While barbecue styles may vary from coast to coast, one thing is for certain: Whiskey is always welcome at the table, perfectly complementing a spread of smoked meats without filling you up (an important consideration when faced with a wide selection of ‘cue).
Bourbon’s sweetness is the perfect companion to the salt and umami flavors of barbecue, while its notes of vanilla, caramel, and baking spices bring out barbecue’s rich layers of smoky flavor. Small sips of bourbon in between bites help cut through the fat in dishes like pulled pork and brisket, readying the palate for the next bite.
With new whiskey brands seeming to pop up on the market by the hour, we asked 10 barbecue professionals to share their top picks for pairing. In addition to pitmasters, we spoke to several smoke pros who have dedicated their lives to focusing on wood, fire, and meat. And while their brand preferences vary, their impassioned descriptions have us convinced that bourbon might be the only barbecue “sauce” we need.
The Best Bourbons to Pair With Barbecue, According to Barbecue Pros
- Bardstown Fusion and Discovery Series
- Woodford Reserve
- Still Whiskey
- Old Forester
- Jim Beam
- Peg Leg Porker Spirits
“I’m not quite as much of a bourbon fan as I am rye, but if I had to stick to bourbon, I would say my faves are some of the Bardstown Fusion and Discovery Series. That Prisoner one is mind-blowingly delicious! Also in the mix is the 6-year Willett bourbon from the original family still … hot dang!” —Aaron Franklin, owner and chief firestarter, Franklin Barbecue, Austin, Texas
“My favorite bourbon and barbecue pairing is Woodford Reserve. The oak flavor, along with the mild smoked flavor from our pit-cooked meats, pairs perfectly with the wood, spice, fruit, and floral flavors of the bourbon. At Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, I recommend ordering Rod’s Original Whole Hog Pork Sandwich (“The King of the Menu”) with a glass of bourbon. It’s pretty unforgettable!” —Rodney Scott, Rodney’s Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; Homewood, Ala.
“My choice of bourbon is Bardstown Fusion No. 5. This pairs well with barbecue due to its sweet cream and toasty caramel flavors. It’s a bit hot as well, finishing with a hint of bitter citrus notes. Pork seems to be one of the best pairings, having a natural sweetness on its own while being able to carry flavor profiles. Smoked pulled pork finished with a mustard sauce is nice and tangy, a complement to the sweet flavors of Fusion 5. I’d also recommend dry-rubbed spareribs with mild heat. Allowing the Fusion 5 to showcase its heat is important, and balancing out the barbecue with natural flavors is key.” —Brad Prose, founder, Chiles and Smoke, Phoenix
“LeAnn [Mueller] and I love Still Whiskey and are proud to pair it with our famous pickleback shots that we sell at the restaurant. It goes: shot of Still Whiskey, followed by a shot of our house-made pickle juice, and lastly, a bite of our smoky, savory brisket. We find that the sweetness of this whiskey pairs perfectly with the spice and sour [flavors] of the pickle juice and the savory [notes] of our smoky brisket. Shot, pickle, brisket, and repeat.” —Ali Clemm, general manager, la Barbecue, Austin, Texas
“It’s not just alliteration that makes bourbon and barbecue a perfect pair. It’s the sweetness of the bourbon that gives a platform for the salty, smoke-kissed meats that does it for me! I love a glass of Old Forester with my barbecue, especially with Hill Country’s pork spareribs. When that sweet, smoky pig dances with a glass of old Fo’ (Old Forester and I have known each other long enough; I can use their nickname), my heart melts.” —Ash Fulk, executive chef, Hill Country Barbecue, New York City
“I really like to pair smoked brisket with Woodford Reserve Double Oak. Double Oak adds a little heat and spiciness to the brisket, drawing out more umami. Double Oak’s vanilla and smoky oak undertones really come through and feel sweet and velvety in the mouth when paired with oak smoked brisket. I can’t think of a bourbon that tastes better with brisket.” —Matthew Deaton, pitmaster and partner, Allman’s Bar-B-Q, Fredericksburg, Va.
“I’ve really been enjoying Longbranch bourbon as a barbecue pairing. Barbecue is not only flavored by rubs and sauces but also the wood used, which can be considered a regional ingredient. In Central Texas, it’s post oak; in East Texas, they use a lot of hickory; and in West Texas, they use the only thing that grows: mesquite. Mesquite is known for burning super hot and having a really strong aroma, so it pairs best with robust meats like beef. Longbranch is unique because they distill using mesquite charcoal to refine the bourbon, so it has a more interesting finish. I would pair it with one giant Texas smoked beef rib — all the coarse pepper, rich collagen, and smoke need a ballsy bourbon to match.” —Jess Pryles, founder, The Hardcore Carnivore, Austin, Texas
“I like different whiskeys for different meats. For brisket, I like to pair it with Weller C.Y.P.B. It has vanilla notes on the back end that help complete the richness from the rendered fats of the brisket. When eating ribs, whole hog, or pulled pork, I like a little more heat on my bourbon. Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is one of my all-time favorite whiskeys. It has some fruity notes and packs a punch that pairs very well with the vinegar from our barbecue sauces. There is one whiskey that I keep around to share with guests that enjoy a nice pour with their smoked meats. That bottle is Wild Turkey Rare Breed. This bourbon has some amazing citrus notes that go hand in hand with barbecue. If you can get your hands on any of these bottles, I would keep them on hand for your barbecue cook!” —Leonard Botello IV, owner and pitmaster, Truth BBQ, Brenham, Texas
“While life has many complications, barbecue and bourbon shouldn’t be part of it. When I was cooking in the backyards, I had a guest who would drive over an hour to come hang out, and he always brought a bottle of Jim Beam. Those were long nights, and we knew that usually when the bottle was done, so was the barbecue. I would also take some of that bourbon, cook it down a bit to get rid of the alcohol, and add it to the barbecue sauce I made that day.” —Burt Bakman, owner and pitmaster, Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, Los Angeles
“Peg Leg Porker Spirits is a Tennessee bourbon filtered through hickory charcoal, and its smoothness adds depth to any barbecue dish — whether it be brisket, pulled pork, or sausage. Cooked over low heat in a covered grill, brisket brings these joyful things: crusty exterior, tender texture, and the inimitable taste of smoke and beef. There’s a lot going on, and for that, you need an unflinchingly confident bourbon.” —Carey Bringle, owner, Peg Leg Porker, Nashville, Tenn.