey, while Cheatham heats and stirs the sauce. From three giant slabs of ribs, six individual ribs are selected and placed gently like newborn chicks on a bed of fresh parsley, lined up with exquisite symmetry. When itâ€™s deemed perfect, itâ€™s Cheathamâ€™s job to run down to the judges booth.
Assessing based on presentation and taste (and a few other aspects), judges have a difficult yet enviable task: Eat meat; then eat more meat and then pick the best one. But itâ€™s inside their certified mouths that the fate of teamsâ€™ meats rests, and taste is not the only measure of quality. Tiny differences can become magnified under the spotlight of competition â€“ perhaps the way the skin falls off the meat, or whether the meat falls off the bone. For Blue Chip BBQ, the main hope is to get lucky with a judge who knows his stuff, as opposed to one whoâ€™s there to simply enjoy the food.
As in all barbecue competitions, all judging is done blind, and no judge is supposed to taste the same teamâ€™s food twice. So the fact that Blue Chip BBQ has won two years running is immeasurably impressive. With all the food in, theyâ€™re gunning for a third. Already declared state champions on a number of occasions, the Jackeys and Cheatham want to earn enough points this year to be invited to the Super Bowl of barbecue competitions: The Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue â€“ or known in competition circles simply as â€œThe Jack.â€ Blue Chip has never won but has been invited twice before and would like to return.
By 4 p.m., the tent at the back of the fairgrounds is full. Every team, now a couple of hours removed from competition and finished cleaning their sauce-covered trailers, looks in need of a beer, or is already in the midst of sipping on one. It was time for the scores to be announced.
Itâ€™s around this time, as Jeremy Jackey explains, that the team gets nervous, especially if they start placing highly â€“ which they often do. Humble as they might be, theyâ€™re also fiercely competitive. First up: the scores for chicken.
â€œFirst place in chicken goes to…â€ belts the announcer.
â€œBlue Chip BBQ.â€
Itâ€™s during the time of announcements that you really start realizing how hard these people work, not only on their BBQ but on their team name as well. Some teams choose to go for something sedate â€“ Rice Brothers being one example. But others know they can plump for names more daring and, frankly, groan-worthy. Eat More Butts is a good example, as is Rub One Out BBQ, a slightly naughtier selection. Elsewhere, Midget Mountain BBQ is a bit more inexplicable.
Back to the results as pork and ribs get called out: two fifth places, which means Blue Chip is likely in the lead. But with the aforementioned Rice Brothers closing in, Jeremy Jackey tries to stay poised.
â€œI donâ€™t want to say it, in case I jinx it,â€ he says, nervously kicking his leg in a chair, â€œbut weâ€™re in a good position.â€
When the final category is announced, a second place pretty much assures overall victory, and the actual win becomes a mere formality. When their name is finally called out, Blue Chip BBQ â€“ Charlie and Jeremy Jackey and Dennis Cheatham â€“ are proclaimed champions for a third year running, notching their highest score ever in competition.
Theyâ€™ll be back in contention June 12-13 at the seventh annual Jeffersonville Smokinâ€™ on the River BBQ Festival. Theyâ€™ve never won there, but thereâ€™s a first time for everything for the kings of Kentucky barbecue. VT
Blue Chip BBQÂ 2015 Pro Grand Champion
First Place -Â Chicken
Second Place -Â Brisket
Fifth Place -Â Ribs
Fifth Place -Â Pulled Pork
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune