Winning Whiskey and Food Pairings

Learning how to pair food and wine is part of most epicures' life curriculums, even if only on a rudimentary level. Whiskey (or “whisky” when referring to Scotch), though, can be a stumper. Scotch has varying levels of peaty smokiness to contend with. Bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels for periods ranging from as little as three months to three decades or longer. (Who asks, “Hmm, what food can I pair with charred wood?”) Then there are various other finishes, like whiskey aged in used port, sauternes and sherry barrels.

Yet, whiskey can be quite a congenial companion with food. All it takes is a little know-how. We asked three Houston-area specialists — Justin Vann of Public Services Wine & Whisky, Mike Raymond of Reserve 101 and Alba Huerta of Julep — for some guidelines and examples of great pairings.

Justin Vann
Public Services Wine & Whisky
, 202 Travis, #100

As a general guideline, Vann says that if the whiskey has been aged in a new, charred barrel, it goes best with desserts and cheese, while that aged in old (reused) charred barrels goes best with other courses of the meal. “Think of pairing whiskey with the meal like adding a sauce to the food,” he advised.

Rather than getting super-specific with brands of whisky and particular dishes, Vann shared with us these general guidelines that can be adapted to any whiskey or food that will be served: 
  • Whiskey neat with only the most intense dishes, cutting it with ice, water and/or soda for lighter dishes
  • Sweeter whisky (e.g., bourbon, highland single malt) with desserts and extremely rich savory courses (like foie gras or cheese boards)
  • Savory whisky (e.g., island single malts, Irish whiskey) has more versatility with the beginning and middle of a meal
  • Islay Scotch with seafood or foods high in umami. (The nuts and seeds with flecks of nori, or dried seaweed, that Public Services serves as a bar snack are a perfect example.)
  • Longrow Port cask with roasted red meat or fatty brisket.

Alba Huerta
, 1919 Washington

It would only make sense that a Southern-focused bar with an outstanding fresh seafood program would have some great ideas on how to pair whiskey and food. Julep’s co-owner, Alba Huerta, shares her thoughts below.

Fresh Shucked Oysters and Laphroaig Cairdeas: "This peated Scotch Whisky is aged in bourbon casks and then Amontillado sherry casks. The whisky has notes of nutty figs and dates that finish in a salted licorice note that pair lovely with the salinity from the fresh oysters."

Maker's Mark Cask Strength and Hush Puppies and Potatoes: "This bourbon is uncut and has a great mix of vanilla, sweet and spice. Hush puppies and potatoes with honey butter complement this luscious whiskey and give it a good base to enjoy more than one."

Hibiki Harmony and Marinated Olives: “Hibiki Harmony has fruit notes and soft pepper spice that pair excellently with our olives that are marinated in extra virgin olive oil, star anise, rosemary, thyme and cloves. The notes from the whiskey and the texture from the olives are a match made in heaven — or harmony, in this case."

Mike Raymond
Reserve 101
, 1201 Caroline

It would just be wrong if the proprietor of a bar that carries more than 350 whiskeys didn’t have an opinion on how to enjoy them with food. Mike Raymond shared his “next level” pairing suggestions below.

Dalmore King Alexander and Peking Duck: “The King Alexander is a beautiful single malt that is a marriage of Dalmore's that were aged in six different barrels separately, then skillfully blended together. The result gives a wonderful plum nose with hints of sherry.”

Angel's Envy Rye and Peanut Butter & Jelly: "I usually prefer strawberry preserves, but, in this case, use grape jelly. A.E. Rye already has dessert-y marshmallow graham cracker flavor. Add peanut butter and jam: heaven."

Pappy Van Winkle 23 and Chicken Fajitas: “For those who have ever had the unicorn that is Pappy 23, you will find a very heavy oak nose and flavor. Add some chicken fajitas, and now it’s a party!”

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 and Lemon Meringue Pie: “Laphroaig annual release Cairdeas was particularly great in 2014 as it was finished in a sherry barrel. Peated whisky traditionally goes very well with lemon. Add the influence of sherry with the custard quality of the pie, and you get a great dessert pairing.”

High West Double Rye and Frito Pie: “I give all credit for this one to David Perkins of High West, who came up with this one at a staff training a few weeks ago.”

Glenmorangie Pride 1978 and Memphis-style Baby Back Ribs: “Don't get me wrong. I love Texas barbecue, but when it comes to ribs, I want them dry-rubbed with lip-smacking sauce. Couple that with a single malt that has spent 19 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then 15 years in a Grand Cru Rothschild barrel, and you get a beautiful marriage. The tannins of the French oak, with notes of cherry and black currants, paired with sweet and savory flavor of the ribs, is a magical union." (Author’s note: All of this can be yours for a mere $750 a shot.)
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook