12 Bourbon-Food Pairings You Need To Try

bourbon paired with different foods
bourbon paired with different foods - Static Media / Shutterstock

For the uninitiated, bourbon and whiskey are similar, but for true bourbon connoisseurs, bourbon is in a league of its own. While it's true that all bourbon is, in fact, whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. This means that bourbon has its own, specific standards to meet in order to be granted the "bourbon" label. In fact, bourbon, unlike many whiskeys, must be distilled in the United States in new, charred white oak barrels, and it must contain at least 51% corn. These requirements give bourbon a distinct flavor that sets it apart from other whiskeys.

Due to the differences between bourbon and whiskey, it's important to realize there are differences in food pairing choices, too. And given that 95% of the world's bourbon is produced in Kentucky, it only makes sense to turn to Jason Brauner, founder of Kentucky-based Bourbons Bistro, to learn which foods help bring out the vanilla and maple flavors of bourbon while also enhancing the foods you pair with it. Given that his restaurant offers more than 130 different bourbons and an ever-rotating menu of bourbon-inspired foods, there's no better resource to share their expertise. Of course, some bourbon fans are bound to say that bourbon pairs well with every food, but if you're looking for the very best pairings, consider the following options.

Read more: The 16 Best Bourbons To Drink In 2023

Barbecue Brisket

slices of barbecue brisket
slices of barbecue brisket - Marie Sonmez Photography/Shutterstock

Beer and barbecue are a favorite pairing, but if you're looking for a stronger drink to pair with your brisket, bourbon is the way to go. "The smokiness of a well-grilled brisket complements the deep, woody notes of bourbon," Brauner says, referencing the flavors imparted by the charred white oak barrels. But that's not the only reason that bourbon and brisket are a perfect pairing. "The meat's fattiness acts as a perfect counterpoint, rounding out the fiery warmth of the whiskey," Brauner explains.

It's arguable that the brisket and bourbon pairing is also perfect because both items are meant to be savored. Given that brisket must cook low and slow for hours, by the time it's finally ready, you want to really sit back and enjoy the flavors in the meat — it's not a meal you should plow through in just a few minutes. Pairing the barbecue with a drink that's also meant to be sipped and savored helps make the entire meal feel special and encourages a more lingering dinner.

Country Ham And Prosciutto

slices of prosciutto on board
slices of prosciutto on board - Fcafotodigital/Getty Images

The next time you build a charcuterie board with an array of cured meats like country ham and prosciutto, it's worth picking up a bottle (or two) of your favorite bourbon to serve alongside the appetizers. "Just like with brisket, the fat content in these cured meats balances out the alcohol's heat, and their savory flavors meld seamlessly with the caramel undertones of bourbon," Brauner says.

And if you think about it, given how often cured ham products are enhanced with maple flavors, bourbon really does seem like a natural pairing. So if you're looking to keep things simple and easy when hosting a cocktail hour with friends, offering a few cured pork appetizers along with bourbon (and classic bourbon cocktails like Manhattans or Old Fashioneds) is easily the way to go. Your friends will be impressed with how well everything goes together without even realizing the pairing is by design.


bourbon glazed salmon
bourbon glazed salmon - Mccallk69/Shutterstock

You may have heard of salmon referred to as a "fatty fish," but what you may not have realized is that this extra fat (thanks to the omega-3s) makes it another great pairing choice with bourbon. In fact, Brauner recognizes that while wine is the typical pairing when eating a salmon filet, he wishes people would broaden their minds when it comes to pairing alcohol with this fish. "The fattiness of salmon pairs surprisingly well with the rich complexity of bourbon, making each bite and sip a flavorful dance of sea and spirit," he says.

In fact, you don't need to stop at pairing salmon with a glass of bourbon — you should consider making your salmon with bourbon, too. This bourbon-glazed salmon recipe includes both bourbon and maple syrup, flavors that complement the fish and the drink independently. When pairing the dish with a glass of your favorite bourbon, you'll be grateful for the somewhat unexpected pairing.


glass of bourbon and chocolate
glass of bourbon and chocolate - Zarina Lukash/Getty Images

It's no secret that chocolate pairs well with wine — the bitter and sweet flavors play off each other, and each is intended to be savored. The same concept applies to chocolate and bourbon. "Dark or milk, the sweetness and bitterness of chocolate play into bourbon's robust and multifaceted taste profile, highlighting nuances you might otherwise miss," Brauner explains.

