When you meet a bourbon lover, you usually meet a “foodie.” Not only are they eager to explore and identify the flavor profile of a bourbon but wish to know the best food to pair with it. The true question before diving into sourcing the right fit for the best bourbon and food pairing is, “Have I developed my palate?”
There is no need to be overwhelmed by that question. In the bourbon industry, we want to be approachable and friendly and not intimidate a consumer. Bourbon is meant to be an experience and a lifestyle. So just turn to your kitchen for inspiration and your sense of taste. Your kitchen focus unlocks what you already know about food flavors and how they translate to descriptors for bourbon. Experts learn every time we “practice” (and we practice a lot) tasting and evaluating spirits and food together. It widens our culinary vocabulary and in turn, gives us the advantage of deeply describing bourbon profiles.
Prepping for this is like calisthenics for your palate. You are developing your “food memory.” For example, if you have never tasted butterscotch, you won’t recognize that flavor in a bourbon. But if you have butterscotch in your flavor vocabulary, you can identify and name it right away.
When we describe bourbon tasting notes, we tend to use food flavors such as spice, sweet, savory and herbal. You know food flavors in your spice rack, the meats and fruits you keep in the fridge and various pantry goods like nuts, crackers and other snacks. For some reason, when we ask an audience what they are tasting, they sometimes freeze up, afraid they will say the wrong descriptor for a product. Trust your taste buds. More than likely your olfactory senses, which are stronger than your taste buds, will inform you on that first nose as to what layers or flavors you are dealing with. Each time I crack open a bottle, I immediately nose the tip before I pour. I want to capture that first essence.
That first sip is everything, as this is your first impression. The predominant note is present and leads you on the journey to dial up or tone down food flavors for your pairing. An example would be if I first tasted a distinct dark brown sugar and it was truly sweet. I may not want to pair it with a sweet dessert because it may become too sugary and would be overwhelming. However, put that bourbon with a smokey barbecue sauce and those sweet, brown sugar notes will sing.
For a more advanced pairing with an appetizer, you simply need to put focus on the breakdown of the appetizer flavors. How is the appetizer constructed? With a toast point and cheese with chutney, or a smoked pork with barbecue sauce on a medallion bun? Because bourbons are complex, try and surface the predominant flavors of the bourbon and the appetizer so you may once again choose to dial up or down the flavors.
Food Pairing Basics
1. Nose and taste to profile the bourbon and write down in order what you taste. This will help to define the playing field of culinary flavors. Mentally categorize what fruit, spice, sweet, savory, herbal and earthy notes (see chart on page 26) are present. Again, you are looking for the first three or four predominant notes.
2. Once you have a clear profile for the predominant notes, develop a sense for what “buckets” to target the flavors. I developed a system a long time ago that I still use today. It is called “Balance, Counterbalance and Explosion.”
Balance is when you complement the flavors of a bourbon with a food flavor that matches the bourbon. Counterbalance is when a completely opposite food flavor ends up highlighting certain bourbon flavor profiles. Explosion is taking the predominant flavor of a bourbon and matching it to a predominant flavor in food, leading to a surround-sound flavor in your mouth, hence explosion.
3. Choose your food to pair. If you wish to use simple foods and not pair layered foods, some of our favorite simple foods to pair with your bourbon are nuts, dried or fresh fruit, chocolate and cheese.
We took a few of our favorite bourbons to demonstrate the process. Elijah Craig has a has nice well-rounded nutty pecan and caramel flavor, which is perfect for balance of a pecan. The same applies to Maker’s Mark because we receive wonderful honey citrus notes, so an orange slice is ideal for balance. Parmesan is thought of as a topping and quite frankly, a bit bland. However, pair it with an Old Forester and that rich caramel note brightens the parmesan and brings it to life. This pairing is a counterbalance because we took a bland flavor and accentuated it with a rich one that is opposite. For explosion, Four Roses Single Barrel has huge chocolate notes and when paired with dark chocolate, you
receive that surround-sound flavor-explosion of chocolate that is almost too much of a good thing!
I recently did an incredible pairing class with Michter’s for an advanced pairing. Notice how I dissected the flavors and then paired accordingly:
The bottom line for pairing? Does it create harmony when the food and bourbon come together on the palate? Just as you look for defaults or off-notes in a bourbon when judging flavors, I focus on the harmony of flavors with food and bourbon. If the pairing is too hot, sweet or tannic, then I know I may have misjudged the food to pair.
Oh, and did I mention to have fun with experimenting? That’s right, you have permission to eat and drink your way through a pairing. Again, bourbon was meant to be an experience.
Throw that pairing party! Take all types of simple foods and let your guests nosh and sip alongside the pairing buffet and have them vote or discover the perfect pair. A few helpful hints for the party goers… choose single-flavor foods that are bite sized and require little preparation or refrigeration so you can set up in advance. Pouring the bourbon in advance (no more than 30 minutes) invites the whiskey to open a bit so the complex flavors emerge. Allowing your guests to add a few drops of water will bring out the fruit notes in a whiskey, so it is truly up to you to decide once you pair the food.
After all these years of pairing, I still love a good challenge, so if anyone has a bourbon they wish to profile or a particular food item they wish to match with a bourbon, look no further.
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