Diva Q Crafts Perfect Barbecue With WhistlePig Whiskey - Exclusive Interview

This is something that keeper of the flame Danielle "Diva Q" Bennett knows in her bones: Barbecue is a way of life, and meat science is its life's blood. Meet the ultimate BBQ whisperer. Since 2006, when Bennett judged her first contest, her insatiable need to learn more about barbecue has earned her over 400 barbecue awards (including 20 Grand Championships and 29 perfect "180" scores), over 20,000 students, a cookbook, a TV show ("BBQ Crawl"), and more than anyone's fair share of once-in-a-lifetime culinary travel experiences. For example, Bennett was the first female in history to teach barbecue in Tel Aviv. With a CV like hers, not to toot one's own horn would be sinful. "I do not say I'm lucky," Diva Q tells Mashed. "I work too hard to be lucky."

Most recently, Diva Q's adventures brought her to Vermont. There, the pitmaster — who works with Traeger Grills — got to barbecue and invent recipes with the product of WhistlePig Whiskey and Traeger Grills' collab, SmokeStock Wood Fired Whiskey. That, says Diva Q, is just one of her latest pinch-me moments. She'll walk you through it, and others, in this exclusive interview with Mashed, sharing family memories and dishing out healthy doses of unmissable wisdom along the way.

Diva Q is tight with Sweet Baby Ray's Dave Raymond

Sweet Baby Ray's Dave Raymond, says you're the most passionate person he knows in the business. Talk to us about that relationship.

One of the things is that Dave Raymond and I met many years ago, and I was still living in Canada at the time. I met him at a national barbecue conference and he sat down and started talking to me ...This is at least 12 years ago, if not a lot longer. When I first started at barbecue, I was dismissed at the first, part[ly] because I was Canadian and I was female. There's two hits right there. I didn't grow up with barbecue in a traditional sense, and they knew that I liked whiskey because I was well known for always having a really good selection of whiskey.

They knew that I loved barbecue, but a lot of times people dismissed me. I had such a thirst for knowledge that I traveled everywhere to learn as much as possible. Dave is from the Chicago area and we were talking, and we always have a chance to keep in touch. We email back and forth about three or four times a year ... Sometimes, we'll get on the phone. He has always been supportive of me in my career and truly one of the most sincere gentlemen ... and absolutely encouraging. The world needs more people like Dave. We all need to do that.

Additionally, in barbecue, one of the things is that we always love to share our food [and] our knowledge. We all learn from each other. We all share [with] each other. If there's a technique that we put up on Instagram ... When I started, there was no Instagram. There was no YouTube series. There wasn't any of that, so you learned by word of mouth. To be honest, the best times I ever learned were at night sitting beside a fire pit, drinking whiskey. 

I'm dead serious because people went, "Well, let's talk about barbecue." We would sit there until the wee hours in the morning, sipping whiskey. It's some of my fondest memories with people like Dave Raymond and other luminaries in the barbecue world.

Now that I've been doing it for that long, I'm one of those people that sits there now and teaches people that are younger or talks to people that are [newer to] the industry. I remember those days when I had all these questions and some of them, looking back, were stupid as hell, but they never treated me like that. They were kind enough to share that knowledge. The spirits and the barbecue went hand in hand for me forever.

What unites people who BBQ

In your cookbook, you name barbecue competition ground rules for visitors. People who are passionate about barbecue form their own tight-knit community. What are its uniting factors?

One of the biggest things about the barbecue community, in general, is the fact that one of our greatest achievements is to bring together people with food. We bring communities together with food. We take care of each other. I'll give you an example — one of the things that I've been really fortunate to do with my partnerships with Traeger, with my clients — all of them — they've always been supportive of my charitable works. 

That's really important to me to give back to my community. I'm in a position where I have all this food and I'm not going to eat it all by myself, so what do we do with it? We try to distribute it. We've given back to our communities, whether it's [the] police, fire [stations], women and children's shelter, youth ministries, whatever that is. For barbecuers in general, you'll notice a big trend — and I very rarely do competitions now — but in the barbecue community itself, you'll definitely see a higher than standard level of people that want to bring others together through food. That comes in line with a lot of charitable works. 

Diva Q lays out the BBQ community's ground rules

What are the unspoken ground rules for people within the BBQ community?

One of the underlying things when it comes to barbecue and the number one rule [would be], "Don't touch my grill unless I've told you to." If you touch my grill and I haven't asked you to lift that lid, I am not going to be a happy camper. I don't think any other barbecuer is. I'm really over the whole mansplaining thing at this point. That still happens for all female barbecuers.

