top of page

Get a Whiff of This

Have you ever been curious about what food best compliments the magnificence of bourbon? While most of us know that meats and cheese are excellent companions, but why are they exceptional? And, what else is there if you want to serve something unique at your next event? Read on, my friend, read on. To know how to pair food with your bourbon, we should first look at the fundamentals of pairing any spirit with food. Flavors are complimentary when they share aromatic profiles and then complement or contrast in terms of taste.

The tongue itself can taste five major profiles: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, but the nose can pick up thousands of fragrances. So, think about complementary aromas first and foremost, then analyze your taste profile for contrast. When pairing any spirit, you need to note the flavor profile and the proof.

Just a Taste…

You should both smell and taste your spirit. Pull out the primary flavors that you recognize on the nose and the tongue. For example, perhaps you'll sense juniper and cucumber for a gin; apple or pepper for a whiskey. A flavor profile is vital because you can choose how you want to contrast the palate and compliment the aromas.

Suppose your bourbon has a nose that boasts of honey, for example. In that case, you can pair it with milk chocolate or white chocolate to enhance the sweet experience on the palate. On the contrary, you also might want to pair it with dark, bitter chocolate, so the honey notes of the bourbon are pronounced and accentuated.

You should also note the proof of any spirit you pair. Many spirits, especially whiskey, can run very high in proof, which coincides with the alcohol percentage by volume (ABV). Alcohol can activate pain receptors in your mouth that cause your brain to minimize all other sensory input. Therefore, make sure you acclimate your palate to any high-proof spirit before attempting to choose complementary or contrasting flavors. Furthermore, you never want to overwhelm the food with the sensation of heat. Likewise, you should stay away from overwhelming the spirit with the intensity of the selected food item or entree.

So, What Pairs Well With Bourbon?

To best answer this, we first need to know what bourbon is. Bourbon is uniquely American. It is distilled from grain made of at least 51% corn and aged in a brand new oak barrel, most commonly American oak. There are other rules, but the following are perhaps the most important to us today. For bourbon, the mash bill (types of grains used in the distillate) is essential to note when considering food pairings. More corn adds sweetness, whereas rye adds heartiness and baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Barley, another important component, adds cereal and sometimes toffee notes. And, lastly, wheat adds a cracker or bread component. Thus, if you have a high rye bourbon, you can consider what might accentuate the aforementioned baking spices. A complimentary flavor might be apple pie, or a sweeter contrast might be tiramisu.

Next, think about how long the bourbon has aged in a barrel because up to 70% of bourbon's flavor forms during the aging process. The number of years a bourbon has aged in a barrel will impact its flavor significantly. Speaking of the aging vessel, bourbon barrels are charred on the inside, so when the wood burns, it causes specific layers of the wood to break down into wood sugars. This allows the barrels to caramelize, which contributes to complex and varied levels of vanilla, spice, tannins, and even coconut in your bourbon. Oftentimes, before you ever taste a bourbon, you can get an idea of what flavors may be present just by reviewing the mash bill and age statement.

More About Pairings

Now that we know the basics of what bourbon is, and briefly suggested a few food pairings, let's expand the topic by covering some excellent pairings and why they work. First up, we have Four Roses Small Batch. It is aged about 6-7 years and is a mix of two mash bills: One is 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% barley. The other is 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% barley. This special blend has notes of caramel, mild spices, and dark fruit. It clocks in at 90 proof (45% ABV).

One interesting dish to try to complement those flavors is halved fresh figs served with goat cheese, basil, and prosciutto. Check out the easy recipe posted by Culinary Works. The aroma of the basil immediately compliments the fruity nose of the bourbon. The sugars in the fig cause flavor change on the palate, highlighting more of the thick, dark fruit notes. Lastly, the savory flavor of goat cheese and salty prosciutto match the richness of this bourbon perfectly. At the same time, the 45% ABV holds up because it matches the food in intensity.


The next pairing is bound to become a favorite. We're talking about Makers Mark and pecan cupcakes with cinnamon vanilla frosting! If you ever have the chance to visit the Makers Mark Distillery in Kentucky, walk into the warehouse and take a whiff! A deep breath will be met with the lovely scent of Pilsbury vanilla frosting. It’s magical. Just from that experience, we know their bourbon will pair well with cupcakes or other pastries. Makers Mark is a wheated bourbon with a mash bill of 70% corn, 16% soft, red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. Like the previous example, this bourbon also rests at 90 proof (45% ABV). Makers Mark has vanilla on the nose and is smooth on the palate. It lacks a spicy punch but has the taste profile of honey on wheat bread.

The nuttiness of the pecans brings out the richness of the bourbon. The cinnamon contrasts nicely on the tongue, causing the honey and sugar notes to intensify. This pairing is the perfect blend of complementary aromas with a delicately contrasted palate.


In Summary

When pairing bourbon, get creative. We all have unique tastes according to our own palates. For example, what tastes like butterscotch to one person may show up more like sugar cookies to another. You can't go wrong if the aromas are complementary, and the palate provides some contrast. Also, remember to keep in mind the proof and intensity of the bourbon. As we have illustrated in the examples mentioned in this post, bourbon styles vary; so do the food pairing possibilities. Cheers!


bottom of page