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.
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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
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
Skip spicy foods
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
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.
Make notes of what you like and don’t and share some of your favorite combos with us in the comments section below.
Steve Coomes is editor of BourbonBanter.com. A Louisville restaurant industry veteran turned award-winning food writer, he has edited and written for dozens of national trade and consumer publications including Pizza Today, Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living over his 31-year journalism career. As a spirits writer, Steve's work can be found in Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Bourbon & Banter, WhiskeyWash.com and other publications. In 2014, he authored the book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and has authored other titles as a private ghostwriter.
Read Steve's full profile.
Try crab legs (melted butter, optional, but recommended) with bourbon. It was an accidental but very pleasant surprise.
Well, there’s fat in every part of your pairing, so I KNOW you’ve got really good textures for the whiskey to battle with. Thanks for the tip!
bourbon noob here. Just started my collection this year. Having a tasting for family in July, 6 bottles so I need some snacks.
Any specific items that would work perfectly with specific bottles would be GREATLY appreciated. I chose these bourbons because they were the most classic and approachable of the ones I have had thus far.
I know a few bottles are sourced and have some nose upturning going on but I find them all pleasing enough.
Clyde May’s straight 92 proof
Buffalo trace 90 proof
Evan Williams single barrel
1792 small batch 93.7 proof
Remus straight 94 proof
All of these will work just fine with cured meats, cheeses, smoked meats, fatty candies (caramel never fails).
My son-in-law is having a professional bourbon tasting for his birthday. I am in charge of the food and would like to know what to serve for the tasting (not dinner). I see in the above that salty, fatty and sweet as recommended.. any rules of these that will make for a great pairing for the tasting. I want to make a great offering for the event.
Fantastic article! A great read! My girlfriend and I are figuring out our first pairing.