Want to make your bourbon taste even better—without spending a penny more on it?
Do that by pairing bourbon with food.
Wine’s gotten the food-pairing nod for centuries, and for good reason: It’s made for food. But bourbon—any good whiskey, really—is worthy of the same role. Trust me.
I made this discovery seven years ago when proofing the manuscript of my first book on country ham. It was late, I was hungry and I shuffled off to the fridge for some paper-thin slices of country ham. On my desk was a bottle of bourbon—not sure why it was there, maybe it was queued for a later review—and I poured some to have with the ham. (That’s a risky venture when proofreading, but hey, it was midnight. I needed to wind down.)
The ham was from Kentucky, aged 24 months-old and sliced prosciutto style, nicely fatty and not overly salty like cooked country ham is. Its flavors were deep and complex. I took a sip of whiskey to wash it down and was stunned by how good the combo was. More ham slices and more bourbon followed, and my pace of work slowed due to the pleasurable distraction of what was happening in my mouth.
Over the following days I started sipping bourbon alongside a lot of foods and found it a super versatile partner.
Six months later, I convinced the creators of the Bourbon Classic in Louisville to let me lead a seminar on how cured ham and whiskey play well together. During the seminar, Jim Beam brand ambassador Megan Brier and I walked 62 attendees through a left to right tasting of lower-proof-to-higher-proof Beam bourbons and discussed why each paired well with each ham. In the audience that afternoon was Fred Noe, a seventh-generation master distiller at Beam whose father—if you don’t know—was Booker Noe, then-deceased, but well known for his namesake Booker’s Bourbon. Fred shared with the group that he and his dad were lifelong ham curers who’d never considered pairing country ham and whiskey. That event changed not only his perception of how they paired, but everyone else’s in the room.
WHY DO BOURBON FOOD PAIRINGS WORK SO WELL?
Wine pairs well with food mostly because of its acidity, but grape flavors and tannins create other pleasant contrasts. Fermentation techniques and aging also influence the experience.
Bourbon, however, is a bit different. It delivers high-proof alcohol that penetrates straight to the palate regardless of what food was just eaten. It produces an awakening sensation that makes the tongue tingle while enabling it to detect other flavors made available. Riding along with the alcohol are flavors like caramel, citrus, smoke, honey, grain, dark fruits … and on and on … and those partner closely with the food to produce an elevated effect. Let me explain:
- Some food and whiskey pairings merely complement each other. They coexist on the palate without amplifying or degrading each other. Complementary pairings are like a couple who goes out on a date, has a nice time, parts as friends but won’t go out again.
- Other pairings contrast with each other, but inoffensively. They just never connect. Though commingled, you can identify the food’s and the whiskey’s unique characteristics on the palate as if they’d never been combined. A contrasting pairing is like a couple whose first date is full of electricity but bereft of chemistry. That couple won’t date again, but they’ll say hello in public.
- An ideal pairing is an elevated pairing, one in which the food and whiskey unite to form something new. Elevations are the “wow” pairings that make participants say, “I never would have expected that!” Seeing people react like that in a tasting is thrilling. And to strain the dating analogy further, this couple hits it off, marries and creates offspring.
Since that first pairing with just cured ham and whiskey, I and some industry colleagues have added smoked salmon, pastry, chocolate truffles, caramels, hard cheeses, smoked brisket, smoked ribs, cookies and much more to our pairings. Let pairings take you wherever your imagination leads!
Sometimes unexpected combos work remarkably well. Check out this bourbon, beer and german food pairing that Pops hosted a while back with great success.
WHAT FOODS PAIR WELL WITH BOURBON?
FOCUS ON FAT
Coating the palate with the fat of ham, milk chocolate, cheese, salmon, etc., is essential to a good pairing. When the alcohol arrives, you’ll feel it turn that fat and those flavors into something magical. Fatty proteins and fatty candies (caramel, candy bars, milk chocolate [bitter chocolate will disappoint you, trust me]) are excellent. Aged cheeses? Oh, yeah. Aged gouda is my favorite. Aged parmesan and cheddar are great. Mild blue cheese works well, too.
SWEETS ARE HARD TO BEAT
The cheap Mexican butter cookies sold at Latin groceries work really well with whiskey (tequila, too, not surprisingly). Want to go cheap? Brach’s orange slices and bourbon—just outstanding! Even weird candies—the kind you filch from your kids’ Halloween bags—may surprise you. Sour Patch Kids actually go great with rye. But baked desserts like crème brulée, crème caramel, hummingbird cake, cheesecake, pound cake, etc. are all great.
HIGHER PROOFS ARE GREAT, BUT NOT FOOLPROOF
One-hundred-proof and higher whiskies bring real excitement to pairings through their bold flavors. Pairing smoked brisket with high-proof rye or rye bourbon will change your life. (Brisket and Knob Creek Single Barrel Rye [115 proof] may be my favorite.) Another preferred pairing is one created by Kelly Ramsey, the chocolatier at Art Eatables in Louisville. A regular pairing colleague, she convinced me to combine a small piece of mild bleu cheese smashed onto a piece of milk chocolate and wash it down with Michter’s 83.4 proof American Whiskey. Pure magic!
SKIP SPICY FOODS
I once tried bourbon with spicy chicharrones, and it set my mouth on fire. Jalapeno and habanero peppers … don’t be a masochist. It’s a bad look.
Many new ideas I’ve had for new pairings came from pouring an ounce or so of whiskey—rye, bourbon, Scotch—bringing it to the table and sipping it throughout dinner. Another good way is to have whiskey handy when you’re pulling anything out of the smoker or off the grill. That’s some tasty nibblin’ there!
If you're really feeling adventurous, you can even experiment pairing bourbon with fast food for some interesting results like this pairing adventure featuring KFC and inexpensive bourbon.
DON'T OVER FORMALIZE IT
In some pairings presentations, I create a deliberate compounding of flavors in five to seven pairings. That’s fun to do, but it takes work to get it right. So start off with a mini-presentation: a somewhat salty protein (cured ham, jerky, barbecue) first, a cheese second and a sweet third, and see how everyone likes it. And don’t forget: Cleanse your palate with the water between each pairing.
See? It’s easier than you might have thought. Now get to your bourbon shelf, pick a bottle—or two—fill a glass(es) and find some of the foods mentioned above.
Note what you like and don’t, and share some of your favorite combos with us in the comments section below.