Bourbon with Cheese
An all-American cheese-and-whiskey tasting reveals the best brown spirits for pairing.
“Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I’d like to think that bourbon has some of the same advantages white wine has over red when it comes to pairing with cheese: the sweetness, the body,” says Sean Josephs, gathering bottles from the mirror-backed shelves that soar to the ceiling of Char No. 4, the restaurant he runs with a partner in Brooklyn, New York. Anne Saxelby, of Saxelby Cheesemongers in Manhattan, is also here, laying out cheeses, and the two pros have offered to help investigate the possibilities of pairing cheese and whiskey—an idea originally sparked by the restaurant’s addictive deep-fried cheddar curds.
Josephs is right: white wine tends to be an easier match with cheese than red, since it has fewer tannins and lighter flavors; slight sweetness is often advantageous, too. “Think of Spätlese or Auslese riesling,” he says, referring to off-dry German wines. “You’re not going to have a problem with those.”
But what about whiskey’s alcohol levels? “One thing we’ll have to play around with is dilution,” Josephs says. This is, however, not a wimp-out. “It’s all about aromatics, the same as in wine.” Sniff it neat, and the alcohol will dominate; temper the alcohol, and the warm wood tones and sweet spice notes come forward.
The wall of whiskey and array of cheese look a bit overwhelming, but Josephs, a former sommelier, reassures us. “When you think about it, whiskey makers don’t have much to work with: it’s just corn, wheat, rye, or barley. It’s not like wine, where there are so many grapes to choose from, and so many possible variations.”
Still, he starts us off gently, with Old Charter 8 Year Old Bourbon. By law, bourbon has to be made from at least 51 percent corn and then aged in new barrels; both contribute sweetness. This one is made from 80 percent corn, and it’s very smooth and gentle. So is Salvatore Bklyn smoked ricotta. “Mmm, campfire,” Saxelby exclaims after a taste of each, recalling a riff on s’mores she once had with this cheese in place of marshmallows. She’s spot-on: the bourbon’s graham-cracker-like sweetness and spice blend beautifully with the creamy, smoky cheese, and the cheese mellows the bourbon’s slight bite. Sneaking in a slice of Frère Fumont, an Idiazabal-style aged goat cheese from 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, New York, we confirm that smoke offers an easy in with bourbon. This cheese, with its dry texture, is even better with Old Weller, a lighter, wheated bourbon.
But what about soft cheeses without smoke? Saxelby unwraps the whiskey-soaked leaves binding the tender, goaty curd of a Capriole O’Banon round while Josephs reaches for Elijah Craig 18 Year. “I have this idea to pair a not-very-strong cheese to a very strong whiskey,” he says. “It might be a disaster, but let’s try it.” In fact, it’s delicious, “like a rich, mellow swirl,” Saxelby says, noting how the two meld into a velvety mouthful of milky cream and fruity sweetness. The bourbon works just as a dab of fruit compote on a cheese plate might—or, as Josephs points out, “in the same way a rich red [wine] paired with a mild cheese can work.”
Funk, on the other hand, is more challenging. “This is like walking right up to a goat,” Saxelby says of the Mont St. Francis (with admiration, of course). It demolishes the George Dickel that Josephs pours. “Tennessee whiskey is always considered the sweetest,” he says, “due to what’s called the Lincoln County Process: it’s filtered through sugar-maple charcoal.” The sweetness tries to curb the funk, but the cheese overpowers it. “We have to unleash the Stagg,” he says, reaching for George T. Stagg. “This is the highest-proof whiskey on the market—it’s almost undrinkable uncut.” A splash of water, however, turns the throat-grabbing heat into rich, smooth, maple-fig flavor. The two meet head-on, alcohol and acid, funk and maple, cooperating as if out of mutual respect.
Hard, sweetly milky cheeses are the easiest—we can’t find a bad match for any of them—but they are also the most surprising. Josephs pours Hancock’s Reserve to accompany Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (“equal parts grass and butterscotch,” Saxelby says). “Calvados!” he exclaims. It’s almost like a bite of apple pie with cheddar. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a cheese so sweet that Saxelby compares the flavor to fermented pineapple, turns savory next to the A.H. Hirsch 20 Year, a whiskey less sweet than many due to its age and the utilization of reused wood barrels. Yet here the spirit tastes sweeter. “Neither tastes like itself,” Josephs says. “But it’s also definitely good,” Saxelby concludes.
Yet blues might be the ultimate winners. Josephs has been looking for an opportunity to pour a rye, generally the spiciest, most savory of the American whiskey spectrum, and the sharpness of the Boucher Blue suggests to him that this is it. Sure enough, Rittenhouse Rye’s spice meets Boucher’s acid prickle and the two ride out in sweet, milky bliss. The creamy Shaker Blue with its mellow tang calls for something more hedonistic, so Josephs reverts to bourbon—Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year. Next to the cheese, it tastes almost like the candied nuts that might accompany it on a cheese plate. The pair is a perfect dessert all on its own.
Reconsidering that part about whiskeys being potentially less complicated than wine, Josephs admits, “These whiskeys taste a lot more unique when you’re pairing them than they do on their own.”
Written by Tara Q. Thomas
Tara is a New York–based wine writer and the author of the second edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics.
Photo by Jeff Shafer
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