After the season of goodwill and overindulgence, it’s time for a little calm 

Written by Peggy Noe Stevens

Complicated is not sexy. Not with relationships, finances and above all Bourbon tastings, which of course sometimes rule over both relationships and finances, but that is for another magazine author. All I know is that in my many years of food and beverage training, beginning with my jaunt in the hotel industry, countless experts in wine and other products tried to show who was smarter. Often they would do this by complicating and intimidating us poor trainees with tons of moxy-talk that just made tastings and pairings, well… complicated. Truly, you do not have to have a sophisticated palate to enjoy a good pairing. Possibly just a little imagination and above all simplicity. Simplicity can be elegant and so can your tastings.

You will always find certain flavors in a Bourbon that might be universal in nature and will appeal to the senses at the same time. The reason behind this is the array of inherent flavors produced in the production process. Take barrels for example – flavor descriptors usually speak to the cherry, clove, vanilla and smoke notes. The majority of cask wood used for Bourbon speaks to these, with yeast, a nutty, doughy note and hints of bright fruit. Here are some very traditional flavors we find in Bourbon, which may delight or surprise you somewhat, but hey, that’s whiskey showbiz… we all have varied taste profiles we like. Lovely to meet you, says the simple food to the Bourbon and then the spirit can embrace politely, or bite back a bit to guide your tasting experience.

Food flavors we detect in almost every bourbon:

Sweet
• Vanilla
• Caramel

Earthy
• Nuts
• Oak and wood

Spice
• Pepper
• Baking spices

Yeasty
• Bread that can range from biscuit to pumpernickel

Grainy
• Grains can range from corn sweetness to spicy rye

What can I say, there aren’t too many Bourbons in which I do not detect some level of intensity in the flavors mentioned. This is where Mother Nature and science meet. The decisions that a master distiller makes during production will vary the intensity of each category and evolve the base flavors into new and exciting complexities, along with Mother Nature’s hand of temperature, geography and of course age. 

You may also dial up or down the flavors of these simple foods to create the level of descriptor for each of the Bourbons. An example may be cherry flavor – is it light white cherry, or dark Bing? That would be the simple food you use during the tasting. Is it a light caramel, or dark like brown sugar flavor in the Bourbon? Your choice to pick the simple caramel sample (light or dark) for your pairings. In my upcoming book with friend and expert Susan Reigler, Which Fork do I use with my Bourbon, we discovered that the following simple foods can also play a role on the effect of flavor you are trying to promote. 

My best advice for a simple pairing is to create a balance to the flavors of the Bourbon and pay attention to the style of the whiskey. Balance means to complement. Take an existing flavor in the whiskey – let’s say a Bourbon has some nice honey notes, then pair it with a drizzle, or dollop, of honey to bring it out. Hints of orange? One small slice of an orange, or mandarin can do the job quite nicely.

EffectFood
Balances the fruit notesDried cherries or cranberries
Buries the fruit and amplifies the oakPecans
Brings out chocolate and/or vanilla notesMilk chocolate pieces
Blends all elements back togetherA chewy caramel candy
Helps cleanse palate between BourbonsOyster crackers or unsalted crackers
pile of pecans

Effect

Timing is everything

Preferably, try and have your simple pairing prior to dinner to release all those great taste buds and have focus with the Bourbons. I always get a kick out of doing a tasting after a dinner party. I need to work twice as hard to pull out flavors for the guest after their palate has been accosted by the myriad of flavors they taste during dinner, not to mention the cocktail hour. It’s like trying to steer a car that lost its brakes. Sure, I ask them to rinse a bit by taking a sip of water, but it’s tricky. This is where simple foods for simple tastings is even more important. As they are full from dinner, you can actually try each simple tasting item intensely without over-filling them. An example would be chewing and enjoying the multi-dimensions of pecan’s earthy and bitter notes, as opposed to offering a pecan pie bite with the whiskey.

Another beauty of the simple tasting is sheer prep time. All the culinary items mentioned for pairing are easy to purchase and can fit onto one plate to save you time in the kitchen, allowing you to actually enjoy spending time with guests. Nor do you need to break the pocketbook by buying eccentric grocery items to create a food pairing.

Another part of timing is sequence of the simple foods. Keep texture in mind and help your palate out by graduating the flavors instead of sending your mouth into shock by starting with cinnamon. I also never begin with chocolate because it will coat your tongue and confuse the palate on the next small bite. Instead, look for the fruit first. That is a good slogan to any pairing: fruit first. It is the least likely to get in the way of the passé of flavors yet to come. Put the nuts somewhere in the middle of the tasting. Yes, they have great flavor, but the texture of the nut is coarse on the tongue and a perfect tee-up to the next sweet venture on the plate. See the intensity sequence scale below.

Dried Cranberries

Follow the intensity sequence scale

Fruit-light, sweet-light, spice-yeasty, earthy-heavy, sweet-heavy and spice-smoke.

Again, this is purely a suggested intensity guide, as grains can go from sweet (like corn) to spice (like rye). It is about tasting the whiskey first and deciding what you choose to balance with the simple food.

What an easy, breezy tasting that is not complicated or fussy in the slightest. It is pure and simple, that’s the trick to making an enjoyable tasting for all your Bourbon lovers while not overwhelming you in the kitchen. It seems that over my time of sipping cocktails and enjoying a parade of fine cuisine, I keep gravitating to the chefs and mixologists that keep it simple and pure for me. No garden garnish in my cocktail and no foam hors d’oeuvres (remember that culinary fiasco?) with 22 other distracting ingredients on top of a dime-sized crostini. Good grief. So, give it a shot (literally) at your next tasting and see how your guests react and appreciate a well-balanced and simple tasting!

whiskey pouring into glass

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