When it comes to food, wine and beer have all the fun. Nearly everybody knows what goes with red and white, and beer is pretty tough to mess up. But what about pairing whiskey with food? And we don’t mean cocktails. We’re talking neat, or on the rocks.
This was a topic much discussed during the Bourbon Classic 2020 festival last week in Louisville. Distillers, chefs and writers alike shared their tips for sipping whiskeys alongside a variety of cuisine, desserts and country hams. Here’s the takeaway:
1) Don’t Drink Whiskey in Volume
Obviously, right? But the point here is not that you should avoid drinking 100-proof bourbon like it’s sessionable beer, but rather keep in mind the ABV difference when thinking of how to pair whiskey with food.
“With whiskey you’re not trying to rinse the food off of your palate,” explains Barton 1792 Master Distiller Danny Kahn. “You’re trying to compliment and elevate the flavor.”
Kahn cohosted a whiskey pairing dinner on the first night of Bourbon Classic at Volare Italian Ristorante, alongside Executive Chef and “Chopped” winner Joshua Moore. Rather than washing your palate clean with whiskey, the two recommended taking a sip and then sampling the food — and repeat — as though the whiskey were a side dish.
For example: Kahn and Moore paired Barton 1792 Sweet Wheat with seared Day Boat scallops with saffron risotto and grapefruit brown butter sauce.
“The absence of rye in this whiskey is a bigger deal than the presence of the wheat,” Kahn says. “A spicier whiskey would compete with the flavors of this dish. Instead, This lighter whiskey pairs with the grapefruit in the butter sauce, and the lighter scallops.”
The aged oak notes of Sweet Wheat also matched the tartness of the grapefruit flavor, he adds. Sipping and then tasting, you can experience the flavor elevation.
2) Match Spice With Spice
High-rye has become the dominant style in U.S. whiskey. When pairing these spirits with food, think of serving red wine with steak. Power with power, spice with spice.
Khan and Moore paired 1792 Small Batch, a classic high-rye, with spinach bigoli pasta in cacio e pepe sauce of pecorino cheese and cracked black pepper. The peppery bite of the sauce perfectly matched the spice of the high-rye bourbon.
“Whiskey is used as a catalyst to enhance the flavors,” Khan explains.
As a secondary match, the vanilla and butterscotch notes beneath the rye profile paired elegantly with the creamy, buttery flavors of the sauce.
In terms of power, another course was milk braised pork loins with 1792 Full Proof (World Whiskey winner in Jim Murray’s 2020 Whiskey Bible). Here, the texture and rich flavor of the cream sauce matched the texture and heat of the high-rye bourbon. And the spice of the whiskey cut through the fattiness of the port like a heavy red wine.
3) Sweet with Sweet
When most people drink whiskey with food, it’s likely at dessert. The sweeter flavors of American whiskey are a natural for the final course.
Kahn and Moore highlighted this with the deep richness of 1792 Aged 12 Years alongside a brown sugar blondie served warm with dark chocolate bourbon gelato. Sweet and rich, all around. Just because it’s that easy does not mean there is anything wrong.
Still, it is possible to err with dessert and whiskey. During a panel later in the festival, “Whiskey and Food: The Unbelievable Overlooked Pairing,” Louisville chocolatier Kelly Ramsey warned about cocoa choices.
“Stay below 70% cacao with your chocolate [when pairing with whiskey],” she says, “because higher than that and chocolate becomes too earthy — and less fatty and complex — so it no longer enhances the fruity and caramel flavors of whiskey.”
One chocolate pairing from that panel was 1792 Sweet Wheat with a ginger chocolate truffle from Ramsey’s business, Art Eatables. The bright ginger flavor matched the bright bourbon, while the fruitiness of the whiskey also paired with the ginger.
“Like silk upon silk,” says Steve Coomes, fellow panelist and spirits writer (and past BARC speaker). “The buttery and caramel flavors help create a textured mouthfeel.”
The biscuity flavors of younger whiskeys like Sweet Wheat also make sense with many desserts.
4) Bourbon and Country Ham
No Kentucky trip is complete without a taste of country ham. This Southern tradition — thinly cut, salted, cured and smoked — is a fine fit for whiskey.
“The concentration of flavors in the country ham matches the power of the whiskey,” says Coomes, who literally wrote the book on the subject. “And the whiskey helps bring out the smoke and the fat in the ham.”
Which is also why whiskey goes so well with barbecue.
Coomes offers up one more pairing that might not come to mind so naturally. “Pickled works very well with bourbon,” he says.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece What’s New at Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Barton 1792 and Michter’s.