If a person's at a contest, they probably have a clue what they're doing, to some degree. Be respectable of everybody that's at a barbecue contest. This also goes with when you see people posting things on Instagram or social media. We are all on those channels. I always get a kick out of it because I'll do something a certain way and they're like, "Why didn't you do it this way?" Because this is my house and this is how I do it. I'm not going to tell you what to do in your house. Why do you think you can come to my house and tell me how to make a hamburger or hot dog? It's being respectful, in general.

In most cases, that's a good rule to go by. If you're at a person's house or a barbecue or a cookout or competition, don't touch another person's grill. That is the golden rule. Do not ever, unless it's on fire. That would be the only exception, and then grab a box of baking soda and a fire extinguisher, but other than that, don't touch another person's grill. That's the number one rule. 

Oh, and share your beverages. Share your WhistlePig.

Diva Q's favorite travel memories

You mentioned doing a ton of traveling. You've crisscrossed the United States in a solo trailer at least five to six times! Give us your top two pinch-me moments when traveling for work.

If you've ever seen the size of Texas or if you've been to Texas, you know Texas is a big damn state. That state is huge. I was traveling. I was doing Season 2 of "BBQ Crawl." I had enough of the crew. I had enough people. I didn't want people anymore that day. My crew was amazing, by the way. Nothing against them, but when you have to talk all day and you're on camera all day and you've got ... Joel Cameron, that was my camera guy's name, was literally here all day in my truck. Every once in a while I'd say, "Okay, everybody get. Go in the other vehicle. I need some space. I need some time." I needed to decompress. I said, "Hey, I'll meet you at the next hotel," which we were [going to] in Texas.

I ended up getting in the truck and trailer by myself, and I was driving across Texas ... It was all the ranch areas, and one of the coolest things ever is I pulled my truck and trailer over on the side of the road where the [speed limit] is posted at 80 miles an hour. There's nothing around, and I sat there at the front of my truck, and I watched the sunset. I thought to myself, "Holy s***, look at where barbecue has brought me." Here I am in the middle of Texas, getting paid to barbecue on TV with the Travel Channel, going from place to place [for a show] called "BBQ Crawl," drinking whiskey, having a good time, working my ass off.

This was a big pinch-me moment. I've had so many others since then. That was the first one that really hit me. [Another was] when I won a World Pork Championship, because a Canadian female had never done that before, the Jack Daniels [one], which is pretty cool. There's other moments there that are truly near and dear to my heart. I was the first female ever to teach barbecue in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Diva Q's Costco encounter

That's pretty cool.

That was spectacular. I have been to Byron Bay a few times to teach in Australia. I have had the chance to go to the Northern-most brewery in Norway and teach barbecue and talk about barbecue. I have been honored a few times by St. Philip College in Texas for being ... I'm a motivational speaker, as well, to young women and anyone entering fields that are non-traditional. 

I see that there are so many captivating moments and there's moments when you're sitting there and somebody ... I'll be at Sam's Club or Costco or whatever and it just happened a couple of days ago, again. I was literally at the St. Augustine Costco, for a grand opening. Somebody came up to me, recognized me from TV, and [was] like, "Oh my God, my daughter loves you. She's in culinary school. She talks about you. She watches you. She stalks your Instagram page." That's awesome.

The guys overseas who I sent some books to, and things like that, are doing everything they can to protect our country and they wanted some help with barbecue. [It] has brought me to so many amazing places in the world and so many of those bucket-list moments where I'm standing there going, "This is a pretty damn cool life and I am grateful and I am thankful." 

Even on my worst days when I am tired and exhausted, and [have] worked an 80-hour week, which happens more often than I'd like sometimes, I have to remember how incredibly thankful I am. I won't say blessed, though. I do not say I'm lucky. I work too hard to be lucky, but I'm very thankful and grateful for the partnerships that I've been able to make. 

I'll give you [another] example ... I was at WhistlePig for the very first time. If you've seen the elevation ... Vermont [in the] fall is drop-dead gorgeous to begin with, because I live in Florida and everything's the same color. We don't change. We have no seasonal changes. I remember coming over the ledge, right before the valley where WhistlePig is, and it was this riotous explosion of colors. 

[I saw] this beautiful red barn [and] I'm like ... "This doesn't suck at all. This is really cool." I'm up there and the CMO, Jason, is there and we've got 12 different things to try. Those are the best pinch-me moments ever because you're like, "This doesn't suck at all."

Diva Q's most extreme barbecuing experience

You are famous for barbecuing in all conditions, year-round, no matter the weather. What is the most extreme condition you've barbecued in?

