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A glass of bourbon with a pork slider on a plate behind it

Bourbon, meet barbecue

The American whiskey pairs perfectly with smoky, meaty flavors, so check out these 5 chef-approved picks before you fire up the grill.

July 1, 2019

By Cory Phare

Professor Michael Wray, holding a small still and explaining the bourbon-making process at MSU Denver
Professor Michael Wray, holding a small still and explaining the bourbon-making process at MSU Denver's first monthly food pairing event series. Photo by Mark Stahl

It's summertime in Colorado, the livin' is easy and the grills are hot.

With barbecue season in full swing, RED conferred with Metropolitan State University of Denver hospitality experts for the best bourbon-and-barbecue pairings this side of the solstice.

The key? Getting the flavor combinations right, said Professor Michael Wray, Ph.D.

“The way bourbon is distilled impacts its final flavor and mouthfeel,” said Wray, who teaches the University's Beer and Spirits course. He recently teamed up with chef Jeff Koch, instructor of a Food Production and Service class, for a five-course bourbon-and-barbecue pairing at MSU Denver's Hospitality Learning Center.

“Along with the barrel-aging process and ingredient variants – say, corn versus rye – you’re going to have very different profiles that affect accompanying foods you’ll choose,” Wray said.

Here are Wray's spirited suggestions for what to sip at your next summer soirée.

Course 1

Slaw sampler: creamy, Carolina and broccoli

Pairing: Old Charter 8 Year, Basil Hayden’s or Four Roses

Creamy, broccoli and Carolina slaws (from left) are best matched with a similarly light spirt, such as Four Roses. Photo by Mark Stahl
Creamy, broccoli and Carolina slaws (from left) are best matched with a similarly light spirt, such as Four Roses. Photo by Mark Stahl

“In your first course, you want to match light with lightness,” Wray said. “With that, you want something flavorful but not overpowering; these have that but with a softness that makes them a natural fit for lighter fare.”


Course 2

Bacon-wrapped jalapeños with raspberry jam

Pairing: Elijah Craig Small Batch or Buffalo Trace

The smoke and spice of bacon-wrapped jalapeños are offset by the sweetness from an accompanying raspberry jam and Buffalo Trace. Photo by Mark Stahl
The smoke and spice of bacon-wrapped jalapeños are offset by the sweetness from an accompanying raspberry jam and Buffalo Trace. Photo by Mark Stahl

“If you’ve got a spicy food for the second course, you’ll want to have a sweeter bourbon to contrast and mask the spiciness,” Wray said. “Additionally, higher percentages of corn – say, 65-to-75% – bring out sweeter notes.”


Course 3

Sausage plate: andouille sausage with mustard BBQ, Italian sausage with Romesco sauce and chorizo sausage with honey chipotle BBQ

Pairing: Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle, Larceny or Rebel Yell 

Clockwise from top: Roasted vegetables, andouille sausage with mustard BBQ, Italian sausage with Romesco sauce and chorizo sausage with honey chipotle BBQ; paired with a Larceny, the flavors are balanced without overpowering each other. Photo by Mark Stahl
Clockwise from top: Roasted vegetables, andouille sausage with mustard BBQ, Italian sausage with Romesco sauce and chorizo sausage with honey chipotle BBQ; paired with a Larceny, the flavors are balanced without overpowering each other. Photo by Mark Stahl

“As we’re approaching heavier food in the third course, you’ll want the smoothness still but something compelling; these have sugar but also have elements like vinegar,” Wray said. “When you’ve got complex food flavors, you’ll want to keep the spirit simple, though – otherwise it’s like wearing plaid and paisley together; it’s just too much.”


Course 4

Pulled-pork slider with BBQ and roasted vegetable kabob

Pairing: Basil Hayden’s, Four Roses or Old Grand Dad

Pork sliders, topped with student-made pickles and alongside onion straws, provide a tantalizing texture; paired with a Basil Hayden
Pork sliders, topped with student-made pickles and alongside onion straws, provide a tantalizing texture; paired with a Basil Hayden's Kentucky straight bourbon, a commingle of richness from the fat, smoke and sweet create a heavenly harmony of satisfying flavors. Photo by Mark Stahl

“This is where you want the full-bodied drink of something like a 30%-35% rye, where the spice contrasts the rich food and meets the intensity of the fat,” Wray said. “It’s similar to how a cabernet sauvignon pairs well with a steak; it’s got the same tannic and bitterness profile. In this case, that depth and spice of the oak and tannins work wonderfully – the bitter goes well with the richness, like coffee and cream.”


Course 5

Banana pudding

Pairing: Pinhook or W. L. Weller Special Reserve

Banana pudding, flanked by vanilla wafers and topped with brûléed banana slices, has just enough heft to hold up for a sweet, creamy finish. Photo by Mark Stahl
Banana pudding, flanked by vanilla wafers and topped with brûléed banana slices, has just enough heft to hold up for a sweet, creamy finish. Photo by Mark Stahl

For this final dish, Wray suggested increasing heft by adding caramel or pecan praline on the top to pair with a lighter bourbon, allowing the dessert to shine.

“Caramelized sugars in praline mirror or echo the vanilla and toasted wood hints from a charred oak-aged bourbon,” he said. “If the bourbon was too heavy oaked it would easily overpower the dessert.”

”Furthermore, a bourbon above 90-proof with extended oak aging is an aperitif itself, no dessert required.”


Interested in learning more about pairing alcohol and food? Check out these upcoming pairing events developed and hosted by MSU Denver food and beverage experts:

  • July 25th (Thursday) - Bacon, Brats, and Brews with Scott Kerkmans, Chef Koch, Jeff Rice and Joseph LaViolette; 5:30-7:30 p.m.
  • August 26 (Monday) Stop and Smell the Rosé with Michael Wray, Chef Rice and Joseph LaViolette; 5:30-7:30 p.m.

All events are open to the public with a discount for University faculty/staff. For more information, visit the event pages or contact Susan Conder.


 


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