Issue Four Whiskey and Food

The invasion of Asian flavors with Bourbon

Americans have fallen in love with cultural cuisine 

Written by: Peggy Noe Stevens

Stop being skeptical. That’s the look I sometimes receive from guests during a food pairing when I tell them we are pairing Asian food with our Bourbon selection. They will immediately say Asian flavors are too strong, or too much heat. Too strong? Have you not met Bourbon? It’s quite the opposite when you do it correctly and the fascination of those delectable flavors is nothing in comparison to the wild fascination we now have with Asian cuisine. It’s an invasion of Asian flavors and your palate will say, “thank you, I feel exotic.” It’s why Americans have fallen in love with global and cultural cuisine.

There is such a range of Asian flavors and a comprehensive variety of ingredients, so to simplify with pairings, focus on the classic sauces and additions of flavors added to make your dish what it is. The core of the meat, fish, chicken, rice or noodles is secondary in comparison to the pronounced effect these sauces or pastes establish. We will focus on four distinctive and diverse ingredients to your everyday Asian condiments: soy sauce, teriyaki, chili sauce and wasabi.

Just like Bourbon, when conducting a food pairing, begin with the lighter side of the spectrum and work your way to the ‘takeover’ heavier flavors so your palate has a chance to graduate. The rest speaks for itself.


It is more heavily flavored and blends sweet and salty. To taste Teriyaki in pure form, I can delineate garlic and ginger and sesame. Some Teriyaki can even have touches of citrus notes. Many a marinade is used with Teriyaki because it does not overpower the meat, but instead glazes and fine tunes bringing out a raised kaleidoscope of tastes.


Savory and salty. Soy sauce is used as a condiment in most instances, like adding bitters to your cocktail, or salt to your soup; yet has its own distinguishable taste. It is made from fermented soybeans, salt, water and sometimes roasted grains (I like that connection of grains with the grains of the whiskey). Always highlighted on the palate is earthy, umami flavor (umami is known as the fifth flavor sense). I consider it an all-purpose seasoning. It is a flavor-enhancer and really amplifies the cuisine.


You can see the hot red chilis that are blended in a great Asian chili sauce and have varying levels of heat intensity. Here we have the sweet and spicy combo, as sugar, garlic and herbs may be blended with the peppers to provide a nice balance. Dipping sauces galore have chili sauce on the side of dishes.


Put on your seatbelt because when wasabi is in pure form, it is just like a truly souped up Japanese horseradish. It’s hard to believe it is a relative to the watercress family, as watercress is light. Sometimes blended in soy sauce to add the sing to your sushi or blended with mayonnaise for a racier sandwich. Wasabi is a root and can be shaved, but many people may just mix horseradish, mustard and soy sauce to mimic the flavor.

So, what is our end game with Asian food and Bourbon? I was taught a very long time ago that the end game with tasting and sampling Bourbon was to create complexity with pronounced individual flavors, yet establish ‘harmony’, so the flavors all play nice. The very same applies to this Asian application. With this wide variety of bold and intense to savory and subtle, pull out the Bourbons that will play nice with these international flavors. Always taste the Bourbon first and profile for its distinctive characteristics and then the food flavors. The intricate puzzle pieces begin to reveal themselves. What do I want from the myriad of Asian flavors and Bourbon? Complexity and harmony are the goal, so rate the intensity and go for the big caramel and sweet, yet complex Bourbons to envelop and tame the Asian flavors to produce a unique and desirably deep taste.

Quickly you establish a pairing that will lay the foundation to the Asian dish. When the meat, fish, or chicken is added, umami abounds and brings the earthy goodness that plays nicely to the umami essence of the Asian condiments. 

Go extra with the basil, lemongrass, coriander and sesame based on how you wish to punctuate and accentuate the herbaceous notes of the Bourbon.

Pairing Asian food with Bourbon is not like learning Chinese math (no pun intended). It is truly straightforward when you focus on the flavors and develop the breakdown of profiles to heighten the harmony. Enjoy the virtual trip around the world with your senses and explore the truly exotic flavors that Bourbon can bring to Asian cuisine. 

This, by the way, is also the fun part.

Below we have chosen the following Bourbons:

Old Forester 86 proof

• Caramel
• Pecan
• Vanilla
• Chocolate
• Soft black pepper
• Banana
• Slight licorice

Rowans Creek Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey 100 proof

• Marshmallow
• Subtle Ginger
• Honey
• Citrus
• Chocolate
• Leather
• Raisin
• Apple

Now, dare to compare.  Allow the Asian flavors to rear their head and create spikes, then take a sip of perfectly paired Bourbon to tame. 

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