Of course, a couple of squares of your favorite chocolate bar will do the trick as you're sipping on a glass of bourbon at the end of the night, but there's no need to stop there. Chocolate cake, chocolate brownies, and even chocolate cocktails are all worth pairing with your favorite bourbon. You can even use bourbon in your baking, whipping up chocolate treats like Kentucky bourbon balls and chocolate bourbon cherry cookies to offer as gifts at your next holiday cookie exchange (along with mini bottles of bourbon, of course). Because if there's one thing that's better than enjoying the flavors of bourbon and chocolate alone, it's sharing the experience with others, too.


bourbon and cheese tasting platter
bourbon and cheese tasting platter - barmalini/Shutterstock

If you ever plan on hosting a bourbon-tasting party, you should consider making it a cheese and bourbon-pairing party. Just as different wines pair well with different cheeses, Brauner notes that bourbon does the same. "From creamy brie to sharp cheddar, the spectrum of cheese flavors finds a partner in bourbon," he says.

The age and proof of a bourbon affect which foods (including cheeses) it pairs best with, but generally speaking, harder and aged cheeses go well with most bourbons. That said, bourbons with a proof in the 80-90 range (rather than stronger options) tend to pair best with cheese. Options like Basil Hayden (at 80 proof) and the original Old Forester (at 86 proof) are popular bourbons to start with, but at a pairing party, the point is to experiment to see which pairings you like best, so feel free to add softer cheeses and stronger bourbons to your personal tasting menu.


pate spread on bread slices
pate spread on bread slices - New Africa/Shutterstock

Pâté doesn't have a single definition or a single flavor. The French word actually translates to "paste," lending itself to an array of serving interpretations. That said, it's generally a meat or fish paste bound together with liver and served within a bready crust or spread on top of crackers or baguettes. It's a popular addition to charcuterie boards and frequently features an array of herbs and spices. "This rich and flavorful delicacy benefits from the balancing effects of bourbon, creating a harmonious blend of luxury and rustic charm," says Brauner.

And just as you can balance pairings of different cheeses with different bourbons, it's worth tasting different pâtés with a variety of whiskeys. For instance, a pâté made from seafood, which offers a light but rich flavor, is more likely to pair well with bourbon with lower alcohol by volume (40-46%), while pâtés made from richer proteins, like beef or duck can hold up to more intense bourbon with an ABV in the 47-55% range.

Rye, Wheat, And Corn Breads

rustic cornbread sliced into pieces
rustic cornbread sliced into pieces - NatalyaBond/Shutterstock

At its very core, bourbon is a grain. In fact, to be called bourbon, the spirit must contain at least 51% corn, but may also contain other distilled grains, like rye, wheat, and barley. This makes bourbon a natural pairing with other foods raised from the same stock, so to speak. "It's no coincidence that these grains find their way into both bread and bourbon," Brauner says. "The connection deepens the appreciation for both, making them a natural match."

For anyone who loves a big slice of rustic, hearty bread, this is good news. When you're looking for a down-home and easy food to pair with a nip of your favorite bourbon, simply slice off a piece of your favorite bread, slather it with a little butter and a drizzle of maple syrup (which is particularly good with skillet cornbread), and tuck in. Sure, it won't do you any favors if you're following a low-carb diet, but in terms of pure satisfaction? The bread-and-bourbon duo is hard to beat.

Vanilla Ice Cream

vanilla ice cream in coconut
vanilla ice cream in coconut - Kajakiki/Getty Images

Who doesn't love a spiked dessert? The indulgence of sweet ice cream paired with the heat and kick of a shot of whisky is hard to beat, but it's best to keep the pairing simple to avoid overwhelming the palette. "Taking a cue from a Master Distiller at Wild Turkey, Jimmy Russel drizzles Wild Turkey Honey over ice cream as an indulgent treat," Brauner says. "The sweetness of the vanilla, coupled with the creaminess of ice cream, marries perfectly with bourbon's rich, warm flavors."

