Why Michter's Master Distiller Dan McKee Never Pairs Whiskey With Spicy Food - Exclusive

Pairing like with like is always a good idea, right? Or should flavors contrast and complement each other? The answer is there's no right answer; food pairings are situational and subjective. That's why it never hurts to look to the experts for guidance. While you shouldn't feel beholden to advice from others, it's good to find out how professional tasters prefer to pair foods and beverages. Recently, Tasting Table spoke to Dan McKee, master distiller for Michter's, at the Nassau Paradise Island Wine and Food Fest hosted by The Dilly Club. We asked his opinion on what might not go best with a glass of whiskey, and he recommended thinking twice before pairing the liquor with anything spicy.

"Personally, if it's a spicy food, that's where I have to draw the line," McKee explained. His reasoning rests on the power of amplification. Whiskey — especially rye whiskey — clearly has a bite to it, one that can be considered a bit spicy in its own right. While to some that may be an indicator that it needs equally spicy food to stand up to it, to others it leads to an overabundant spiciness that overwhelms the palate. "I've had [a spicy whiskey] take things ... to a level that's not enjoyable," McKee noted. Though he did go on to explain that alongside simple black pepper, whiskey is usually fine.

Picking a proper pairing

Michter's makes a wide range of fine whiskeys, including rye, bourbon, and an "unblended American whiskey." So, it's only natural to want to know which food pairings you should try with these tipples. Thankfully, Dan McKee is a font of knowledge who is unabashed in his love for and generosity with whiskey pairings. The master distiller suggests getting meaty when it comes to whiskey, especially in the steak and ham departments. A rich and well-marbled ribeye has the robust flavor and structure that whiskey needs in a pairing, as the upfront burn of the alcohol will cut through the richness without wilting. Equally matched is a salty, savory slice of aged ham that has layers of complexity and a bona fide funk in which whiskey, be it bourbon, rye, or another, finds a welcome partner.

If you're not a fan of meaty pairings, take a hint from these ideas and skew bold with aged, umami-forward cheeses; assertive fruits; and nutty dark chocolates, all of which dance well on the palate with whiskey. Bread works, too. Consider the grains used in the whiskey at hand: Corn makes up the majority of a bourbon's mash bill, so consider cornbread with a tasting flight, or spice things up with a few slices of rye bread combined with a neat pour of rye whiskey. All that said, you should always trust your own tastebuds. His own personal preferences aside, McKee admitted that he does "have friends that love spicy food with whiskeys."