An Expert Explains Why Bourbon Is The Best To Pair With Smoky Food

A glass of whiskey next to smoked meat and cheese
A glass of whiskey next to smoked meat and cheese - Static Media/Shutterstock/Getty

The words bourbon and barbecue are often seen going together hand in hand, almost as if the spirit was designed to pair well with the smoky foods that come off of the grill. Whether or not that is actually the case is anyone's guess — the history of the first-ever bourbon is a bit murky — but bourbon and smoke is a flavor combination that certainly has many fans today. What exactly makes this pairing so perfect, and how can you make the most of it?

Tasting Table asked Mandy Naglich, Certified Taster and author of "How to Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life," to give us the details. According to Naglich, bourbon's bold flavors are the reason it can stand up to the assertive nature of smoke-infused foods. "Smoke is an intense flavor," she explained. "The tiniest change in smoke flavor can take something from enjoyable to overwhelming."

The juxtaposition of the common tasting notes found in bourbon brings a natural contrast to those found in smoke, creating a more even-keeled experience. When offering an example, the beverage journalist and operator of the popular drinks Instagram account @drinkswithmandy said, "The crusty char on brisket is balanced by the smooth vanilla, caramel, nutty flavors of bourbon, and the barbecue will bring forward the hints of smoke that naturally occur during wood aging." As such, the food and drink provide a push-and-pull where the characteristics of one enhance that of the other.

Read more: The 27 Best Bourbon Brands, Ranked

The Best Food And Bourbon Pairings

Closeup of a glass of bourbon with a bacon strip garnish
Closeup of a glass of bourbon with a bacon strip garnish - Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

While barbecue is certainly a go-to food to try pairing with bourbon, there are many other ways to apply this knowledge for a perfectly complex and elevated meal. Plenty of other smoky, umami ingredients can find their way alongside your bourbon glass. Pour yourself a serving while enjoying how its richness complements snacks like savory bacon jam or, as Mandy Naglich recommends, smoked cheese. Full meal options also extend beyond the realms of steak and ribs, with pairings like smoked chicken tacos or even tofu drenched in barbecue sauce.

You need not limit your bourbon sipping to your main course, either. There are many sweet treats that carry hints of smoke, too. Grilled fruit or s'mores, which take on the campfire-like essence of their respective cooking methods, are excellent choices for accompanying bourbon. You can also use seasonings like smoked salt or chipotle chili powder on baked goods or even chocolate to bring them up to this sophisticated level of tasting.

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