How To Pair Food With Bourbon

This guide to pairing food with the perfect bourbon is (wait for it) foolproof

When I opened my first American whiskey bar and restaurant, Char No. 4, in 2008, the idea was simple: offer an encyclopedic selection of bourbon and food—often smoked, grilled or charred—that pair well together. That core concept remained the same when I opened Maysville, in Manhattan, and Kenton's, in New Orleans, which both remain unique despite having been inspired by Char No. 4's respect for how food and bourbon can complement each other so nicely.

Bourbon has many flavor characteristics, but at its core is the caramelized sweetness that comes from aging in charred new oak barrels. The spirit pairs well with foods that have a caramelized component, whether seafood, vegetables, poultry, meat, or dessert.

Beyond that, here are some other things to think about about when pairing bourbon with food:

① Proof

Proof is one of the most overlooked aspects of drinking bourbon, and even moreso when it comes to pairing. The lowest proof at which a bourbon can be bottled is 80 proof; on the flipside, just this year, George T. Stagg weighed in at a whopping 144.1 proof. Consider how different those spirits would be if you drank them both neat: The 80-proof bourbon would seem smooth and approachable, and the 144-proof bourbon would combust on your tongue before you could taste much of anything.

In other words, high alcohol levels make it difficult to access the subtleties of aroma and flavor. With that in mind, I tend to pair lower-proofed bourbons with more delicate foods, such as fish and shellfish. Some of my favorite 80-proof bourbons—like Old Charter 8 Year, Basil Hayden's and Four Roses Yellow Label—are full of flavor but have a nice softness that makes them a natural fit for lighter fare.

As the heftiness of the dish increases, so too can the proof—within reason, of course. For poultry, pork and game, two of my favorite 90-proof bourbons are Pinhook and W. L. Weller Special Reserve.

When cooking steak, lamb and other red meat, go for a 100-proof bourbon, which will stand up to the richness and heavier char and sauce that often accompany these proteins. Look for bottled-in-bond whiskeys, such as Henry McKenna, Rittenhouse Rye and Old Grand-Dad, which are required by the federal government to be bottled at 100-proof minimum. 

Cheese and dessert means it's time to revert back to the 80- or 90-proof range, where softer bourbons will let the end of the meal shine. Bourbon pairs terrifically well with cheese, particularly harder or more aged cheeses (like older Gouda) with just the right level of salt, caramel and umami.

Save those bourbons higher than 100 proof—often in the realm of cask strength—for after-dinner digestifs. I'm partial to Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Booker's and George T. Stagg.

And if you've only got George T. Stagg in the house, remember that any bourbon can be proofed down just by adding ice or water. When combined with ¾ ounce of water, an ounce of even the highest-proof bourbon becomes a deliciously smooth, lower-proofed bourbon that's food-friendly.

② Age

Age is another big factor with respect to pairings. The more time a bourbon spends in a charred new oak barrel, the more you'll taste primary flavors like grain, fruit and flowers. Less time in the wood means more subtle flavors and a better fit for lighter dishes.

In general, higher proof means older, richer bourbons, and lower proof means younger, lighter bourbons. I consider 12 years the cutoff for food-friendly bourbons; anything older and you'll taste the wood.

With that in mind, here are some basic guidelines:

Fish, shellfish and lighter vegetarian fare: 80-plus proof and three- to six-year-old bourbons

Pork, poultry, and game: 90-plus proof and seven- to nine-year-old bourbons

Beef, lamb and other red meat: 100 proof and 10- to 12-year-old bourbons

Cheese and dessert: 80-plus proof and three- to six-year-old bourbons

After dinner/digestif: 107-plus proof and 10-year-old bourbons and older

③ Mash Bill

While proof and age are the two biggest factors to consider when pairing food and bourbon, the mash bill—the mix of grains used to make the spirit—also plays an important role in flavor. For a whiskey to be a bourbon its mash bill must contain at least 51 percent corn; beyond that, there are myriad formulas. Each distillery has its own proprietary mash bill, and few disclose their house secrets, but here's the basic breakdown:

Traditional Mash Bill Bourbon

With 65 to 75 percent corn and roughly equal parts rye and malted barley, this is your quintessential bourbon. The sweetness of corn will shine through, making these bourbons versatile enough to complement sweet and spicy flavors alike. Some of my favorites are Pinhook, Elijah Craig Small Batch and Buffalo Trace

High Rye Bourbon
With 30 to 35 percent rye and mostly corn and a little malted barley comprising the remaining 65 to 70 percent, high rye bourbon offers sweetness from the corn with a spicy, earthy backbone from the rye. This style is a great bridge between bourbon and rye whiskey, where its piquancy can help cut through heavier dishes. Some of my favorites are Basil Hayden's, Four Roses and Old Grand Dad.

Wheated Bourbon

This bourbon uses wheat instead of rye in the mash bill, resulting in a spirit that's smooth and  easy to drink; a lower-proof wheated bourbon nicely complements spicier dishes. Maker's Mark is the most well-known example of wheated bourbon, along with the legendary Pappy Van Winkle. Other wheated bourbons to look for include W. L. Weller Special Reserve, Larceny and Rebel Yell.