There’s never been a better time to be a bourbon lover. America’s favorite whiskey has gone truly global, with millions of bartenders brainstorming the next creative serve. However, while it’s seemingly omnipresent, there’s one place the drink remains a stranger: the dinner table.
Yet food pairing is a pervasive field, and scattered tips for serving wine, beer, or even sake abound — so what about bourbon? Its flavors are just as ripe for pairing, especially when you’re working with a liquid like Bulleit Bourbon. Every bottle of Bulleit Bourbon begins with a gentle spiciness and smoothes out to maple, oak, and nutmeg tones, making it the perfect prompt for menu planning.
Of course, it’s important to note that proper food pairing is a mix of amplifying tasting notes, textures, and the diner’s overall experience. If you’re working with a liquid like Bulleit Bourbon it’s important to identify the different flavors you want to highlight.
To make things easier we’ve divided our guide up by key flavors you’ll find in every bottle of Bulleit Bourbon and the best ways to highlight each. Read on to explore this famous spirit and learn how to serve it with your favorite foods.
Tasting Note: Smoky Char
For the beginner, there’s one obvious place to start, and it involves heartily grilled proteins. “Bulleit and barbecue has always been one of my favorite food pairings,” explains Adam Geissler, Bulleit’s cultural ambassador for the Northeast. Adam grew up in Kentucky, surrounded by the spirit of Bluegrass. After two decades of building successful restaurants and bars, he knows a thing or two about combining great food and spirits.
“A smoky char is a natural component in both BBQ and whiskey,” he adds. “These similar notes play very well off of each other. Bulleit Bourbon gets this quality from the charred new white oak barrels that it rests in.”
The elegant corn and rye-laced distillate typically matures between five and eight years in the flagship orange-labeled bottle. For the Bulleit 10 Year, age is extended to between a decade and 15 years. Incidentally, barbecue is also something that requires time and patience to perfect, although, thankfully, its brilliance can be realized over a few days of slow roasting.
“Barbecue and bourbon create a harmonious, complex taste profile and work so, so well together,” Geissler says. Specifically, he recommends the flagship bourbon with pulled pork or a St. Louis-style racks of ribs. The 10 Year finds its foil in a tender cut of brisket, while Bulleit Rye holds a nice dry finish that contrasts beautifully against “wet” styles of barbecue such as what you may find in Memphis.
Tasting Note: Toffee and Vanilla
Once you’ve mastered barbecue, it’s time to move into the more nuanced tasting notes that can complement sweeter dishes. Part of what makes spirit tasting so exciting is the skill it takes to identify discrete flavors and trace them back to the distillate’s ingredients or production.
For example, take a second to sit with a sip of Bulleit Bourbon and note how the flavors transform on your palate. Any initial spiciness will melt away into the bourbon’s long, satiny finish that imparts a final light-toffee flavor. Alternating between this sip and a bite of homemade toffee will intensify those final flavors, and provide a key lesson in true bourbon tasting.
Perhaps this is why Geissler can hardly contain himself, and eagerly notes: “My all-time bourbon and food pairing has to be a nice, neat glass of Bulleit 10 Year with a sumptuous bread pudding. It always reminds me of home in the Bluegrass. Bulleit has a wonderful sweetness to its finish — especially the 10 Year, where toffee and vanilla notes collide in harmony with any sweet component of food.”
Try the liquid for yourself with any combination of sticky toffee pudding, Crème brûlée, or even a vanilla butter blondie for a truly decadent tasting experience.
Tasting Note: Oak & Baking Spices
For the wine connoisseurs who remain skeptical about replacing grapes with grain at mealtime, an important public service announcement: “Bourbon can offer the same oaky notes that you find in your favorite wines,” Geissler reminds us. It’s even more versatile than wine if you consider cocktail combinations, where you can dial in specific flavors as desired. “Wine is delicious but lacks the ability for its flavors to evolve or work with other liquids like Bulleit Bourbon does in cocktails,” Geissler adds.
To boost the spirit’s oaky notes, look for cocktail recipes that play off an oak barrel’s natural flavors, and feature ingredients like almond liqueur, nutmeg, or baking spices. These will pair well with savory, buttered breads like biscuits or loaves of pumpernickel, and set a great stage for an eventual neat pour.
Bourbon served neat or in a cocktail made with amaretto (think Almond Old Fashioned) will always complement your favorite board and bring out any nutty, smoky tastes in cheese. Prime examples include Manchego, cave-aged Gouda, or even a slice of Brie –– especially when garnished with roasted pecans or walnuts.
Part of why Bulleit and Brie is a match made in charcuterie heaven is due to the bourbon’s rye spices, which cut through the soft cream and match the more nuanced flavors that arrive in the cheese with age. “Bulleit Bourbon has one of, if not the, highest rye contents in its mash bill [the cereal grains used to make up the fermentation process in making whiskey]. Because of this you get a wonderful bouquet of baking spice in our whiskeys,” Geissler says. “The complexity and lack of flatness makes for an ideal candidate to pair with food.”
But you don’t have to take his word for it. Bulleit has spent more than 30 years building trade partnerships with some of the finest chefs and bartenders in the business. This has resulted in innovative collaborations across the globe, and a multitude of dynamic food pairings.
So during your next visit to a trusted local watering hole or restaurant, ask the hard-working professionals how they arrive at their own perfect pairing with Bulleit. Or explore your own flavors at home. You’ll soon find that discovering your favorite combinations is the best kind of research. Who doesn’t want to raise a glass to that?
This article is sponsored by Bulleit Frontier Whiskey.