Skepticism was the common feeling among the crowd during “The Bottle and the Board: How Bourbon Pairs with Cheese,” one of the Bourbon Classic University events held during last month’s Bourbon Classic in Louisville, Ky. Many, if not all of the people in the session, had attended wine and cheese tastings before, but never one pairing the dairy product with America’s native spirit.
Pairing cheese with bourbon as opposed to wine is no surprise to Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar owner Molly Wellmann. She sees the pairing as a natural progression given the huge upsurge in popularity bourbon has been experiencing. “I know that in the last decade bourbon’s popularity has risen in the industry over 100 percent,” she says. “It’s become popular for a few reasons. One is the brilliant whiskey men themselves, who have been creating and remarketing their brands. And two, the fact that the Japanese have been falling in love with American bourbons. … There is also an exclusiveness and limited amount of some brands that make them extremely sought after.”
During the Classic’s event, a flight of five Kentucky bourbons were offered — chosen by The Bourbon Review editor Seth Thompson — with corresponding cheeses selected by Atlanta cheesemonger Tim Gaddis of Star Provisions gourmet market. The cheeses ranged from a nutty, creamy Mont St. Francis, all the way to an incredibly rich, crystalline, positively crunchy two-year aged Gouda.
“Cheese pairs well with bourbon mainly because of the range of complex flavors present,” says Jim Cornwell, operating partner and head butcher of Dutch’s Larder. “From sweet caramel and vanilla, roasted nuts and tobacco, to smoke and dried fruit, all these flavors have a cheese that has a similar flavor note.
I also think that because of the fat content in cheese, it can help mellow the alcohol burn and reveal the underlying nuance that bourbon has.”
Cornwell suggests pairing one cheese per bourbon for a tasting. “The amount is up to you,” he says. “The structure/occasion of the get together, the amount of people, how drunk you want to get, can all factor in with the amount. For me, I can’t get enough cheese, so the more the merrier.”
“I think pairing like-flavors tends to be easiest,” he continues. “A fruity rye like Bulleit will pair up nicely with similarly complex fruity cheese like Morbier or a young Parmigiano Reggiano. A rich, smoky blue cheese from Rogue Creamery will pair up great with a smoky single barrel like Elijah Craig. Have fun with it. Pairings are only limited by your imagination.”
When putting together your cheese platter, Cornwell recommends adding these accoutrements for maximum flavor enhancement: quince or plum paste (it’s a wonderful Spanish accompaniment to cheese, also known as dulce de membrillo), honey and some kind of nuts, like almonds or cashew butter. He also suggests having neutral-flavored crackers on hand; water crackers fit the bill nicely.
If you’d rather leave the work to the experts, feel free to let Dutch’s do the heavy lifting. They can make all the arrangements necessary for whatever kind of tasting you wish to have. Their cheesemonger Rachael Young is one of the tops in the area, and they also have many beer, wine and bourbon experts available for consultation.
Wellmann agrees that serving a bourbon flight is the best way to really experience the differences in each brand and that pairing the spirit with food — especially cheese — is a great way to enjoy the subtle flavors your palate might overlook while just sipping the bourbon on its own. “Pairing these two together is great way to experience the way the salty, creamy and pungent flavors of the so many different cheeses dance with the sweet, yeasty, earthy, vanilla and caramels of the wood in bourbon,” she says.
Wellmann has provided a list of suggested bourbons if you want to tackle your own in-home tasting, as well as a welcoming cocktail recipe for your guests. Try these bourbons in a flight: W. L. Weller 12 year, Corner Creek, Old Forester, George Dickel, Prichard’s Double Chocolate Bourbon, Angel’s Envy Rye, Bulleit Rye, Old Scout Single Barrel Cask Strength and High West Campfire.
And warm up the party with a Remember the Maine rye cocktail.
Remember the Maine
- 2 oz. rye
- 3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 bar-spoons Cherry Heering
- 1/2 bar-spoon absinthe
Instructions: Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir briskly in a clock-wise fashion. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.