It's easy enough to pour a shot of bourbon over your serving of vanilla (or to sip it alongside), but if you want to try something in the same vein, but a little more fun, you can easily whip up a hot honey-bourbon slushie. In addition to vanilla ice cream and bourbon, all you need is whole milk, your favorite hot honey, ice, and flaky sea salt. While bourbon isn't typically a spirit to enjoy with spicy foods, the vanilla ice cream and milk mellow out the heat of the honey, leaving you with the flavor and kick of spice without added heat. It's the perfect way to enjoy your bourbon on a hot summer night.

Buttered Popcorn

pouring melted butter on popcorn
pouring melted butter on popcorn - Icetocker/Getty Images

Again, remember how bourbon is mostly just distilled corn? That means popcorn and bourbon are basically just brothers from a different mother and the perfect way to snack when you're enjoying a night of "Netflix and chill" with your favorite person. "Movie night gets a grown-up twist with this pairing," says Brauner. "The buttery notes of popcorn resonate with bourbon's own rich profile, making for a delectable cinematic experience."

But here's the thing — if you're going for a grown-up twist by pairing bourbon with popcorn, do yourself a favor and don't use microwavable popcorn bags. Instead, try your hand at a homemade popcorn recipe, like a ranch-seasoned stovetop variety or maybe even a Nutella popcorn that takes advantage of the flavors of chocolate and nuts (ingredients that also pair well with bourbon). If you've never made homemade popcorn before, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to whip up, and you'll feel like you're truly indulging as you sip on your bourbon and throw back a few handfuls of the fresh-popped grain.

Pecan Or Derby Pie

slice of pecan pie
slice of pecan pie - Jenifoto/Getty Images

Kentucky and Tennessee bourbons are quintessentially Southern spirits, so it makes sense that they'd pair perfectly with quintessentially Southern desserts like pecan pie or Derby pie. While you're familiar with the Thanksgiving-favorite pecan pie, if you're not familiar with Derby pie, it's a Kentucky-born sweet that incorporates walnuts and chocolate chips, creating a taste experience that's akin to eating a chocolate chip cookie in pie form.

"The nutty, caramelized flavors of these pies mirror many of bourbon's own notes, creating a symphony of Southern tastes," explains Brauner. In fact, many Derby pie recipes actually incorporate bourbon into the dessert. Given that these pies are also frequently served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top (which, as we just mentioned, pairs beautifully with bourbon), we suggest going all-out the next time you're serving dessert to your friends. Go ahead and make a bourbon-forward pie, serve it a la mode, and pour a shot of bourbon on top. Just make sure you're only serving the treat to those 21 years old and up.

Dried Fruits And Nuts

bowl dried fruits and nuts
bowl dried fruits and nuts - 5PH/Shutterstock

As Brauner has already explained, foods rich in fat and sugar tend to marry well with the strong, deep flavors of a well-made bourbon. While you may not immediately think of trail mix when listing off fatty, sugary foods, the reality is that dried fruits and nuts actually tick both boxes. "Dried cherries and Marcona almonds, in particular, offer a chewy and crunchy contrast, respectively, that plays well with the deep and varied palate of bourbon," says Brauner.

This tip is helpful whether you're looking to pair a snifter of bourbon with an easy snack before bed, or you're trying to build the perfect bourbon-friendly charcuterie board to serve at your next holiday party. With a mix of nuts, dried fruits, cured pork products, pate, cornbread, and chocolate, you can easily set out a spread of appetizers designed to complement an array of bourbons or bourbon-focused cocktails.

Crème Brûlée

creme brulee with fresh fruit
creme brulee with fresh fruit - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

To be fair, unless you're a seasoned home chef, classic crème brûlée isn't likely to be a dessert you regularly whip up at home. It's not because crème brûlée is overly complicated to make or requires unusual ingredients, but unless you have a kitchen torch ready and available to use, it's awfully hard to attain the perfect, brittle crust that crème brûlée is known for, cracking when you hit it with a fork or spoon.

That said, if you're a fan of this baked custard, it's a good option to order when you're at your favorite restaurant, finishing your meal with a bourbon nightcap and an indulgent dessert. "With its layers of vanilla and burnt sugars, this classic dessert finds echoes in many bourbons," says Brauner. To further marry the flavors of the bourbon and crème brûlée, you can double up on the ideal pairings, adding dried cherries and nuts or a scoop of vanilla ice cream to the top of the dessert.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.