For many of us, nothing says summer like firing up the grill. But did you know that your favorite summer bourbon cocktails can also help accentuate the smoky, sweet or spicy flavors found in barbecue?
There are two primary reasons why: flavor and texture.
The char and black pepper notes in many barbecue dishes parallel whiskey’s smoky barrel flavors, and the sweetness of caramel and cooked fruit in bourbon provides sharp contrast to barbecue notes of salinity and spice from dry rub or marinate. Plus, when it comes to texture, barbecue unctuously coats a layer of fat over the palate, which is stripped clean after whiskey comes in and invigorates it.
To help better understand why bourbon and whiskey cocktails pair so well with barbecue, we asked a few pros to provide some tips on how to create the best flavor combination as well as how they like to enjoy their cocktail and barbecue pairing.
“Proof is essential,” says Steve Coomes, spirit and food pairings expert and content and programming coordinator of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. “The alcohol in 100-proof whiskey cleanses the palate and isn’t dominated by barbecue’s fat such as higher proofs like Elijah Craig or Knob Creek.”
Coomes also notes that “bourbon whose flavor grain is rye works better than bourbons accented with wheat as rye carries great notes of dill, white and black pepper and toasted bread.” For example, wheat bourbons such as Maker’s Mark or Rebel Cask Strength can accentuate meat flavors, he says.
Acids love fat and protein, which is why alcohol is such a bedfellow to barbecue.
“Whiskey and barbecue both honor the wood,” says , head distiller of Redwood Empire Whiskey. “Seventy percent of whiskey’s flavor comes from the wood it ages in, which is a huge part of a distiller’s decision-making process when it comes to crafting a finished product.”
Because alcohol cuts through sugar and fat, Patz leans toward combinations of “beer and dry rub meats, followed by whiskey and sauces that lean a little closer to sweet and thick over thin and vinegar.”
One tip to keep in mind is to try to match the sweetness of bourbon with the sweetness of the sauce. Think of your drink as another condiment that’s there to enhance your barbecued meat, not overpower it.
“The Sazerac, one of my favorite cocktails, is a dud as I find its sweet notes don’t play well with barbecue flavors,” says Coomes.
In the end, barbecue by itself and whiskey by itself are great. But barbecue followed by whiskey is just amazing. Here’s how Coomes and Patz like to enjoy their pairings.
“I am partial to peach as stone fruit season tends to overlap with barbecue season, so I like to add bourbon to peach iced tea,” says Patz. “It’s refreshing, hydrating and has enough bourbon to keep you relaxed for hours on warm days.”
“Of all, I think the Old Fashioned works best,” says Coomes, “but nine times out of 10, I’m going to enjoy my barbecue with a neat pour of whiskey.”
Here, 9 summer bourbon and whiskey cocktails to pair with BBQ.