As more restaurants add high-quality craft cocktails and premium spirits to their dinner menus, it’s become increasingly common to find suggestions on the menu for cocktails to pair with specific meals. For instance, just as diners learn Champagne isn’t only a “sometimes drink," they’re also discovering the particular pleasures of bourbon during dinner.
While many people may savor a bourbon Old Fashioned or Mint Julep with barbecued ribs and pulled pork, the fact is, the iconic American whiskey is complex and varied enough to lend itself to sipping alongside a wide variety of dishes.
"We have an entire section dedicated to bourbon cocktails,” says chef and owner Edward Lee. The founder of two innovative restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, Lee excels at marrying his Brooklyn-based Korean-American heritage with his love for Southern cuisine. The French-trained Lee has researched Southern cooking deeply, updated it and inflected it with East Asian ingredients and techniques. “I’ve always been very skeptical to the point of where I call BS on the idea of only pairing Asian foods with Riesling,” says Lee. As with Southern cooking, Korean food celebrates char, spices and grilled meats. “When I came upon bourbon, it drew me into the discussion. Whether you’re talking Korean kalbi (short ribs) or Japanese yakitori, there’s nothing better than bourbon.”
A little primer: bourbon may be called “bourbon” only if it’s made in the U.S., contains at least 51% corn in its grain mash, meets certain distillation requirements, and is aged in new, charred oak barrels. A relatively “low” proof off the still (no more than 62.5% ABV or 125 proof) gives bourbon more depth and character than most vodkas or “moonshines.” Time spent in charred new oak (the level of char may vary from light to very dark) imparts notes of caramel, vanilla and other flavors.
The rest of the “mash” (the grain combination that with water and yeast will ferment into alcohol) can be most any fermentable grain, but is generally wheat or rye (along with a component of malted barley). It’s the ratios and types of grains that impart overall flavor profiles to specific whiskeys. “Wheated” bourbons run a little sweeter on the palate, while “high ryes,” like Woodford Reserve, develop elements of spice, pepper, and tropical fruits. Woodford’s “mash bill” of roughly 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malt imparts distinctive flavor and aromatic notes that distinguish it from other brands and expressions.
More recently, bourbon producers have begun experimenting with other elements allowed within the spirit’s fairly rigid parameters. Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris introduced the Double Oaked expression in 2012 (bourbon is then racked into “toasted” barrels for a second round of aging and mellowing), and the annual Master’s Collection explores different secondary grains or unique barrel “finishes.” Each expression adds new layers of complexity.
As with food, the signature cocktail menu at one Chef Lee’s restaurants is inspired by the tasting “zones” of the tongue (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami), with unusual mixers like brine, gentian (an exceedingly bitter root), honey, cider and even peanut butter drawing brown spirits along unexplored paths. These unctuous flavors work nicely with a menu that includes Shellfish and Duck Purloo over Delta grits, or the MW Chili Dog featuring a smoked nori sausage and sharp cheddar cheese.
Meanwhile at his other restaurant, Chef Lee and his staff offer cocktails as part of the four-course, fixed price meal that changes every two or three weeks. “We used to call it a wine pairing, now we call it a beverage pairing. Some dishes pair better with wine, some with apple cider, some with brandy. And we always do a bourbon with a course, because we’re in bourbon country.”
Tweaking traditional cocktails also leads to unique food pairings. A little lemon juice in a Mint Julep tightens the drink to pair with fatty meats. A half-ounce of peach brandy and peach garnish adds earthy fruit notes, ideally suited for cheeses, dried fruits and nuts. Upgrade a Whiskey Sour with a shot of black tea to pair with salty fish or ramen dishes.
Morris, Woodford’s distiller, agrees his whiskey goes well with a variety of dishes: “My favorites include beef with citrus or berry fruit glazes, or chutneys,” he says.
For Lee, who continuously experiments with new flavors and pairings, there have been surprises. "We do a classic pork shoulder cooked in a Southern way, but topped with a Chinese-style fermented black bean sauce instead of ketchup," Lee explains. "We pair it with a drink we call Smoke and Pickle. We mix bourbon with a little pickle juice and a couple of other ingredients. Some people hate it, and some love it.”
Wherever you fall on the Smoke and Pickle, you’ll have plenty of other delicious bourbon cocktails to try. Lee and Morris are just getting started.