This is probably the question I get asked more than any other when people are putting together a Bourbon tasting for friends. I have covered it some in my blogs on Pairing Bourbon With Food and Hosting a Bourbon Tasting. Even so, I have decided to talk in more detail on the subject here and hopefully give a clear answer to the question for those who are inquiring.
Food is an important part of any tasting. If nothing else, people need to eat something while they are drinking to mitigate the effects of the alcohol. The host does not want to send their guests home tipsy. Food also serves two purposes in the tasting itself: as a palate cleanser and to bring out flavors in the Bourbons being tasted.
As a palate cleanser the first thing to remember is to have plenty of water for the tasters. Water is important for not only cleansing the palate, but also as a way to adjust the proof of the whiskey to bring out aromas and flavors. Next there should be plenty of crackers to cleanse the palate. Saltines work fine, but some use oyster crackers or unsalted corn chips. Avoid heavily salted products or crackers flavored in any way. The point is to set your taste buds back to normal for the next tasting.
Food to be served with the tasting should also serve a purpose of bringing out flavors in the whiskey. Ouita Michel’s flavor wheel mentioned in my blog on Pairing Food with Bourbon is a good place to start. An assortment of dried fruit is good. Dried fruit has concentrated sugars as well as the fruit flavors found in whiskeys. I recommend dried cranberries, cherries, apricots and maybe even pineapple.
An assortment of nuts is also good to have for their tannins. Pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and peanuts will also have different effects on the whiskey. Next a good cheese tray is a must. Cheese has not only buttery fats that can coat the mouth and change the flavors of the whiskey, but often salt and smoky flavors. An aged parmesan, cheddar, aged gouda, smoked gouda, brie and other cheeses work well. All are very different in their effects on the whiskey as I noted in my blog on Pairing Bourbon with Cheese.
Next an assortment of meats give umami flavors as well as saltiness that can work well with the whiskey. Thin slices of country ham, salami, pepperoni and other such meats on a tray work well. I recommend fresh fruits. Fresh fruits have not only the sugars of the dried fruits, but can also have some acids that can add tartness to the tasting. Slices of apples, pears, peaches, oranges blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and cherries will all be interesting additions to the tasting. Even green and black olives work well in a tasting.
Finally, an assortment of chocolates should be served. Chocolate has both concentrated sugars but also tannins. Milk chocolates as well as dark chocolates. They each effect the whiskey differently as I noted in my blog on Pairing Bourbon with Chocolate. Even truffles flavored with sorghum or fruit flavors bring out interesting flavors in the whiskey.
After the tasting is over, give the guests something more substantial before sending them home. Ordering a pizza or getting a bucket of chicken is an easy way to serve this need. It is always a good idea to make sure they eat something before letting them leave the tasting. Drinking responsibly should always be part of a good tasting.
I hope this answers the question as to what food should be served at a Bourbon tasting. Bourbon tastings should always be not only a fun occasion, but also an educational event. Food is an important part of any successful tasting.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Veach and Rosemary Miller