When it comes to pairing drinks with food, wine gets most of the attention. But don’t sleep on whiskey (or cocktails, for that matter). Whiskey and food don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A good whiskey can complement a variety of dishes to enhance the overall dining experience, but just like wine, certain bottles work best with certain foods.
“I always say what grows together, goes together,” says Newman Miller, the executive chef of Star Hill Provisions at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. “Local flavors almost always have an affinity.”
That approach is evident in the Star Hill Provisions menu, which incorporates local products wherever possible, including black walnuts from trees that grow around the distillery. “There’s always a consideration about where a product is from, and what would go well with it,” says Miller. “This same idea can be applied across the board. Think about how bourbon always goes well with country ham—the flavors are harmonious and of the place.”
Pairing Whiskey With Food
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for deciding which whiskey to pair with which food. So feel free to experiment—after all, it’s a fun exercise. But certain characteristics like grain makeup, aging technique, and flavor profile vary across whiskey categories, meaning that certain dishes will pair better with bourbon than scotch. Below, Chef Miller provides a few pairing suggestions to get you started.
“Wheated bourbons like Maker’s Mark are a no brainer for the beginning and ending of a meal because they’re easy on the palate. There’s a lack of spice, so they go really well with dessert. A personal favorite of mine is a neat pour of wheated bourbon with rich pecan pie. My father used to make pecan pie soaked with bourbon for a few days. Pair that with a neat pour on the side for some crazy delicious flavor. I even like Maker’s Mark with some amaro, which makes for a great digestif.”
“Rye whiskey has a bit of spice, so I like it with meat-heavy dishes and heavily marinated foods. I gravitate toward spicy Thai food when I think about rye, like glazed pork chops with papaya salad.”
“Seafood pairs the best with scotch, because some of the best seafood comes from Scotland. I’d recommend doing a highball or any lower proof cocktail so that you can sip it alongside seafood without killing it. I lived in the highlands of Scotland for some time, so I always think of a Sunday roast (lamb or beef) with potatoes and carrots paired alongside a simple highball made with scotch from the highlands.
Cocktail and Food Pairings
Okay, we’ve established that whiskey and food is a good decision. But what about cocktails? According to Chef Miller—and corroborated by our extensive first-hand research—the right cocktail can really elevate your meal.
“A Manhattan is the first drink of the night for me, so I’ll pair it with appetizers like homemade potato chips and homemade French onion dip, or potato crisps with crème and caviar,” says Miller. “I also love a Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Old-Fashioned with a plate of sliced country ham or beer cheese and saltine crackers.”
Those are all things we can get on board with. So the next time you find yourself with a plate of food in front of you, think about filling your empty hand with a glass of whiskey. When paired correctly, it’s a great combination. And, hey, any excuse to drink whiskey (lunch comes to mind) is a good one.