Every style of whisky is remarkably different, each with its own character and strengths that will work well with food juxtaposed. And, while there’s no doubt that styles as different as a scotch and a bourbon will work differently across pairings, even within those styles there will be a marked difference in how the flavors will interact.
It can be a tricky maze to navigate, but one well worth it for the budding whisky aficionado. Here’s an overview of what whisky styles (and subtypes) that work with different pairings:
What Scotch or Whiskey to Choose?
Scotch is arguably the most variable style of whisky. Each of its many regions impose their unique traits on the malt, and this not only affects what it tastes like alone, but also paired with food.
Islay: This island region of scotch is notorious for its bold, peat-smoked flavor. It makes quite a big statement, and can alienate some whisky fans. In spite of its flavor punch, Islays nonetheless pair very well with certain foods. To avoid overwhelming the flavor of the pairing try to ensure the food also packs a big taste.
With cheeses, the stronger the better — stilton or Roquefort can hold their own against the peat and compliment the malty undertones of most Islays. Chocolate also pairs quite well, the darker the better. Look for high cacao content, as the bitterness and rich flavor will stand up to the bold Islay flavor.
Speyside or Highland Malts: Most scotches from these regions are much subtler in flavor than their island-based kin. As such, the foods they go with can have a subtler flavor profile. Soft cheeses like brie and camembert can come alive with a soft, sweet Speyside dram.
The creaminess of milk chocolate is also nicely augmented by the honey and mild iodine of a Highland malt. Even some mild fruit like cantaloupe matches the easy going honey flavors of these softer scotches.
Begin Pairing Your Bourbon
Bourbon doesn’t have quite the same diversity of scotch, but it still presents drinkers with a wide range of choice, based on the grains used. While all bourbon must be at least 50% corn-based, the rest can use other grains like rye to add spicy, unique character.
Mostly Corn: For bourbon that is largely distilled with corn mash, the flavor usually tends towards the sweeter, with undertones of charcoal brought from its time spent in charred oak barrels. This bourbon works great with barbequed meat like baby back ribs (and is even frequently an ingredient in BBQ sauces!).
It’s charcoal smoke blends nicely with the smoky meat, allowing the sweet, fruity undertones to be brought forward.
The citrus flavors of bourbon can be enhanced when paired with fruits. Be careful — too much citrus can overwhelm the bourbon. A nice sweet tangerine or Clementine will be just the right amount.
Rye it Up: The spiciness that rye grain brings to bourbons that contain it expand the possibility of its pairings. Because of the more intense flavor, pairing it with spicy, Louisiana-style cooking becomes possible. Cajun and rye go hand in hand.
There are different fruit flavors found in rye that do well when paired. Try pairing a dram of rye bourbon with dark cherry — the sweet tanginess of the cherry is a match made in heaven for a fruity dram.
Not only are whiskies like Scotch and Bourbon highly different from each other, even within the style there are major variations. When pairing food with your whisky, consider the flavor profile of the region or substyle you’re drinking.
Big peaty Islay? Better make sure your food has the flavor to stand up for itself. Soft, mellow bourbon? You can ease back a bit and pair something softer. The most important part is to try different combinations to find out what works for your tastes, and what fails to impress. This is merely a good place to start on your whisky pairing journey.