Written by Becca Stonebraker
It doesn’t get much more American than a glass of bourbon. Originally from Kentucky, this southern drink is one that easily classes up a meal. Sometimes, though, determining what is and isn’t bourbon can be a little tricky. An easy way to remember is that bourbon is whiskey, but whiskey is not always bourbon. From there, you’ll need to understand a few “bourbon laws” the drink must abide by in order to be fully considered bourbon. The “bourbon laws” are as follows:
- Bourbon needs to be produced in America and be made from at least 51% corn (the remaining 49% is from wheat or rye and barley)
- Bourbon must be stored in new charred-oak barrels
- Bourbon cannot be over 160 proof (80%)
Pairing Bourbon With Food
Since bourbon is from the south, it understandably pairs well with most southern dishes—especially dishes that feature fattier meats, like bacon, ham, etc. It’s important to remember that when pairing foods with bourbon, you don’t want one to overpower the other. Based on this principle, nuts pair well with bourbon, because they each have equally rich flavors. Fruits pair well with bourbon, too. The sugars in certain fruits can sometimes create flavor changes in the bourbon, making for an all-new drinking experience. Other good pairings to bourbon are maple syrup, sweet potatoes, and chocolate. In general, anything with sweet, smoky, or slightly spicy flavors will most likely pair well with bourbon. Once you find your favorite flavor profiles, you can get creative and start making your own innovative food pairings to go with this classic southern drink.
Types of Bourbon
Traditional bourbon is sweeter, more full-bodied, and contains 70% corn, 15% rye, and 15% barley. Since it’s on the sweeter side, you’ll want to pair it with rich, sweeter flavor profiles that complement one another, like desserts, creamy appetizers, and candied nuts like pecans and walnuts.
Drink: Jim Beam
Cook: Chocolate Cheesecake (via Epicurious)
High-rye bourbon contains a larger than normal amount of rye and is spicier and drier with aromas of fruit and spices (read: this bourbon has the biggest kick). For this type of bourbon, you’ll want to pair it with something that has strong flavors too, because if the balance isn’t right, you risk one overpowering the other. Southern staples like ribs, jambalaya, and savory cornbread will fare well.
Cook: Kansas City-Style Pork Ribs (via Food Network)
High-wheat bourbon is made with a larger than normal amount of wheat and is smoother and softer with earthy, minerally aromas and hints of vanilla and caramel. This bourbon has a more mild flavor, so you want to make sure you’re drinking it with something that isn’t too powerful, but isn’t too bland either. Any savory, slightly sweet dish would be a good match for a high-wheat bourbon.
Drink: Maker’s Mark
Cook: Oven-Barbecued Beef Brisket (via Spicy Southern Kitchen)
Still thirsty? Check out our Whiskey and Food Pairing and Wine and Food Pairing guides.