An Expert Guide To Pairing Whiskey With Dried Fruits

whiskey dried fruit
whiskey dried fruit - Static Media/Shutterstock

It doesn't get much better than a nice glass of whiskey to finish your night, but not enough of us are going the extra mile and pairing our evening sipper with something delicious to bite down on. When we think of good food and whiskey pairings, most think of rich, fatty food like red meat and chocolate. But we recently had the good fortune of talking with Justin Lavenue, owner and operator at The Roosevelt Room and The Eleanor in Austin, Texas, about an often overlooked food category to pair with: dried fruit.

"Almost every whiskey on the market has notes of fruit within it," said Lavenue. "Whether it be berries, stone fruits, orchard fruits, or tropical fruits." Some whiskeys are more fruit-forward than others but the fun thing about food pairing is you can draw flavors out of a whiskey that might not normally be the first notes that come to mind. You may have a bottle that you have become familiar with but which, when tasted after eating some dried apple or banana, transforms into something entirely new and interesting.

Each genre of whiskey has its own characteristic flavors which means they'll pair better with certain dried fruits than others. We thought it would be worthwhile to take a deep dive into what these pairings are to help you get your bearing on what to look for. This is far from definitive, so treat these ideas as jumping-off points as opposed to dogma.

Read more: The 27 Best Bourbon Brands, Ranked

Bourbon Loves Stone Fruit

old fashioned cherry
old fashioned cherry - Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Bourbon is the quintessential American spirit, distilled from corn and aged in new oak barrels. This gives it a slightly sweeter flavor profile than most other whiskeys with strong notes of oak, vanilla, and walnut. These flavors will often lead people to pair bourbon with different sweet treats such as pecan pie or chocolate cake. Notes of cocoa are so dominant in bourbon that pairing bourbon and chocolate has become almost second nature to many of us, with various bourbon distilleries releasing chocolate products alongside their whiskey.

For dried fruit pairings, we can look at some of the other flavors that bourbon tends to exhibit. "Personally, I often find that bourbon has a ton of over-ripe cherry notes and plum notes," Lavenue told us. "But can also have tropical fruit notes like banana & coconut." This wide array of flavors makes bourbon a highly versatile whiskey to pair with dried fruit.

Dried stone fruits like cherries and plums are a great way to hone in on sweet notes that are simultaneously darker and more mellow. This emphasis on dark stone fruit can pull your tasting experience towards something closer to a sherry or fortified wine. Banana and coconut are less typical flavors but if you find a bourbon with these notes, pairing it with a bowl of banana chips or coconut flakes is a fun way to bring a light touch to the experience.

Berry, Berry Rye

Manhattan cocktail cherry
Manhattan cocktail cherry - Heleno Viero/Shutterstock

Rye whiskey isn't quite as popular as bourbon partly because it doesn't share bourbon's softer side. Rye is a spicy grain that gives rye whiskey strong notes of black pepper and even clove. But rye isn't so simple as to only have one loud note of black pepper ringing out. Lavenue finds that "most ryes have ripe blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry notes."

Mellowing out the bite of rye's spice with dried berries is a great way to draw out the more subtle flavors that otherwise get lost behind the whiskey's stronger notes. If you know someone who doesn't normally enjoy rye whiskey because of how potent its black pepper spice can be, this food pairing could help reveal what else rye has to offer. Another option would be to try high-rye bourbons with dried berries as a gateway into this whiskey category.

If you're having trouble finding dried raspberries or blackberries, consider drying blueberries at home in your oven. The process is straightforward and you'll get a fairly similar flavor profile that's extra delicious because you made it yourself. You've likely also had rye whiskey with cherries if you've ordered a Manhattan cocktail. After all, those delicious Maraschino cherries usually come as a garnish.

An Orchard Of Irish Whiskey

apple whiskey cocktail
apple whiskey cocktail - Aaron Mc/Shutterstock

The aura of upper-class luxury which follows its Scottish cousin has not crossed over into Irish territory in quite the same way, but Irish whiskey is highly regarded for its smooth profile and complex flavors. There are plenty of excellent Irish whiskey brands out there (the most popular of which has to be Jameson) and each brand has its own take on the category but, as Lavenue says, "Irish whiskey has ample orchard fruit notes like apples and pears."

