Say howdy to the best American BBQ partner around – bourbon. We asked a US whiskey expert to give us the lowdown on pairing bourbon with BBQ food favourites.
Planning to fire up the barbecue on the long weekend? If you love sweet and smoky flavours in your BBQ food, why not go all out with a stars’n’ stripes spin on the classic Aussie backyard barbie – we’re talking sticky glazed wings, spice-rubbed steaks, fat juicy burgers and fall-apart tender meats, served with sides like soft tortillas, crunchy slaw and Southern style cornbread. Then stock up on drinks that are spot-on pairings for smoked meats and other American BBQ favourites – that means bourbon. For some top tips on which bourbons pair best with what, We asked our bourbon expert mate Simon Rose-Hopkins – co-owner of Jolene’s Sydney and beverage director of the American Whiskey bar and New Orleans inspired smokehouse NOLA Sydney – to share some of his favourite bourbon buys and tell us what makes them stand out.
Simon loves being asked about the difference between bourbon and other types of whisk(e)y. “There’s a saying, ‘All Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon’,” he says. “Bourbon is the most regulated whiskey type in the world – it has to follow strict laws regarding its production, aging and even the labels on the bottle.” To be called a bourbon, a whiskey must be made in any US state or territory, and it must be made from a grain mix made up of at least 51% corn. Brand-new oak barrels are charred before being used to mature the whiskey. “The use of virgin oak casks together with the American climate means you get maximum transfer of the oak to the whiskey, which gives a much fuller flavour with vanilla and baking spice notes,” says Simon. “That’s what makes US whiskey pair so well with smoked meats and barbecue.”
For Simon, the right way to drink bourbon comes down to individual tastes. “Personally, I like a bourbon aged between 6 and 10 years,” he says. “If you’re mixing with cola, a higher ABV bourbon will help cut through that cola. If you prefer to drink bourbon neat or over ice, something with 40 to 45 per cent ABV won’t overpower your tastebuds.”
One of the oldest producers of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey – the distillery became a national landmark in 2013 – Buffalo Trace has a long history of bourbon making, “so they’ve learnt a few things over that time,” Simon says. “The Kentucky climate is perfect for aging whiskey barrels because the hot, dry summers followed by cold winters pushes the whiskey in and out of the oak, which gives it about 80 per cent of its flavour.” Simon explains that a straight whiskey is always 100 per cent whiskey with nothing but water added to it – absolutely no additives or colourings – and it must be aged a minimum of 2 years with an age statement or 4 years without. “If you pick up a bottle of ‘Kentucky Straight’ whiskey, you know you’re getting a quality bottle,” he says.
Pair it with: Sticky BBQ ribs – think a classic rack of American pork ribs or chunky beef short ribs, slow cooked until succulent and finished on the barbecue with a smoky BBQ glaze.
Why it works: “Buffalo Trace has those cinnamon, vanilla and toffee notes I love in a bourbon,” says Simon. “I’m all about matching and enhancing, sweet on sweet.”
Want to try a craft bourbon? Look for one labelled ‘small batch’ such as Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon. “A ‘small batch’ might be anywhere between, say, 10 to 100 barrels,” Simon explains. “Legally, it must be smaller than the largest batch you produce. But the real craft of small batch bourbon is maintaining flavour standards – with such a small amount of barrels in each batch, there’s nowhere to hide so you have to ensure every drop is correct.” Simon recommends Elijah Craig for mixing bourbon cocktails at home – “it’s 47% ABV, so it can stand up to some soda water, cola or even sweet tea,” he says.
Pair it with: BBQ chicken wings or thigh fillets, coated in a Texan-style dry rub and charred on the barbecue. “At NOLA, I would have this bourbon with a blackened fire-roasted chicken,” says Simon.
Why it works: Give it a swirl and you’ll see why. “This bourbon has those ‘legs’, meaning it’s full-bodied and can pair with something bolder with a little spice,” says Simon.
Jolene’s most popular whiskey, Jack Daniel’s belongs in a different category of bourbon known as Tennessee whiskey. That label doesn’t only tell you where it comes from. “It means it has followed a step that’s truly unique to Tennessee whiskey, called the “Lincoln County Process”, where the whiskey is passed through charcoal before it gets put into its barrel,” Simon explains. “Nearly all the Tennessee producers use sugar maple timber they burn and turn into charcoal – Jack Daniel’s actually uses high ABV whiskey to start the fire!”
Pair it with: Before getting your mates over for the afternoon, stock up on these cans for your esky, then grab some beef for your barbecue. “I love a cheeky Jack Daniel’s and cola premix with a nice bit of smoked brisket, with a simple dry rub of salt and pepper and some smoky bbq sauce on the side,” says Simon.
Why it works: Sweet on sweet, sweet and smoky – you can’t go wrong with this flavour pairing. And the reason Jack Daniel’s and Cola is such a great combo? “The flavour compound in oak called ‘vanillin’ is the same stuff in a vanilla bean, so when the whiskey is aging it picks up a lot of those vanilla notes,” says Simon. “That’s why it’s so good with cola – they complement each other so well.”