Whiskey And Food Pairing: The Fine Art For Beginners - The Whiskey Wash

Whiskey And Food Pairing: The Fine Art For Beginners

It is no secret that I love food.  Yes, I am happily in the middle of a lifelong affair with flavor.  Most of my conversations eventually evolve into discussions on ingredients, recipes, recent meals and menu plans.  As a food professional, finding the perfect balance of flavors in a dish is intensely gratifying.  I also love whiskey.  For most people, those topics are mutually exclusive.  I would hazard to guess that 90% of whiskey is consumed without food, without even the thought of food.  As a chef, though, the culinary possibilities of whiskey are intriguing – not just as an ingredient, but as a welcome addition to the finished table.  Food and whiskey, when paired properly, are nothing short of fabulous.

Thanks to the global craft distilling revolution, we live in a lucky age when there are just about as many styles, flavors and variations of whiskey as there are of wine. For wine drinkers, though, there is a universal set of rules (with exceptions, of course) when it comes to pairing wine with food.  Even those who know little about wine know a few basic rules (white with seafood/red with pizza).  Whiskey, too, has a few basic rules that will guide your first steps into the limitless universe of the culinary dram.

The science of flavor is universal.  What creates a brilliant plate of food is a perfect balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, which means depth.  When choosing a whiskey to pair with food, it is easiest to think of the whiskey in terms of its flavor characteristics.  Is it grassy, spicy or sweet?  Is it smoky, full of mineral notes or citrus tones?

Bourbon with Sweet Potato and Carmelized Onion Stack, Heirloom Carrots and Balsamic Glazed Brussels Sprouts (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Tish Lester)

Bourbon with Sweet Potato and Carmelized Onion Stack, Heirloom Carrots and Balsamic Glazed Brussels Sprouts (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Tish Lester)

Different whiskeys, as a general rule, share similar characteristics.  Take bourbon, for instance. Thanks to freshly charred oak barrels, most bourbon enjoys a deep layer of vanilla, and a signature sweetness.  One would be correct in assuming that bourbon would pair well with most desserts.  Apple pie with aged white cheddar and a good bourbon is a fine thing.

But bourbon has so much more in its repertoire.  Under the vanilla are usually at least a few dried fruits – raisins, apples, dried currants.  Now think of the foods that are traditionally served with fruit accompaniments.  Bourbon can now transition from a dessert drink, to a lunchtime dram with a ham sandwich.  In fact, it pairs beautifully with pork in all its forms, as well as chicken, duck and other poultry.

The smoky heaviness of barbecued dishes, too, can be elevated by bourbon’s inherent sweetness.  But this spirit is not limited to carnivorous plates.  Brassicas, from sprouts to red cabbage to broccoli, all pair nicely with the dried fruit notes of bourbon, as do the roasted roots of onions, carrots and potatoes.

Islay Scotch served with Terrine of Roasted Beet and Local Farm Chèvre (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Tish Lester)

Islay Scotch served with Terrine of Roasted Beet and Local Farm Chèvre (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Tish Lester)

On the other side of the whiskey spectrum is Islay Scotch.  This may seem at the outset to be a more difficult whiskey to pair, but it is really just as easy to match as bourbon.  The signature note of an Islay whisky is peat smoke.  Work with that.  Bacon is the food equivalent of an Islay.  Imagine what foods go well with bacon, and suddenly we have a Big Bang of possibilities.   From eggs to oysters, from venison to black beans to milk chocolate, there isn’t much that doesn’t taste great with a hint of smoke.

Another fine example of pairing for flavor can be found with rye whiskeys.  Ryes are usually full of spice.  Black pepper, cinnamon and ginger notes are often found. One can begin to catalogue the foods that are sometimes served with spicy sauces or additions.  Potatoes, cheese, salmon and lamb come to mind.  From there, why not try the more unusual – but fully tested – flavor combinations, like black pepper and strawberries.  Substitute the pepper in the dish with whiskey, and suddenly, a punchy rye is right at home with a dessert plate.

Rustic Sourdough with Stilton and a John Jacob Rye (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Tish Lester)

Rustic Sourdough with Stilton and a John Jacob Rye (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Tish Lester)

When it comes to pairing whiskey with food, remembering the rules is the first step in exploration.  To help you with this,  we’ve provided a whiskey matching chart chart below with basic pairing suggestions, based on the universal rules of flavor.  But this is an example based chart, with no boundaries.  Just like rules for pairing wines, there are always exceptions.

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Just as it is possible to find a red wine that works with fish, or a white that works with pizza, so, too, exceptions to pairing rules can be found in the world of spirits.  The best tool to guide you into discovering these exceptions will be your nose.  Don’t be afraid to uncork while you’re cooking. Sip a little, taste a little.  Enjoy!