Any restaurant scene worth its salt is likely awash in wine and beer dinners: those lovely multi-course events where each plate comes paired with a specifically curated adult beverage. Though on the rise, cocktail-paired dinners make up but a fraction of the other two, but even that number seems massive compared with the number of meals paired with neat pours of whiskey.
Whiskey drunk neat always seems to bookend a meal: maybe an ounce or so to invigorate the palate en route to the appetizer, and perhaps a heavier pour to complement dessert and digestion at the finale. And why is that, especially amid this American whiskey boom? Why don’t great bourbons and ryes bump the Bordeaux from beside those de rigueur plates of beef?
Though the answers are many, most come down to a a central theme of ignorance. In other words, we’ve not tried it much yet. And neat whiskey won’t get a foothold where Franziskaner and Fumé Blanc reign supreme until spirits fans dive a little deeper into their cups to create these dinners, says author Susan Reigler. In June, she cohosted the first Whisk(e)y Five dinner, one of a series that pairs neat whiskeys from around the world with the food of Village Anchor Pub & Roost executive chef Henry Wesley’s food. Reigler admits, the pairing led her outside her experience with pairing.
“There are big wines, but the alcohol content in whiskey is so much higher, which presents a challenge,” says Reigler, author of “The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book” and the newly released “More Kentucky Bourbon Cocktails” book. “Your chef must be sure to have food that can stand up to the strong flavors in whiskey.”
Especially to contrast flavors such as oak, smoke, and tannin — tastes which Wesley says presents the culinarian with a non-traditional challenge. Unlike wine and beer, whiskey lacks those bright and easily recognized food flavors born of fruit or acid. There, any well-sugared or acidified cocktail will close those gaps easily, but whiskey could miss the mark.
“The challenge for me is whiskey lacks those (similarly) noticeable flavor hints and aromas,” says Wesley. “And since they’re so subtle, picking food that complements them for guests is really the challenge.”
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Wesley’s first menu in the series was paired with Scotch. He opened with a smoked salmon mousse on crostini beside bourbon-braised pork belly with pickled red cabbage and swigs of Chivas Regal 10 year and Johnnie Walker Black. He next paired a Laphroaig 10 year with a salad of arugula and watermelon, followed by roasted lamb chop, rosemary fingerling potatoes, poached pear and roasted broccolini beside a Talisker 10 year. He closed the feast with a buttermilk panna cotta with spiced apple Chantilly cream and splash of Glenlivet 12 year.
About 20 diners took part in the pairing: some nibbled and sipped tentatively, while others dug in and drank with modest gusto. For some, such combinations, their murmuring confirmed, was a move into new ground.
If you Google “paired whiskey dinners,” very little comes up that resembles a neat whiskey dinner. Some links merely list the virtues of drinking grain liquor with your meal, while others provide vague how-to suggestions on pairing at home. Overall, it seems only a few restaurants seem eager to pair Hibiki and hamburgers anytime soon.
In March, The Dorian’s Whiskey Society in San Francisco held a four-course pairing dinner that included Kusshi oysters tied to an unnamed Scotch, smoked American Wagyu short rib with Yamazaki 12 year, and whiskey chocolate truffles with Glendronach 12 year. In April, SALT restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, teamed up with nearby Laws Whiskey House distillery to pair four courses with its wheat, barely, corn and rye whiskeys.
Jason Brauner was well ahead of the whiskey pairing curve when his chefs at Bourbons Bistro began pairing straight pours with dinner 11 years ago. Back then, bourbon was taking off, but it wasn’t on fire as it is now, so master distillers were eager to spend time cohosting those dinners and supplying product for promotion.
“It was all straight expressions, and we did it with everybody, you name it,” Brauner says. “Every Monday of every month, 12 times a year, you’d see Jimmy Russell, Chris Morris, Jim Rutledge, Julian Van Winkle, Fred Noe, all of ‘em. We’d start with a cocktail and move to three courses for dinner with three or four tastes of whiskey.”
Some dinners sold better than others—Maker’s Mark’s “Bill Samuel’s, Jr., was always a hit,” he says—but Brauner and his chefs kept up the pace for years because he felt compelled to further whiskey education.
“My focus has always been … on teaching people about straight whiskey and not covering it up,” Brauner says. “Straight rye is great because the flavor and spice hold up to any layers of other flavors you want to put on top of it. And watching people get it and understand it made it fun.”
But ironically, as whiskey became more popular, his whiskey dinners fell out of favor. Master distillers’ schedules were already booked and brands not needing as much exposure were less inclined to put up hard-to-find bottles that made those events special.
“We had the same following of people for a while, so there came a time when they’d been to them all, heard all the same speakers,” Brauner says. “The fan base, for us anyway, wasn’t growing as much as we’d have liked it to.”
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Brauner stepped away from paired dinners not long after, but he’s considering revisiting the idea with small plates. Not only are restaurant customers eager for more relaxed meals out, they want smaller portions and lower costs.
“They don’t want to invest a lot of time and money, and I get that,” he says. He’s planning a new Summer series dubbed Women in Bourbon, where guests will come for 90 minutes, sip the straight stuff, have a few bites and leave. “Probably pairing it like tapas is the place to be right now.”
This article originally appeared on The Whiskey Wash.