Whiskey & Food Pairing 101

December 13, 2016

In the fast-paced field of modern gastronomy, what’s new and next always grabs the headlines. Yet when it comes to what’s in the glass at the dinner table, the standard bearer has remained constant. Clearly there’s an ineffable elegance to fine wine alongside chef-prepared fare. But there’s no need for grapes to grab all the glory. Whiskey, it turns out, is quite capable of elevating any fine-dining experience, thank you very much. The concept is gaining traction around the globe. Here are some notable chefs, mixologists, and whiskey-makers on why you should substitute grain for grapes at suppertime.

Smoky & Sweet

“No one ever seems to question pairing wine with food, so it should be no problem to take those same ideas behind pairing with wine and apply it to bourbon,” explains Nicholas Bennett, Head Bartender at Porchlight, in New York. “You have similar flavors and aromas that you might find, like toffee, stewed fruits, apples, spices, and toasted oak which can all be found in some wines and in a bourbon like Elijah Craig. The biggest hurdle when trying to pair foods with a bourbon is that the high alcohol content can overpower some of the more delicate foods…” He adds, “Foods like Peking Duck, bacon, pork belly, and barbecue would make a good match because they have a rich fattiness that will balance out the heat from the alcohol and…allow the sweet flavors of the bourbon to shine.”

And if you think the bartender has a biased viewpoint, take it from the pitmaster. “There is a natural affinity between the sweet, smoky notes that come from the aging in char barrels and the barky goodness of barbecue,” says Matt Fisher of Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ. “The spice of bourbon cuts the fat nicely as well. Both are crafts of patience that require a full-bodied obsession to perfect.”

Down in Oxford, Mississippi, James Beard award-winning chef John Currence of City Grocery loves to pair his all-American cuisine alongside both bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys. He drinks a neat pour of Jack Daniel’s with a buttered New York strip steak, he says, “because that’s what Sinatra did.” For bourbon he opts for Buffalo Trace on the rocks, with a twist, to riff on the savory flavors of cheese-stuffed sausage balls — a local delicacy.

Single Malt Ideas

As an all-American pairing, barbecue and bourbon is rather obvious to some. Less expected are Old World flavors in conjunction with a subtle single malt. At Sauvage — a charming French bistro in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — Bar Director Will Elliott lines up the restaurant’s popular Fish Board platter next to Domaine des Hautes Glaces, an organic French single malt whisky. Smoked trout, gravlax, prawns, and a house-baked bread are all enriched by this lighter spirit–tingly, with implied acidity.

In Denver, Rob Dietrich is producing some of America’s most critically-acclaimed single malt at Stranahan’s. His Diamond Peak release is robust yet rounded, its barley backbone beaten back by the vanillas and caramels. A personal favorite, he enjoys the dram against the assertive flavors of Rocky Mountain game. Specifically, the bison tenderloin from the Buckhorn Exchange — Denver’s oldest continually-operating restaurant and saloon. “I like to get mine cooked medium rare with a side of garlic mashed potatoes,” says Dietrich. “The rich flavors of the dish pair best with the Diamond Peak’s flavor notes of dark roast coffee and the creamy finish of this whiskey.”

Highballs and Cocktails

The trend has gone global. In Tokyo, Michelin-starred restaurants are now offering whisky supplements to Omakase menus. Chef de Cuisine Masamitsu Taima at Hinokizaka, atop the Ritz Carlton, is doing just that. He plumbs the depths of tilefish sashimi and smoked Spanish mackerel with an-ever-so-slightly-smoky Hakushu highball. Glazed chicken atop brown rice, subtle yet sublime, is awoken in a wash of Hibiki 17-spiked green tea.

Photo Credit – Suntory Whisky

When it’s time for dessert, a classic whiskey cocktail affords complexities that uni-dimensional sweet wines fail to attain. “My first pick would be pairing a piece of pumpkin pie with an Old-Fashioned,” recommends Meaghan Dorman of the Bennett in lower Manhattan. “Perfect way to cap off a holiday dinner.”

From start to finish, your next meal deserves the whiskey treatment. So tell the sommelier to sit this one out. Their services are no longer required.

Whiskey & Food Pairing 101: Time to pick your whiskeys!

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