Tromso, Norway, minus 35. We were there [around March 2019]. There is a video out there. We drank a lot of whiskey that day because we were just trying to keep warm. We were doing the Northern Lights. Tromso, Norway is three hours from the Russian border. We had to go in this small little prop plane, which was pretty amazing. I was up there and I was teaching some recipes. 

We've got the Northern Lights, they're all happening around us. It's cool as s***. I am serving one of my favorite recipes to serve with whiskey, which is reverse-seared steak and compound butter. That's one of my favorites. We have great recipes for a lot of things, but I was doing my reverse-seared steak and one of the guys came out and he goes, "Can you cook a steak for me?"

I'm like, "Yeah, sure. Let me show you how to do it because we do reverse-sear and it's a longer process." Here we are in minus 35, and the Traegers were banging out an amazing product. He handed me a steak that was really lean. We talked about it afterward and I'm like, "What kind of steak was that?" I had to guess and I guessed right. It was caribou, AKA reindeer. It was amazing. That was probably one of the most extreme [condition]. We were sitting there, once again sipping whiskey ... [and] enjoying that balance of goodness and smoke and all that stuff.

What whisky does for barbecue

Barbecue, for you, is a never-ending learning process. You have a thirst for learning. What are you learning right now?

I just visited WhistlePig's farm, and then I headed over to Vermont. I've learned some blending techniques and things like that. I've also learned [through] a friend of mine who's a writer, and he was just doing a consultation on how to keep high-end whiskeys and things like that. I never stop learning. I'm a sponge person, so I love all of those opportunities to intake any of that educational [material] — especially food education, meat science, that kind of thing. 

It's the spirits, and everything else [that] come all together with that love. I'm always constantly looking for new little tidbits of information that I could pass on to my fans, [or that] I could teach. Anytime I get that kind of information, it makes me happy, any little new little bits of information you have. I've been doing this for 16 years, so I'm not new, but you never stop learning, so it's pretty amazing.

How does barbecuing with whiskey change the way that you barbecue?

It's adding another layer of flavor, always. I have an extensive bourbon and whiskey collection. It's something that I've always done. One of the things is that I am one of those people who really enjoys all the different notes of flavor in whiskeys and bourbons, specifically. Those tones are very similar to barbecue and they pair beautifully with so many items when it comes to barbecue. 

I've been writing recipes for [about] 15 years. A lot of times, I'm using whiskey or bourbons as an additive in sauces, in creations, in finishing glazes, in actual things. I was writing a recipe [just now]. I have to go to Australia in ... 10 days, and one of the dishes that I'm making for 165 people is a whiskey pecan tart that is done on the grill. We smoke the pecans with whiskey and honey, sugar and/or maple sugar. It's another great opportunity to layer in delicious flavor. It makes sense.

Diva Q reveals tips for barbecuing with whisky

You're actually a dessert person –

No, I'm a food person. I love meat more than anything.

But your dessert, "Death by Diva" has [about] 26, scores of 180! We know you're a barbecue person, but what is the relation between a really good dessert and a really nice piece of meat or barbecue?

It's all about the balanced meal. I'm a multiple world champion [in] pork and sausage and bacon and a whole bunch of meat categories, [as well as] vegetables. It's all about balance. If you've got this really lush over-the-top, unctuous, beautiful piece of barbecue meat, you serve it with a lovely spicy rye to cut it and then your dessert or your greens option gives you that lovely freshness or rounds it all out. 

That's what I try to do with every single meal that I serve. It's all about those balanced bites and what pairs well with something. It's amazing when you have a less than stellar whiskey and you're like, "Oh, that's boring. It doesn't work." It's the same if you make a half-partition piece of meat or a dessert that's like, "Eh, it's okay." I always think of it [like] "Is it worth the bite? Is it worth the sip?" I only go after things that are worth the bite or worth the sip.

Can you give our readers your top three pieces of advice for barbecuing with whiskey?

First and foremost, if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it. I love to create sauces. I did a whole bunch of recipes for some sauces and if I wouldn't put it in my lips as is, or in a cocktail and enjoy it thoroughly, then I would never use it with a recipe. I make lovely, delicious sauces using really high-quality whiskeys. I love to use the 10 and the 6 from WhistlePig. Before SmokeStock came out, I was using Roadstock and Homestock a lot. They're a quality, delicious whiskey that is not bottom-shelf. I don't want to make something with that. That would be the number one advice right there — if you would not drink it, do not cook with it.

