Summer is the time to pull out the smoker and fix some ribs or pulled pork or brisket. So the question is, “What do I drink with this food?” Smoked cocktails are the rage today and if done right, they would pair well with food from the smoker. However, a cocktail that is too smoky will just taste like drinking liquid smoke. There has to be a balance. I thought I would look at this subject in some detail.

Pairing whiskey drinks with smoked meats can be difficult. The drink should do one of two things. It should either enhance the smoke or complement the smoke in the meats. There are many whiskeys made today that have a smoky flavor. There are cocktails where smoke is part of the drink. This is achieved in one of three ways. 

  1. The most common method is to add smoke to the cocktail. Handheld smokers produce a stream of smoke that can be used to smoke the cocktail directly. 
  2. You could also smoke an ingredient of the cocktail on your smoker. Place slices of orange or other citrus fruits as well as cherries, and use these fruits as garnish or muddle them in the glass for an old fashioned cocktail. 
  3. The final option is to use liquid smoke in the cocktail. I tasted a drink that used liquid smoke in the ice. Do not overdo it or the liquid smoke will make the drink taste of creosote. A single drop may be enough or even too much.

To enhance the smoke is the hardest thing to do. Using smoke flavors in the drink is a way to enhance the smoke in the meat. Be careful if you make a cocktail using one of the methods mentioned above. If your cocktail is too smoky, the flavors will be too strong and taste like chewing on a piece of charcoal or drinking creosote. One bartender used cinnamon stick that were lit and then stirred in the cocktail that had a good balance of smoky flavor in the drink. If you want a whiskey neat or on the rocks, Tennessee whiskey often has a bit of smoky flavor that would be enhanced with smoked meat.

Complementing the smoke is the better way to go in my opinion. Sweet and fruity flavors in a whiskey or cocktail will pair well with smoked meat. That is why Bourbon is commonly added to barbeque sauce. A Bourbon that has a lot of caramel and vanilla flavors is the place to start. A Bourbon with notes of apples, peaches or berries is also very good. Examples of good Bourbons or Rye Whiskey that pair well are wheated Bourbons like Maker’s Mark or Wilderness Trail wheated Bourbon. Sazerac Rye has peach notes and lots of vanilla. 

Cocktails are another good way to complement the flavors of smoked meats. An old fashioned cocktail or a Manhattan have the fruit notes and a whiskey sour made whiskey-forward will work as well. I would use smoked fruits as a garnish for a Manhattan or whiskey sour, so as to prevent too much smoke in the drink. Check your cocktail before the guests arrive so that you get the correct balance, and if it is not overly smoky, there is no harm in having a cocktail before guests arrive. 

Having friends over and cooking out on the grill or smoking some ribs is a great way to entertain in the summer. A good whiskey or cocktail can enhance the experience. A bad pairing can put a sour note on the evening. A little homework before the guests arrive can make the day perfect.

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