November is a special month in New England, bringing forth imagery and tradition from the days when our great country was just beginning. It all leads up to a big day of celebrating American tradition with a great feast and gratitude for what we enjoy in life.
I enjoy Bourbon – a distinctive product of the United States (said Congress in 1964) – and would like to encourage anyone interested in whiskey to explore this traditional spirit as you take time to relax and enjoy the Thanksgiving season.
Discussions about pairing wine with food are quite familiar around Colonial Spirits with a trio of serious wine enthusiasts and many more who like to cook on staff. It is also one of our most common questions from customers. As well, it is not uncommon to confer about beer pairings as more people seem to be finding an interest in that tradition. For as much time as I spend chatting with folks about whisk(e)y, talk of aligning it with a meal is rare.
Bourbon is often regarded as a situational drink, to be sipped when the moment is right. Head down south and you’ll find that those moments are pretty frequent. Although it would be fun to come up with a list of ‘appropriate’ moments for a dram, a meal is an easy set of instances where your favorite American (or other) whiskey fits in.
Before, during and after a meal are all times to reach for a rocks glass. As the evening begins your palate is fresh and welcomes the nuances of bourbon. Now is the time to choose something not too old and focus on what the whiskey is made from (the mash bill). Bourbon is at least 51% corn in the mash and is only aged in new American oak barrels. The rich, full character of corn and the bold oak infusion can easily over shadow the subtleties of the liquid if you aren’t looking closely. Look beyond the vanilla for fruity undertones, dried nuts and the character of the other grains in the mash. Try adding a little water. The night is young and it’s a fine time to ponder and discuss the finer points of Bourbon.
Once the meal is under way drinking bourbon is a very different experience. The finer points are likely to be lost and the flavors at the forefront will shape the experience. A tiny sip will clear you palate completely, making Bourbon a great match for a pile of hearty flavors. I am not sure that I could recommend whiskey for a chef’s specialty meal where delicate food offers precise essences. Beyond palate cleansing, a flavor match is always something to appreciate and the caramelized nuts, vanilla char and sweet and spicy finish match quite well with a lot of American fare as well as dessert. A well aged Bourbon will fit here. Older Bourbon has much to offer, but don’t worry about what you might be missing. Enjoy the soft character and what the extra years in the barrel have produced as these flavors tend to dominate more as time goes on.
As the evening presses on and you have a chance to relax after the feast it is time to wash away the meal and the frenzy of the day. There is no better time to find your favorite dram and unwind. This moment is truly a whiskey-for-the-mood moment. Bourbons with lots of rye are spicy and lively and entertain your tongue. Wheated Bourbon is rich and soft on the tongue, mellow and persistent. Each maker and each aging bring differences – so much so that one can explore this spirit for years.
Much admiration is giving to ‘the little things’ in life and whiskey is certainly one of those. Tradition, passion and history make America’s whiskey some of the best in the world. There is much more than distilled grains in your glass. I hope you’ll enjoy your exploration and discover more than you thought possible.