Bourbon, America’s “native spirit,” is a natural pairing with other American classics like barbecue and pecan pie. Aged in oak, Bourbon takes on flavors like baking spice, honey, citrus, butterscotch, toast and smoke. Those attributes also make it a surprisingly good match with cheese.
According to Charles Duque, managing director at the New York City branch of the French Dairy Board, such pairings have been offered for at least 20 years, but they’ve become more popular in the last decade.
“Part of this is due to how categories like whiskey and Bourbon have just exploded in terms of availability and popularity,” he says.
Duque recently hosted a pairing of French cheeses with three different expressions of Four Roses Bourbon.
“It makes a lot of sense to pair cheese to spirits, as the fat of the cheese naturally protects the palate from the burn of alcohol,” he says.
Unlike with wine or beer, there really are no set rules for matches with Bourbon.
Jason Brauner, co-owner of Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, suggests lower-proof Bourbons that won’t numb your taste buds.
“As they age, Bourbons can be more woody with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, heat and tannins,” says Brauner. “High alcohol can overpower. If you’re going to pair, choose under 100 proof, 80 to 90 proof is ideal.”
Brauner suggests trying Maker’s Mark, a wheated Bourbon that tends to be a bit sweeter, with creamy cheeses like brie.
But that doesn’t mean you need to completely shy away from higher-proof Bourbons. Michael Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, says richer double- or triple-crème cheeses can soften their sharpness.
Veach first experienced Bourbon and cheese at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, where the spirit is paired with Parmigiano Reggiano. According to Veach, Julian Van Winkle, president of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, cites aged Gouda as his favorite cheese to pair alongside his family’s Bourbon.
Tim Gaddis, founder of Atlanta-based In Demand Cheese, who has selected cheeses for pairing seminars at Louisville’s Bourbon Classic, notes that differences in cheeses tend to be greater than the differences found between Bourbons. As a result, Bourbons can pair well with more than just one style of cheese. You can always add a splash of water to open up a Bourbon’s flavors as well. One cheese Gaddis suggests pairing with Bourbon is bandaged English-style Cheddar.
While wines and cheeses are often paired by region, there aren’t many cheeses produced in Bourbon country. Capriole, located in Indiana near the Kentucky border, and Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese in Austin, Kentucky, are two nearby cheese producers who appreciate its affinity with bourbon.
Capriole crafts goat cheese like O’Banon, which is aged in chestnut leaves that have been soaked in Bourbon. Their stout rind-washed Mont St. Francis pairs well with Bulleit, according to Gaddis.
Van Campbell, director of sales at Kenny’s, likes to match its Kentucky Rose cheese with Maker’s Mark or Old Fitzgerald.
Campbell says that blue cheeses also pair well with Bourbon, especially whole milk or full-fat blue cheese.
More Bourbon and Cheese Parings