Why You Should Be Pairing Your Bourbon With Smoky Food

Whiskey glass on rock ledge surrounded by curling smoke
Whiskey glass on rock ledge surrounded by curling smoke - Ilja Enger-tsizikov /Getty Images

When folks talk about food-and-drink pairings, they're often talking about matching food with wines. There are countless books devoted to the subject and professionals whose entire careers are built on pairing wines and foods. But wine isn't the only beverage people enjoy with meals, and there's no reason that spirits like bourbon shouldn't be the focus of thoughtfully considered pairings.

Real whiskey connoisseurs can identify a multitude of specific flavor and scent notes in a pour, from vanilla and caramel to leather and tobacco, with all manner of fruity and spicy notes in between. But you don't need to have developed a palate nearly that refined if you're just looking to make delicious, interesting flavor pairings between bourbon and food. Instead, focus on the cooking method used to prepare the food -- namely, on smoking or any method that involves smoke.

Foods with smoky flavors, such as barbecue, or anything that's been grilled over charcoal, boast flavor profiles that pair brilliantly with bourbon. Smoky foods go uniquely well with bourbon because, unlike other types of whiskey, bourbon doesn't have a smoky profile. It does, however, have an oaky, woody taste, which speaks to the flavors of smoky foods, without overpowering your palate with an ashy taste.

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Where There's Smoke, There's Whiskey

Glass of whiskey on picnic table edge with grill in background
Glass of whiskey on picnic table edge with grill in background - Ja'crispy/Getty Images

Before trying to make any kind of food-and-alcohol pairing, it's important to understand your ingredients. Bourbon, a kind of whiskey that's distinctly American, must be made with at least 51% corn in its mash bill and can contain up to 86% corn. Bourbon must also be aged in charred new oak barrels and cannot contain any additives, colorings, or flavorings. These requirements create consistencies across bourbons: They have a degree of sweetness from the corn, and a subtle woody flavor from the charred oak barrels.

And although some char flavor from the barrels might permeate the drink, bourbon will never be as aggressively smoky as other kinds of whiskey. For example, peated whiskeys such as Scotch are distilled from malted barley dried over peat fires, and so pack a ton of smoky flavor. Pairing peated whiskeys with smoky foods is likely to overwhelm your tastebuds with an ashy aftertaste, so neither the food nor the drink will be represented at their best.

Bourbon, however, being milder in this department, lets you appreciate the full bouquet of flavors. The pairing is complementary, but not matchy-matchy; the sweet corn and charred oak notes in the bourbon are in conversation with the smokiness of the food, rather than doubling down on one single flavor note. Think of it as wood, two ways.

Cue The Smokeshow

Glass of whiskey by smoked oysters and lox
Glass of whiskey by smoked oysters and lox - Gi15702993/Getty Images

Barbecue may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of smoky-tasting foods, but it's not the only type of dish that deserves to be introduced to bourbon. Obviously just about anything grilled over charcoal or cooked in a smoker will end up permeated with smoky flavor. And although meats are probably the most common kind of food to smoke or grill, a bit of char tastes delicious on vegetables, tofu, and even some desserts. If you're not much of a grill master, that's okay -- by using foods that come already smoked, like cured meats or canned oysters, or by using pre-smoked seasonings -- think smoked (not regular) paprika or smoked salt -- you can still impart some fire-kissed flavor that will taste amazing alongside the sweet woodiness of a nice bourbon.

If you enjoy sipping the best whiskeys straight, by all means, you can create an elegant menu that pairs whiskey neat with all manner of smoky flavors; just keep in mind that over time, the sharpness of the alcohol might start to dull your taste buds, so you'll probably want the dishes to become increasingly bold in flavor. Alternatively, bourbon cocktails are pairable as well. Pay attention to the full flavor profile of a drink when picking cocktails -- the Campari in a boulevardier, for instance, is just begging to meet bittersweet chocolate, while the brightness of a mint julep provides a refreshing contrast to anything deep-fried.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.