Out of all the dried fruits commercially available, dried apples and pears are some of the more common products. If you're looking for what type of whiskey will go well with these fruits, Irish whiskey is a clear first choice. That said, Lavenue thought there was another contender for the pairing. "Overall, Irish whiskey makes the best pairing for dried apples and pears," he said. "But there are some Japanese whiskies, such as Hakushu, that also have vibrant green apple, ripe pear, and ume plum flavors."

The crisp, tart flavor of orchard fruit transfers well into dried form, and Lavenue's passion for pairing it with Irish whiskey has us chomping at the bit to get our hands on a bottle for ourselves. The 20th century was hard on the Irish whiskey industry for a number of reasons, including Prohibition, and Irish distilleries are only just getting back on their feet. A bite of apple and a glass of Redbreast sounds like just the trick to celebrate the Emerald Isle's whiskey renaissance.

Scotch Goes Best

whiskey with orange
whiskey with orange - Tomas Zhao do Amaral/Shutterstock

When we asked Lavenue what genre of whiskey he thought went best with dried fruit, he said, "My vote is Scotch 100%. It's almost impossible to taste a Scotch without aromas of dried or candied lemon, orange, kumquat, and bergamot immediately jumping out at you." Something in the terroir of Scotland provides scotch with this veritable bouquet of tasting notes, a dimension that gets even more fascinating as you zoom in closer on the different scotch-producing regions scattered throughout the country. In Lavenue's words, "Scotch often gives off flavors of both dark and yellow stone fruit, dried or candied citrus fruits, and also raisins, figs, or prunes depending on which region of Scotland it's produced in."

When you're sitting down to pair whiskey with food, you're often drinking the whiskey neat or with a single rock so you can isolate the flavors of both food and drink. Another reason scotch is a great choice to pair with dried fruits is that the entire category seems engineered to be consumed neat in a Glencairn glass. There are only a handful of cocktails that use scotch, we don't know anyone who's taking scotch shots, and it's relatively uncommon for it to be mixed with anything other than water or soda. These whiskeys are meant to be enjoyed for what they are and pairing food is one of the few ways to mix up your typical scotch routine and add in something different without going too much against the grain.

Smooth Tennessee Whiskey

whiskey on the rocks
whiskey on the rocks - Cavan-Images/Shutterstock

Tennessee whiskey is an interesting category because all Tennessee whiskey could be categorized as bourbon since it meets all of the requirements. The most well-known Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniel's, but there are many Tennessee whiskey brands that deserve praise but seem to be hidden behind the shadow of the behemoth that is Jack Daniel's.

"I think most whiskey aged in new American oak barrels are going to have some banana flavors in it, whether it be green, ripe, overripe, and the flesh or the peel," Lavenue said on the topic. "Within that category, I'd say that Tennessee whiskey, particularly Jack Daniel's, shows the strongest banana notes of any category of whiskey."

We previously mentioned banana as a possible pairing for bourbon so it makes sense that it would come up again here for Tennessee whiskey since they have so many similarities. Most of us have had Jack Daniel's before, but there probably aren't as many who have made the banana connection. That's what's so great about this food pairing is that you can taste a dried banana side by side with the whiskey and, with the taste of banana fresh in your mind, you'll be able to identify the banana notes Lavenue is talking about much easier. Word of warning: Once you taste it you may never be able to untaste it.

Out Of The Box Pairings

whiskey dried fruit
whiskey dried fruit - V_L/Shutterstock

We've talked a lot about the various dried fruits you might typically come across but there's a whole world of fruits out there waiting to be tasted. "Try pairing your favorite whiskies with golden raisins, dried figs, dried apricots, soursop, or lychee," Lavenue recommended. You may be surprised at how many avenues there are to explore in a whiskey. It's unlikely that a bottle will perfectly connect with every fruit in the world, but that doesn't mean you won't discover something unexpected by trying something new.

A great way to set this up would be to get some friends together and have a few bowls of various dried fruits ready for the taking. Have everyone bring a bottle of something they think would be fun to try and go around with each whiskey, sampling different fruits to see how your perception of the whiskey's flavor changes. This way you can see how each fruit affects each whiskey. It isn't so much that you have the taste of dried banana in your mouth and now you're drinking banana-flavored whiskey -- it's that you're remembering the taste of banana and now you're more likely to notice that taste in what you drink. By putting different whiskeys together to try, you'll be able to see the difference between these two since certain fruits will be more obvious with certain whiskeys over others. It has less to do with imparting flavors into whiskey and more about drawing connections in your mind.

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