Bourbon and Barbecue: The Ultimate BFF Pair
There’s a television advertisement I remember from my youth: Two ranch hands are hanging out on the corral, snacking, when one of them, in an inept attempt to mount his steed, flips over the saddle and spills his treat. “My chocolate!” he laments, to which the other counters, “is in my peanut butter!” It’s not long before the two men realize that, as in the case of Newton’s apple, Archimedes’s bathtub, and Alexander Flemming’s famous mold, they’d landed in the lap of genius by way of pure serendipity. Yes: Chocolate! Peanut Butter! Gadzooks, why didn’t anyone think about combining these things before?!?!
In the land of meat and drink, there are pairings that seldom fail to please: A robust Cabernet with a thick NY strip; bacon and eggs with coffee; spicy Texas-style chili with cold beer; a glass of sweet Sauternes and seared fois gras. I love all of these, deeply and with gusto. However, for me the ultimate pairing of beast and beverage, without a doubt, is bourbon and barbecue. Amidst all the myriad combinations of food and spirits there’s something sublimely gratifying about a good glass of whiskey and a plate of expertly glazed Memphis short ribs, sliced Texas beef brisket or pulled pork with North Carolina vinegar sauce. My love for all things bourbon and BBQ is as strong as the mighty Mississippi, even as strong perhaps as these fine gentlemen, who’ve compiled a comprehensive and finely harmonized guide to the various styles of barbecue throughout the Southern United States:
I’ve thought about this delicious duo often and fondly, especially since I moonlight behind the bar at Brooklyn’s Char no. 4, a restaurant dedicated to purveying not only refined Southern American fare (including barbecue, naturally), but also its vast array of American whiskeys, upwards of 150 strong. And after much meditation, I’ve discovered a number of reasons that the bourbon and BBQ connection is so naturally gratifying. First is the regional connection. Bourbon and American-style barbecue were both invented in the South, and, in the epicurean world, it’s almost always a good idea to pair food with drink that comes from the same basic geographical region. Speaking of which, both of these delights are quintessentially American, especially bourbon, which was declared America’s dedicated spirit by federal law. (A resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1964 declared bourbon to be a “distinctive product of the United States.) Hence, combining a nice glass of Pappy Van Winkle with a carefully tended low-and-slow pork butt, you’re engaging in something of a patriotic act. God bless America!
Then, of course, is the matter of flavor pairings. Since it’s made up of mostly corn — a minimum of 51%, by law — bourbon has a characteristic sweetness to it that marries perfectly with taste profiles of many barbecue sauces. More importantly, though, is the fact that bourbon is matured in a new, charred oak barrel. Over time, the whiskey picks up color and flavor from the charred wood, so that the finished product possesses a richness and complexity that does nothing if not bring out the accents of maple and smoke that make truly great barbecue such a magical thing to savor. Also to note: bourbon is traditionally a sipping spirit; one’s meant to take his or her time with a glass, to enjoy it langorously rather than just knocking it back like a shot of Jagermeister at the college sports bar, much in the same way good BBQ should be both prepared and appreciated: slowly, thoughtfully, and, yes, with love. Shoveling it all in as quickly as possible? We’ll leave that to the yankees, thank you very much.
Another wonderful thing about bourbon is that, unlike most other spirits, it functions splendidly as both an aperitif and a digestive. A nice glass of something smooth, a wheated bourbon such as Maker’s Mark or W.L. Weller Special Reserve, say, kicks the appetite into first gear, so that by the time your rib rack arrives, you’re ready to go to town. At the other end of the meal, once you’ve done your best caveman homage and left nothing left on your plate but skeletonized beef bones and a smear of sauce, a “hot” (ie. high alcohol content) bourbon, such as Booker’s or Buffalo Trace’s George T. Stagg (over 140 proof, weeeee, doggies!!!) does an amazing job of cutting straight through the meal’s considerable heaviness and helping one go about the business of digestion.
And ultimately, as much as those cowpokes’ faces were set alight by the discovery that chocolate and peanut butter are “doggone good!” any real rough riding rancher worth his salt would undoubtedly prefer a plate of hot ribs and three fingers of Kentucky’s finest at the end of a long day roping doggies. That’s what I’d want. Hell, that’s what I want right now. Can you blame me?
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