country ham and chocolate food pairings with Bourbons

Pairing Food With Your Bourbon Creates The Ultimate Taste Adventure

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes,
August 4, 2021

Want to make your Bourbon taste even better?

…Yes, that really is possible. You do that by pairing it with food. If you’re thinking, “Isn’t food always supposed to be paired with wine?” the answer is, not always. Trust me, Bourbon and food are made for each other. Keep reading.

A Serendipitous Discovery

Years ago, I was proofing the manuscript of my first book. I was hungry and went to the fridge for some paper-thin slices of country ham. On my desk was a bottle of Bourbon queued for a later review, so I poured some to have with the ham.

The ham was unique for Kentucky: aged 24 months-old and sliced prosciutto style, nicely fatty and not overly salty like cooked country ham is. Its flavors were deep and complex. I took a sip of whiskey to wash it down and was stunned by how good the combo was! More ham slices and more Bourbon followed, and my pace of work slowed due to the pleasurable distraction of what was happening in my mouth.

My first ham and whiskey pairing

Six months later, I convinced the creators of the Bourbon Classic in Louisville to let me lead a seminar on how cured ham and whiskey play well together, and Megan Brier, a brand ambassador for Jim Beam, to be my co-presenter. A week before the event, we gathered two ham curers, two chefs and their spouses to help us determine which country hams would pair best with each of five Beam whiskeys. None had tasted the Bourbon-and-cured-ham combo before, and all were blown away. 

During the seminar, Megan and I walked the 62 attendees through a left to right tasting of lower-proof-to-higher-proof Beam Bourbons and discussed why each paired well with each ham. In the audience that afternoon was Fred Noe, a seventh-generation master distiller at Beam whose father—if you don’t know—was Booker Noe, then-deceased, but well known for his namesake Booker’s Bourbon. Fred shared with the group that he and his dad were lifelong ham curers who’d never considered pairing country ham and whiskey. That event changed him and everyone else in the room.

When, for the fifth year running, we did a whiskey and food pairing at the 2020 Bourbon Classic, the class attracted 156 attendees. The movement is on, baby!

Why food pairs so well with whiskey

Wine pairs so well with food mostly because of its acidity, which creates a pleasant contrast between the wine and food to establish new flavors as they commingle. Other flavors from the grapes, fermentation techniques and aging also influence the experience.

Bourbon, however, is different. It delivers high-proof alcohol that penetrates straight to the palate regardless of what food was just eaten. It produces a cleansing sensation that makes the tongue tingle while enabling it to detect other flavors made available. Riding along with the alcohol are flavors such as caramel, citrus, smoke, honey, grain, dark fruits…and on and on…and those partner closely with the food to produce an elevated effect. Let me explain:

Some food and whiskey pairings merely complement each other, meaning they coexist on the palate without amplifying or degrading each other. Complementary pairings are like a couple who goes out on a date, has a nice time, but probably won’t go out again. 

Other pairings contrast with each other, but not offensively. They just never connect. Though commingled, you can identify their unique characteristics as if they’d never been combined. A contrasting pairing is like a couple who experiences a first date that’s full of electricity but bereft of chemistry. That couple won’t date again, but they’ll stay friends.

An ideal pairing is one in which the food and whiskey unite and form something new. That’s called an elevated pairing. Elevations are the “wow” pairings that make participants say, “I never would have expected to taste that!” Seeing people react like that in a tasting is a thrill. And to strain the dating analogy further, this couple hits it off, marries and creates offspring.

Do this at home. Please!

Since that first pairing with just cured ham and whiskey, I and some industry colleagues have added smoked salmon, pastry, chocolate truffles, caramels, hard cheeses, smoked brisket, smoked ribs, cookies and much more to our pairings. On a lark, I even did a group pairing with Halloween candy just to show it could be done. Let pairings take you wherever your imagination leads!

Here are some basic taste suggestions for getting started.

Fat’s where it’s at! Coating the palate with the fat of ham, chocolate, cheese, salmon, etc., is essential to a good pairing. When the alcohol arrives, you’ll feel it turn that fat and those flavors into something magical.

High proof isn’t foolproof. One-hundred-proof and higher whiskies bring real excitement to pairings through their bold flavors. Pairing smoked brisket with high-proof rye or rye Bourbon will change your life. Still, one of my favorite pairings ever was created by a colleague who convinced our team to combine a small piece of mild bleu cheese smashed onto a piece of milk chocolate and wash it down with Michter’s 83.4 proof American Whiskey. Pure magic! 

Steer clear of really spicy foods. I once tried Bourbon with spicy chicharrones, and it set my mouth on fire. Jalapeno and habanero peppers…only a sadist would suggest those.

Set some limits: If you host a pairing at home, limit the combinations to five or six to avoid palate fatigue. At the end, however, have a few extra bites and pours so people can revisit ones they liked and create their own combos.

And always, stay sober. It’s easy to get carried away amid the fun of a pairing, so remind all your guests to drink responsibly—always.

About Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is a restaurant and spirits writer, and author of multiple books on both. To learn more about private tastings, visit his website for more information. 

Enjoy Like a True Kentuckian: Responsibly