One of the reasons beer and whiskey pair so well is that they share many of the same ingredients – malted barley, yeast, and specialty grains. That means beers and whiskeys share some of the same flavors, albeit at very different strengths, which provides a great avenue for thinking about pairings: match beers with whiskeys that share compatible flavors. Here are a few suggestions for getting started:
Pilsner + Bourbon
Once represented almost entirely by brews from big producers (think Miller and Budweiser), the American Pilsner category has become much more diversified in the past 10 years. American pilsners can be divided into two major classes: pre-Prohibition or European style, which is made almost entirely from malted barley; and post-Prohibition style, which includes a significant percentage of adjunct grain to supplement the malted barley, often corn, rice, or a combination of the two. Corn and malted barley…sound familiar?
Pilsners are light, crisp, refreshing, making them a good foil for the spicy, caramel-like flavors of bourbon and rye. Low hop bitterness also accentuates the sweet flavors of American whiskey, bringing out the best in the spirit. Try Trumer Pils with George Dickel Rye, or Ninkasi Lux with Wild Turkey 101.
Stout or Porter + Smokey Whisky
The dark color of stouts and porters comes from heavily kilned malted barley, which gives them their sweet, roasty flavor and substantial mouth feel. Those qualities make dark beers a great pairing option for smoked spirits, including smoky craft American whiskey as well as peated Scotch whisky. Try WhiskeyBack Black with Laphroaig Quarter Cask, or Deschutes Black Butte Porter with Corsair Triple Smoke.
Ambers and ESBs
Malty and full-bodied, beer styles like amber, ESB, Scotch ale, and red ale are all versatile companions to whiskey. Sweet flavors in these beers accentuate the sweet, caramelized flavors that come from charred wood, making these a great companion to rye whiskey, American single malts, unpeated Scotch, and even Irish whiskey. Try Widmer Brothers’ Drop Top Amber with Forty Creek Rye, or Pike Place Brewing’s Kilt Lifter with Cutty Sark Prohibition.
Hops can easily overpower or clash with the flavors in whiskey while amplifying the alcoholic burn. That said, if you’re committed to pairing with IPA, try tasting it next to whiskeys with pronounced herbal or aromatic character, like rye whiskey, craft whiskeys made with alternative grains, or even a hopped whiskey like Amador Straight Hop-Flavored Whiskey or Pine Barrens American Single Malt.
Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...