Secondly, it really is all about a balance. If you have something that's lovely and lush, make something that either you're going to be liking the creamy notes of it or the caramel notes of it. I would [also] always recommend [that] people should experiment. There's a whiskey and a bourbon for everybody out there. We're always talking about matching and pairing wines with food, and we're just now coming around in the last few years to finally elevating our whiskey and our bourbon selections. When you go to high-end restaurants, there's always a wine sommelier there. They could advise you on all these things.

Diva Q shares whiskey caramel sauce wisdom

But not for whiskeys!

I honestly think that there should be more of that for the spirits categories, specifically whiskey and bourbon, with all the wonderful notes that it has — whether it's grain or whether it's rye or whatever the case may be, or whatever it's finished — we should have more of that so that the pairings are good too. Experiment with different flavor profiles because if you pick, for example, a spicy rye to make a barbecue sauce versus a blended whiskey, you're going to end up with two very different finishes. 

Number three: Use them in desserts, not just the sauces. ... One of the other dishes I'm doing for WhistlePig, when I'm over in Australia, is a whiskey caramel sauce, [which] can fix any dessert on the planet.

You can buy the most basic store-bought loaf cake or a butter pound cake. You can go into your Whole Foods, get a good quality or even plain little cake that they've got there, slather it with some butter, throw it on the grill, get some awesome grill marks on it, top it with a whiskey caramel sauce and whatever local fruit is in season, whether it's a stone fruit, [or] a fresh fruit. It makes a perfect dessert every time. 

When it comes to whiskeys and desserts, I love doing a bourbon or a whiskey whipped cream, as well. That's another thing that you can literally take a simple bowl of fruit and elevate it to the 10th power, basically, by either grilling the fruit, smoking the cream, then adding some bourbon and whiskey to it. [That] elevate[s] it every time because those bites, you got to make them worth it.

Diva Q's biggest challenge as a teacher

You can tell that you are an excellent teacher! What are your students' most common stumbling blocks, the ones you see over and over again across the world?

[I've] taught over 20,000 students in 16 years, barbecue and grilling items. One of the biggest things about teaching barbecue and grilling is it's sometimes a psychological thing versus an actual technique. Most people, especially in North America, are taught barbecue by a relative. So they were taught by their grandfather, their grandmother, their aunt, their uncle, their cousin. There's a familial content to that. During the teaching, their grandmother or their grandfather said, "Wash it with vinegar before you put it on the grill," or "only let the coals go on for five minutes," because that's the way that they were taught. 

During the last 50-60 years, we've learned a heck of a lot more about cell structure, meat structure, protein structure, how wood combusts, and what a really good result is. Sometimes, when you're teaching, you have to overcome those familial aspects and break down a couple of barriers so that they know that you're not trying to attack their families. What you're really trying to do is educate them to bring their barbecue up. 

My biggest job in the world is to make everybody a backyard rock star. I'm what's called a keeper of the flame. That was a title given to me by a world championship because I preach elevating your food every day through barbecue and grilling. [I don't want] to attack ... or dismiss our previous history, but let's elevate it with some meat science, some food science, so that we can bring up the structures of all of our meats and things to a better level.

How to barbecue right, consistently

With a resume like yours, if you preach meat science, people should listen! 

The biggest challenge from a physical point is that people need to stop reading recipes and demand to know exactly how many minutes it's going to take, and here's why ... You may have ribs that are three inches thick because you got a pork farmer down the road. I may only be able to get really thin ribs, for example. I always try to teach people [to] stop cooking by time. Cook by temperature, because it doesn't matter then. [Your] two-and-a-half-inch ribs will be done at the same time as my half-inch ribs, as long as we both go to the same end temperatures. 

We're starting to see it more now in cookbooks and actual online recipes where they're saying, "Don't cook the ribs for exactly five and a half hours." Here is a general, "Hey, it's going to take anywhere from four to six hours, depending on how thick your ribs are," or whatever you're cooking, "but here are the key temperatures you want to follow." That is such a wonderful teaching moment because that provides consistency every time so that people can have repeatable great results. We're seeing a lot more of that now.

Diva Q's family legacy

You started talking about learning from family. The person who taught you most about cooking was your grandmother. She instilled in you the art of the leftover. Can you talk a little bit about her legacy and the work you're doing today and what recipes you make still that she lives on in those recipes?

Both my mother and my grandmother are kickass strong women. I come from a very long line of very strong women, and my mother was a scotch and water drinker and my grandmother was a whiskey drinker. I inherited both of those things, naturally. 

