Bourbon…It’s What’s with Dinner.


With summer fast approaching, less than a month away actually (June 21), it’s the perfect time to discuss your menu and what food you should be pairing while sipping your favorite bourbon. Summer fare presents such a delicious diversity when it comes to enhancing your bourbon drinking experience. Savory, smoky meats, creamy appetizers and indulgent desserts make summer gatherings such a target-rich environment for all types of bourbon.

For the sake of this article, let’s focus on the classic summer outing…the cookout (or the backyard barbecue). The cookout truly defines what is delicious and All-American about our summers. Hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, chicken, fish, corn on the cob, all sorts of salads, chips and dip (salsa), pies, and of course ice cream. The list is endless depending on your preferences. But what about accentuating those wonderful foods while imbibing on some scrumptious brown water? Sure beer, wine, soda and lemonade are time-honored and popular summer staples, but they do very little to intensify your summer nosh. You need to add bourbon to your summer spread. That’s right…bourbon! And I don’t want to hear how you think bourbon stands in stark contrast to what you consider appetizing, refreshing and delicious to what you’re used to drinking. First off, stop thinking! Secondly, and more importantly, bring your attitude way down, your curiosity and “All-American can do spirit” way up and pay attention.

There is nothing more appropriate or patriotic for your cookouts than bourbon. It’s produced from indigenous grains, distilled by U.S companies and aged in american oak barrels. It’s protected by law and is our country’s native spirit. So you can wrap Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day even Flag Day and every day in between in your summer cookout festivities and bourbon has you covered. Here’s how.

Typically, there are three categories of bourbon: traditional, high-rye and wheated. Each possess a different mash bill to create their specific flavor profile. Traditional bourbons are generally distilled from an average of about 70-75% corn, 10-15% rye, 10-15% barley. These bourbons include labels such as Jim Beam (white label), Evan Williams (black label), Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. Traditional bourbons are smooth and can compliment both spicy and sweet foods. High-rye bourbons obviously have an increased rye content, about 25-35% on average. They have a spicier palate than the traditional and wheated bourbons. These labels include Bulleit, Basil Hayden and Four Roses Single Barrel. Because of their spice notes, high-rye bourbons offset heavier, rich or sweeter foods. Lastly, we have the wheated bourbons. These bourbons, which include Makers Mark, Weller and Larceny average anywhere from 16-20% wheat and no rye what so ever. With the absence of rye and a higher wheat content the palate is generally smoother and sweeter, working well with spicier fare. Oh, the alcohol content or proof also plays an important role in the pairing process as well. Lower proof bourbons pair better with lighter fare and higher proof selections pair better with heavier, fattier and sweeter foods.

So then what type of bourbon goes best with what type of cookout food?

Traditional 80-90 proof bourbons aged 4+ years: Jim Beam (white label), Evan Williams (black label), Wild Turkey 81, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig Small Batch. Ancient Age, Blanton’s, Benchmark 8, Four Roses Yellow Label.

  • White meat chicken, fish (salmon, rockfish, cod)  shellfish (crab, lobster, clams, oysters, mussels), nuts (pecans, walnuts), creamy appetizers (cheese dips and guacamole) and fruits (apples, watermelon) vegetables (corn on the cob), desserts (chocolate, cheesecake, apple pie and ice cream).

The Bourboneer’s choice: Blantons (although Blantons has a slightly higher proof it pairs well with everything!)

High-Rye 86+ proof bourbons aged 5+ years: Bulleit, Four Roses Small Batch, Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden (although this bourbon is only 80 proof).

  • Ham, pork loin, pork BBQ ribs, pork hot dogs, dark meat chicken, duck, mild sweet chili and cornbread.

The Bourboneer’s choice: Bulleit

Wheated 90-100 proof bourbons aged 5+ years: Makers Mark, Makers Mark 46, Weller, Larceny, Van Winkle (all), Old Fitzgerald, Parker’s Heritage Collection.

  • Hamburgers, BBQ brisket, steak, cheese burgers, spicy foods (jambalaya, chili, brats, chorizo, kielbasa, Italian suasage), cured meats (salami), savory meats (bacon, beef BBQ, beef hot dogs), dried fruits (dates, apricots), aged cheeses (Gouda, cheddar).

The Bourboneer’s choice: Larceny

When pairing your bourbon with your cookout selection its important to drink it neat, with a few drops of fresh water or with an ice cube. From personal experience, I find using ice actually works better. As the ice melts, it cuts the alcohol burn and opens up the flavor profile of your bourbon. Not to mention, an ice cold drink on a summer’s day is much more refreshing. Bourbon cocktails and mixed drinks are always delicious but they don’t pair as well with food. I am  not saying not to enjoy them, by all means, but if you desire to accentuate your cookout eating/drinking experience try your bourbon neat or with ice. Use the pairing suggestions above to help navigate your way. Understand that these recommendations are from what I have learned over my many years of drinking bourbon and that your personal preferences may be different. Don’t let that distract you from expanding your pairing experiences. Ultimately, if bourbon is your drink of choice, no matter what you enjoy eating, then you’re on the right path.

Enjoy your bourbon summer and, of course, enjoy your Memorial Day. Never forget those who sacrificed everything so we can enjoy the freedom we have today.

-The Bourboneer


Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Evan Williams – American Hero Edition, 43% ABV or 86 proof, NAS, Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown, KY.

References: The Gentlemanual: “Eat This: Bourbon and Food Pairings” (on-line) Becca Stonebreaker.


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