Bourbon’s flavors are a result of its aging in charred oak barrels, explains Whisky Advocate, and an understanding of these flavors is essential when pairing the spirit. Undertones of vanilla and caramel are common in bourbon, for example, so it should come as no surprise that ice creams or desserts featuring similar flavors have proved to be consistently enjoyable pairing options. But contrasting flavors, too, can be used to good effect. “When you contrast, you bring out nuanced flavors in the bourbon or food to create a new and unexpected flavor,” Louisville-based chef Annie Pettry told Whisky Advocate.
It’s important to point out, however, that a bourbon’s proof, or alcohol by volume (ABV), plays a major role in its food pairing ability. As Whisky Advocate explains, lower proof bourbons (below 46% ABV) often pair well with lighter foods, like seafood and vegetables, whereas higher proof bourbons (47% ABV or more) need heavier foods boasting bigger, bolder flavors. Bourbon and Banter, for instance, notes that higher proof bourbons pair amazingly well with smoked brisket.
According to Bourbon and Banter, foods with a good fat content — not only desserts or candies, but items like ham and cheese — are typically elevated by bourbon‘s alcohol level, and are therefore excellent pairing options. Spicy foods, on the other hand, are generally not good pairings with bourbon, since the alcohol supercharges their inherent zest and heat.