Pairing fine food with whiskey is as much a thing as pairing food and wine, so pairing cocktails and spirits to your Yuletide meal doesn’t need to be a daunting task.
We make serving perfectly paired drinks simple by separating a typical holiday dinner into courses, and offering suggestions on the whiskey to serve with each course.
First tip: pairing booze with a feast should run in courses much as wine would in tandem with the food itself, and a simple format to follow is aperitif, main course, and digestif (before, during, and after the meal).
Pairing with Aperitif
One of the ironclad rules about a before-dinner drink is that it should be light and relatively low alcohol to avoid blowing the taste buds before the meal, so put the barrel proof stuff away for later. My enthusiastic choice for an aperitif sipping whisky is Compass Box’s Hedonism, a combination of many Scotch grain whiskies that are brought together and then given up to two extra years of aging. It’s light, elegant, and balanced. Hedonism is the sort of thing I imagine seeing Emily Mortimer (attired in a black evening dress, of course) sipping on across the room.
Some think straight whiskey is too strong to serve as an aperitif, and at the same time, the hosts of a big meal have enough to do without having to whip up sophisticated cocktails for all their guests. If you find yourself without someone to delegate bartending tasks to, and straightforward alternative to starting the evening and stimulating appetites is to serve Wild Turkey American Honey on the rocks, with a splash of soda and dressed up with a dash of bitters. Angostura bitters are fine; lavender bitters also work well.
Pairing with Main Course
The main headache of pairing anything with a Holiday season feast is the sheer variety of what might be served at the center of the table. Below are eight common choices paired with a particular whiskey.
Duck and Angel’s Envy Bourbon: The plum-sweetness imparted by the Port barrel finish blends into the natural brown sugar and vanilla flavors of bourbon to make an ideal counterpart for duck.
Goose and Glendronach Peated Portwood Finish Scotch: A roast Christmas goose will put plenty of rich dark meat on the table, and the smoky, fruity, and full-bodied profile of this Glendronach single malt will stand up to helping after helping.
Ham and Woodford Double Oaked Bourbon: As any barbecue-whiskey enthusiast will tell you, pork and bourbon were made for each other. The honey or sugary glazing that goes onto a roast ham demands that bourbon is even sweeter, however, and that is where Woodford Doubled Oak steps in. The two rounds of new oak aging give it the barrel-forward vanilla flavor a roast holiday ham calls for.
Lamb and Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey: If anything on the list has a stronger, more particular, and richer flavor than the goose mentioned above, it is roast lamb. Dad’s Hat makes its whiskey in the revived Pennsylvania style: all rye or malted rye, no corn. Brawny and spicy, it will complement lamb in much the same way that curry does.
Sweet Potato Latkes and George Dickel 13 Year Old Bottled in Bond: Dickel’s middle-aged, bonded expression was the first at-bat for new Master Distiller Nicole Austin, and has earned high marks for its mellow, sophisticated character. An interesting, very Tennessee twist on latkes is making them with sweet potatoes and pair them with this whiskey.
Tofurkey and Basil Hayden: I’ve found the main risk in pairing whiskey with vegetarian staple, tofurkey, is that the “flesh” is often more substantial in its texture, but also lighter in flavor than real turkey. Those characteristics require a little contrast as well as complementing, so light, dry, and spicy is the way to go. When I think of those elements, I reach for Basil Hayden.
Turkey and Maker’s Mark: The classic roast turkey, with its mix of moist white and rich dark meat, calls for the well-rounded, softened flavor profile of Maker’s Mark.
Pairing with Dessert, Digestif
We live in informal times, and after a big meal, guests are as likely to skip dessert as to anticipate it eagerly, so your after-dinner whiskey pairing should serve both roles. Dessert whiskeys need to be sweet and full-bodied, while digestifs should have high alcohol content. Michter’s Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Rye checks both boxes. This fan-favorite whiskey has picked up plenty of sweet vanilla flavor from its two rounds of new oak barrel aging (much as Woodford Double Oaked, listed above) while retaining some robust rye spiciness. Moreover, it ranges from 108- to 112-proof, enough to help with digestion while remaining an approachable sipper to most anyone who enjoys neat spirits.