My parents and my grandparents had [were] extraordinarily poor. When they moved, my grandparents moved into Western Canada. They lived in a sod house. A sod house, for anybody who doesn't know, is a white-washed sod house. It's made of grass, basically, because they didn't have lumber. They didn't have anything. The art of the leftover, things like that, my grandma taught me how to make ... I didn't realize it until I was much older, how many things she had instilled in me because it was what she always did.

If you cooked the chicken, you took apart the bones the next day. My grandmother and my mother, I remember them fighting over turkey necks because they would love to cook them the next day or pick at them, or eat them. Grandma P's ... funny enough, her coleslaw recipe, to this day, is still my favorite. My grandmother, unfortunately, cooked a lot of things too gray because, at that time, they didn't know about the fact you don't need to cook a pork chop till it's dry as cardboard. 

Between my mother and my grandmother, especially my mom, I learned how to make gravy. My mom's anniversary of her passing is coming up on the 14th and it's the day I celebrate her and my grandmother. I couldn't make gravy until they passed on. I had to learn how to do it on my own, because they'd always done [it]. [They] taught me these amazing gravy techniques.

Diva Q's signature spin on recipes is genius

That really speaks to your influences! 

My grandmother was Polish and Russian and she married my grandfather, who was French, so it's no wonder I love food from all around the world. I was married previously to a Macedonian. I have, on the other side, the English and the Irish side. It's all this wonderful comfort food ... I love making my grandmother's cabbage rolls. I put my spin of smoke on it, which means I make the smoked tomato sauce to go on it. I make my grandmother's shepherd's pie or cottage pie. Once again, I'll smoke the cream to go into the mashed potatoes. 

I love the fact that I'm taking my grandmother's recipes and a little bit of influence from my mother and creating recipes and ongoing deliciousness, but I'm adding my wood-fired smoke program to it because that is something I love adding wood-fired smoke to just about everything out there ... It's kind of like SmokeStock.

SmokeStock did it right because it was subtle. It's brought it up nicely. It's not aggressive. It's not in your face. It's part of the recipe and all the components match. That's what I try to do with my grandmother's recipes. I want to elevate my grandmother's recipes like for her borscht, for example. My grandmother would make borscht from scratch, which is a beet-based soup, basically. 

I would smoke the hocks instead. I grew up eating head cheese and most people are totally disgusted by that, but I'm okay with it. I grew up eating that with plain white vinegar. Now, I smoke my hocks or my pig head and the jowls and everything else before I make it. Everything's about balance and introducing all these little components and that wood-fire goodness makes my heart happy.

Diva Q's childhood coleslaw memories

We have to ask you, what is so special about your grandmother's coleslaw?

It's in my cookbook. Grandma P's coleslaw is a sweet and tangy, non-mayonnaise-based coleslaw. When grandma used to make it... She used to make a lot of pickles, too, and I learned all my pickling techniques from her. She used to call it a six-week salad because it was a vinegar and oil-based coleslaw, it could go in the fridge for quite a few weeks. You didn't have to worry about it when you took it on picnics because [it was] non-mayonnaise [based], it wouldn't spoil. You could throw it on ice. You didn't have to freak out if it sat out for two hours. Nobody was going to die. It was almost like a lightly pickled coleslaw versus a more traditional creamy one.

It stayed lovely and crunchy and ... Every time I eat it, it bring[s] back memories. When I go to the market and I see fresh shelled peas, pea pods and things like that — I'm immediately taken back to my grandmother in her garden, yelling at me to "get out of the garden, stop eating the peas and we have to save some of those for the coleslaw," or whatever. 

It's not just a recipe. Recipes that bring back such fond, familial feelings — and my grandmother, she was a tough ass woman. She was tough. I remember her, so [vividly], being in the garden, having a cigarette out over her mouth going, "Don't eat all the peas!" and threatening me with a spoon, or the cabbage or whatever, and saying, "Get your ass in gear. We got to pick these veggies because it's getting hot outside." It's ridiculousness, but that's how I was raised.

WhistlePig SmokeStock Whiskey is aged in American Oak No. 3 char barrels and then smoked slow and low with Traeger's all-natural Apple BBQ wood. The limited edition whiskey is further smoked during the proofing process to impart campfire smoke and subtle savory notes alongside WhistlePig's signature bold and spice-forward style. When you pick up a bottle of SmokeStock, you'll find more recipes and discover how SmokeStock is crafted via a QR code on the back of each bottle. SmokeStock is now available online and in stores for $72.99 MSRP per 750ml bottle. Stay tuned for a line of must-have consumables from Traeger x WhistlePig coming later this Fall!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.