Pairing food with whiskey provides an interesting opportunity to further explore your bourbon. In some cases, food can make it taste better and in others, it can help unfurl the complexities of the flavor profile helping you to finally unlock what it is that you are tasting in your bourbon. Not dissimilar to wine or beer pairings, the various flavors sitting in your dram, be that caramel, honey, smoke, leather, fruits, all come together with your food to create an effect. However, finding the right foods that pair with bourbon is key to creating an epicurean experience!
Types of Bourbon Food Associations
Having hosted a tasting or two in my garage bar, aside from my nightly tastings where it's just me and my wall of whiskey, I can tell you that not all food goes with bourbon. Some things are downright awful...most of those you'll know without even being told. There are a number of foods that however, pair quite lovely with bourbon. These can be considered as:
Complementary. These pairings build off each other, allowing both elements to shine in a separate and discrete way. Much like two men exiting an elevator who both consider themselves gentlemen, saying, “No you go ahead"…"No, I insist, you go ahead,” they are equal in the moment and both vying to win the day.
Associatory. To use a term from the oil patch, these pairings are “comingled,” meaning they blend together, but yet here they still provide contrast between each such that both the individual characteristics of the bourbon and the food are still clearly identifiable. Imagine if you will 22 football players on the field, 11 wearing one jersey, 11 with another – the game ends and they are all intermingled shaking hands and congratulating the victor – despite being randomly distributed they are clearly identifiable by their jersey.
Elevatory. When certain bourbons and foods come together the unexpected happens. These ideal pairings create something unique which absent their union would not yield the same experience. In the movie Wayne’s World, the pairing of Wayne and Garth yields an experience that separate would not nearly have been the same. Party on Wayne! Party on Garth!
Foods for Bourbon Tasting
Three types of food pairings suit particularly well with most any bourbon and they each can help bring something unique out of each and every sip.
Big on Fat. The idea with these pairings is to use the heat from your body to melt the fat in the food which then coats the inside of mouth. Add in alcohol and something magical occurs as various subtleties are brought out of the bourbon. In my last tasting, I featured Emmental cheese which had a stark flavor profile but was a bit nuanced. Looking for something a bit heftier, try bratwurst or kielbasa!
Sweetly Sugary. Maybe I just am a bit biased living here in the south where this recipe was born, but candied pecans are where it’s at here. I used this recipe in making mine, and I highly recommend using the optional orange zest…it’s a game changer. If you're looking for simple foods that pair with bourbon, you can't go wrong with these.
Salty Like the Ocean. Surprisingly, you may be able to head to your local convenience store in a pinch on your search for foods that pair with bourbon. For a cheap and easy addition to any bourbon tasting, one can add something like kettle-cooked potato chips to the mix, which adds an interesting juxtaposition of texture against a smooth, full bodied bourbon.
With the backdrop of various considerations underfoot, you are practically ready to host your next bourbon tasting. Be sure to have the right glassware, if this is a more structured (less social) tasting a tasting sheet for your guests to score and add thoughts to, and provide plenty of water or crackers to help folks cleanse their palate between sips. Foodies and Bourboneurs unite!