Wine pairings at dinner are de rigueur, beer pairings are up-and-coming, but whiskey pairings? I've been to the whiskey and chocolate events, the bourbon and bacon festival, and even a surprisingly successful whiskey and cheese evening, but pairing whiskey with main courses is a daunting challenge. Jefferson's Bourbon has taken on the task and come up with an interesting approach.
The latest release from the small whiskey blending company (Jefferson's exclusively buys and blends whiskeys from other distillers) began as a conversation over food between friends Trey Zoeller of Jefferson's and Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia and Milkwood restaurants in Louisville, KY. "We started to think about what foods would pair well with bourbon," says Zoeller. "When we started to think about pairing whiskey with some dishes from [Chef Lee's] cookbook—pork dishes, spicier dishes, and his fried chicken particularly—it really came together." The best option? A bourbon they designed themselves.
The process took about 9 months, with Zoeller and Lee first tasting samples of potential whiskeys to include, and then innumerable possible blends. It wasn't quite clicking, as the pair wanted a spicier bourbon to stand up to the heat-heavy dishes, but couldn't find the right blend. Finally, they struck on the idea of a bourbon/rye blend: "It was an aha moment—realizing that our rye was right in our face the whole time!"
The result is lovely, softer than most other rye/bourbon mashups. Bottled at 92 proof, it starts with cherry and oak aromas and just a hint of those rye spices in the background. The whiskey is soft and smooth, fruity with peaches and buttery oaky notes, and as the flavors deepen the rye starts to assert itself. But the rye's in more of a supporting role than a one-upmanship that you can see in other blends, just adding an extra dimension of spice and vegetal backbone to the bourbon's profile. It finishes spicy and warm, if a bit quickly, with the rye dominating the lingering aftertaste.
How does the whiskey work with food? Zoeller likes to think of it as akin to sea salt: "You can really enjoy the taste of your bourbon, and really enjoy the taste of your food, and neither one is dominating the other. It's an approachable bourbon, very fruit forward, doesn't bulldoze the taste of the dishes. When you add some rye in there that really does hold up well to spicy food." His favorite pairing is with Chef Lee's spicy Korean fried chicken, he says: "I've woken up at night afterwards thinking about it. "
Jefferson's Chef Collaboration is available in select markets nationwide for ~$40 per 750mL bottle.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films as an independent producer in Brooklyn.
Tasting sample provided for review consideration.