The key to pairing food and whisky lies in matching flavors. Food is simple enough—cherries are fruity, nuts are, well, nutty. But bourbon can have a whole array of flavors: fruit, caramel, peanuts, cloves, tobacco, root beer—the list goes on. Each individual bourbon has its own unique flavor profile. Throw in barrel finishes and it gets even more complicated.
That might sound a bit overwhelming, but when pairing bourbon with food, focusing on just one or two factors is all you need to do. These principles from some of Bourbon Country’s leading chefs will get you started on the path to fool-proof pairings.
1. Complement or Contrast
Every pairing goes in one of two directions: complementing or contrasting flavors. “When you complement, the flavors of the bourbon and the food melt into each other,” says chef Annie Pettry of Decca Restaurant in Louisville, KY. “This experience gives you the feeling that you have just tasted the perfect match and you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins.”
On the flip side, contrasting flavors create an entirely different effect. “When you contrast, you bring out nuanced flavors in the bourbon or food to create a new and unexpected flavor,” Pettry explains. “It creates a feeling of discovery and excitement.”
For example, a bourbon that boasts sweet aromatics such as chocolate, marzipan, or honey, and fruit like cherry and blackberry would be complemented by some of those actual ingredients—a chocolate bar or bowl of berries—or by a more complex dish like chocolate mousse or a fruit tart. But to contrast the bourbon’s sweetness, a pairing should look toward foods with salty, savory, or spicy flavors; Pettry recommends aged cheese or Nashville-style fried chicken. The goal with contrasting pairings is to create balance, rather than accentuating a specific flavor.
Contrasting pairings can go beyond just flavor, enhancing the full tasting experience, including mouthfeel and texture. “Contrast is useful when pairing acids and salts—the saltiness of an old cheese, along with its lactic acid, makes it a really nice contrast with bourbon because it washes the palate with saliva, pushing the bourbon around the mouth, along with coating the front of the palate,” says Ouita Michel, chef-in-residence at Woodford Reserve and co-owner of the Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants. “This can de-emphasize the peppery nature of the high alcohol and really let some of the lemon or citrus notes in the bourbon itself come out.”
Try It Yourself
Complementary Pairing—Woodford Reserve Double Oaked with Chocolate Mousse
Notes of cacao, hazelnut, toffee, and toasted oak are present in this perfect dessert bourbon. Chocolate mousse complements these rich characteristics, while also elevating the bourbon’s toasted oak and figgy notes.
Contrasting Pairing—Basil Hayden’s Bourbon with Bacon-Wrapped Sweet Potatoes
The rye-forward bourbon boasts notes of baking spices, oak, and caramel. Pairing it with bacon-wrapped sweet potatoes highlights contrasting flavors of savory-sweetness and salinity without overwhelming the spicy rye characteristics.
2. Proof Makes Perfect
A bourbon’s proof can impact the ideal pairing. The principles covered above apply to bourbons with a proof of 40%-46% ABV. Generally speaking, these lower-proof bourbons pair well with delicate foods like seafood or vegetables, as well as lightly cooked foods, cheese, and desserts. Even pasta can be a great bourbon match; chef Mark Richardson of Dudley’s on Short in Lexington, Kentucky recommends dunderi, dumplings made with salty ricotta and lemon zest. His version is served with savory black walnut pesto. “It pairs nicely with a softer, younger bourbon, particularly one that brings a little sweetness to the table,” Richardson says.
When it comes to bourbons in the 47%-55% ABV range, bolder foods are needed to stand up to the higher proof. The same principles of complementing and contrasting apply, but require foods that offer more robust flavors. Pettry recommends charred, grilled, smoked, and fried foods as a starting point. “Rich dishes can stand up to higher-proof bourbons as the fat coats the tongue and the bourbon cleanses the palate,” she says.
Equally important, the nuances found in bourbon can be harder to discern at higher proof, when alcohol masks more delicate flavors. When determining what to pair with a particular bourbon, try adding some water during the trial run to see how the food and whiskey flavors interact. If the match works at a lower proof, it should be fine at full proof.
Try It Yourself
High-Proof Pairing—Elijah Craig Barrel Proof with Grilled Steak
Complex notes of leather, allspice, vanilla, and caramel, bolstered by a high proof that’s usually above 62% ABV, stand up to the charred, smoky red meat.
Low-Proof Pairing—Four Roses with Pan-Seared Salmon
Delicate flavors and notes of cinnamon, citrus, and vanilla make this bourbon an excellent match for subtle salmon, which benefits from the lift of sweetness. (For extra emphasis, make a brown-butter sauce—literally, just cooking melted butter until it’s browned—and add a little bourbon.)
3. The Finishing Touch
Although bourbon must always be aged in new charred oak barrels, many distillers have turned to barrel-finishing to add unique flavor to their whiskeys. Port, sherry, madeira, new toasted, and even additional new charred oak barrels are being implemented. You should always consider the flavors imparted by finishing barrels when devising a food pairing.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon uses a heavily toasted, lightly charred barrel to impart extra sweetness. “Double Oaked is a dessert bourbon—it takes me to cooked apple, marzipan, cardamom, toffee, and caramel,” says Michel. “One of my favorite pairs is apple charlotte, made with toasted cinnamon sugar brioche, copious amounts of Double Oaked bourbon in the filling, and a nice scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top—all drizzled in caramel.”
Sherry-finished bourbon boasts flavors of dried fruits and nuts, which can allow a pairing with both complementary and contrasting flavors; Pettry recommends a cheese board with aged cheeses (contrast), as well as complementary jams, dried fruit mostardas, and candied nuts. For port-finished bourbons, Michel recommends sticking to complementarian foods like red fruits and chocolate.
Try It Yourself
Sherry Cask-Finished—Belle Meade Oloroso Sherry Cask Finished 9 Year Old with a Cheese Board of Aged Cheeses, Jams, and Nuts
Notes of marzipan, caramel, dried pears and figs, and a complex nuttiness make this bourbon the perfect pairing for a curated cheese board. The sherry finish brings out nutty characteristics in the cheeses, while the jams pull the rich, dried fruit notes of the bourbon front and center.
Port Cask-Finished—Angel’s Envy with Dark Chocolate
This bourbon’s rich notes of vanilla, roasted nuts, cocoa, and baking spices make it a seamless match with dark chocolate. The port finish also adds sweetness that cuts through some of the chocolate’s bitterness.
Whatever bourbon you choose, you’ll be able to find a great pairing: just pay attention to your palate. “Taste is a very diverse and personal thing, and there’s no wrong answer to what food pairs with bourbon,” says Pettry. “It’s your experience at the end of the day, after all, so drink and eat what you desire.”