If you think of bourbon as a beverage for sipping neat or in a cocktail, over a snack or maybe after dinner, you’re not alone. As U.S. distributors gain access to new bourbon varieties, many serious drinkers already have their own habits around the drink. But that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity to break old habits and try something new. With its caramelly undertones and rich flavor, the right bourbon can hold up to food just as well as a red wine.
Whether you’re looking to sip a little bourbon neat with your dessert or add a cocktail to your main course, here are 10 chefs’ suggestions for pairing our favorite brown liquor with food.
The Best Foods to Pair with Bourbon, According to Chefs
- Panna cotta
- Carrot cake
- Smoked fish
- Sumac-crusted scallops
- Dark chocolate
- Dry-aged steak
- Apple cider-brined chicken or turkey
“A solid bourbon is a great pairing for many a dish, but one of my favorites is a Double Oaked Woodford Reserve — with its fruity caramel notes and slightly sweet vanilla and light spice — paired with a cold, creamy dessert. I would suggest either an orange blossom and fig panna cotta, or coconut cream flan with palm sugar caramel and candied lemon peel. A neat pour of this clean bourbon paired with either dessert is a treat that will make you stop, sip, and relax.” —Patrick Dunlop, executive chef, Stagecoach Restaurant at Shady Villa Hotel, Salado, Texas
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“A great pairing happens when food and drink elevate each other and create a ‘wow’ moment. This was one of them. Looking for ideas, I was reminded of a dinner I had in Cabo last year at a unique restaurant called Carbón Cabrón. I was craving a good mole dish, and they had this smoked duck mole there that was really special. The mole sauce wasn’t spicy but plenty spiced. The combination of smoke, coffee, chocolate, nuts, and citrus was, on its own, a flavor dynamic that wowed me, but the added sip of a cinnamon-smoked bourbon Old Fashioned created a ‘wow’ moment that I still remember today.” —Liran Mezan, director of culinary, Method Co., Philadelphia
“Doughnuts! Anytime is a good time to have a doughnut, and the sweetness and doughiness pairs great with a rich, amber style bourbon.” —Matt Baker, chef-owner, Gravitas, Washington, D.C.
“I love to pair fermented, spicy foods such as kimchi with bourbon. When I dine in a Korean restaurant, I find that it pairs well with anything that is red pepper-based, such as gochujang or gochugaru. I love to sip bourbon with all the banchan that comes with a meal in a Korean restaurant.” —Kevin Tien, chef, Moon Rabbit, Washington, D.C.
“At Carpenters Hall, we’re well known for two things: atmosphere and carrot cake. In my experience, the classic notes of smoke, butterscotch, and vanilla in bourbon are almost tailor made to play well with the dessert; the bourbon does a great job cutting through the decadent frosting and amplifies the toasted pecans we finish the cake with. Most people would reach for a glass of whole milk before diving in, but next time, grab the Pappy from the cabinet instead!” —Thomas Malz, executive chef, Carpenters Hall, Austin, Texas
“My favorite pairing that’s a little wonky is smoked mackerel, peppers, and olives on a saltine cracker. The smoked fish pairs well with bourbon, and the acid on the peppers and olives really works well with the richness of bourbon. The saltiness from it all with the cracker keeps you drinking and going back and forth. Weird, I know, but I grew up eating a lot of tinned seafood with my father late at night after he came home from the hospital. He didn’t drink bourbon or any alcohol, really, but it always reminds me of those late nights eating a tin of sardines or other tinned seafood.” —Michael Bertozzi, senior director of culinary, The Kitchen Restaurant Group, Colorado & Chicago
“We like to wood-fire our scallops with a sumac crust and a roasted pistachio butter. The citrus notes from the sumac and the toasted pistachio sweetness bring out many of the secondary flavors from the bourbon such as the molasses, mulling spice, and herbal notes.” —Martin Murch, chef and co-owner, Good Eats Group, Chicago
“I love to pair bourbon with dark, bitter chocolate. The toasted bitter notes of the chocolate go great with the toasted vanilla-caramel notes of bourbon. We make a dark chocolate, caramel, and bourbon tart — delicious.” —Ashley James, culinary director, Di Bruno Bros., Philadelphia
“I love pairing bourbon with just about any dry-aged steak. The funkier the better! The combining aromas send your palate into a frenzy, then looking for more.” —Justin Nelson, executive chef, The Prime Rib, Philadelphia
“My favorite unlikely pairing with bourbon is chicken brined in apple cider and black pepper. Bonus points if you cook it on the grill! This is also my favorite way to make turkey on Thanksgiving. I usually pair it with Weller bourbon. The sweetness and spiciness of the bird holds up well to the bourbon.” —Colin Wyatt, executive chef, Twelve, Portland, Maine