By Tisa Conway-Cunningham

Bourbon — 51% corn, though 70-80% corn is preferred. Common additions can include wheat, rye and barley. Any combination of other grains could be included, but the traditional go-to is wheat and rye for smaller grain additions. Add wheat and add sweeter. Add Rye and spice it up. In Kentucky, we are all about that limestone-filtered water. Yeast. At max, 160 proof off the still. Stored in charred new oak containers.

That is the basic recipe for its success. Each adds layer upon layer of flavor, and its corn dominance yields a sweeter base than that of scotch. Milled grains + limestone (cooked and fermented) = mash. Add yeast and ferment. Each uses its own proprietary yeast, adding unique quality distinction in each brand’s flavor profile. Variations in the temperature, location of barrel storage and differing types of oak all add to that beautiful bourbon flavor.

To taste it is an adventure within itself. Toasted Oak is a given, but it can also include imprints of pine and cedar too. Tastes of caramel and vanilla create a sweet and sometimes buttery accent on your pallet. Notes of fruit cobbler may dance around your taste buds, while spicy cinnamon, black pepper and other spices kick it up a notch. There are bourbons that express hints of cocoa, toffee, chocolate, maple, honey, pecans, walnuts, almonds and other tasty bits. No matter what, each sip of bourbon is a journey.

Bourbon is bold. So, pairing food with bourbon or cooking with bourbon can be problematic because it can easily take over your pallet and overpower subtle flavors. An important fact to remember about pairing with or cooking with bourbon is to use bold flavors that will either pair well with or lend itself to the natural undertones of bourbon flavors. Long story, short, think, smokey, sweet, buttery, bitter, salty, savory and spicy bold flavors. Bourbon can create and up the anti for any food and bourbon pairings if used the right way.

I know it usually comes at the end of the meal, but there is an easiness that comes with cooking with or pairing bourbon with desserts. By design, desserts can easily be rich, buttery, spicy, bold and sweet. All these notes can be accentuated with the addition of bourbon. Adding bourbon to, or next to a chocolate chip walnut brownie, peach cobbler, apple crisp, butter cakes with caramel icing, red velvet cake, jam cakes, Derby Pie or Chocolate Cherry cookies seems like second nature. Each flavor in these desserts accentuates can perfectly accompany the complex flavors of bourbon.

Kentucky bourbon and bread pudding is a thing. You can almost guarantee that if you are indulging in a bread pudding in Kentucky, then you will be enjoying a sauce with bourbon or an infusion of bourbon. Bread puddings are like dessert casseroles, they are full-flavored, rich and buttery. With a bread base (grain), bread pudding is a natural pairing with bourbon. Cinnamon, nutmeg, pecans, raisins and other fruits all pair with bourbon seamlessly and provide a symphony of flavors that pair perfectly with bourbon whiskey.

Grilled food can balance harmoniously with bourbon because of its smoke-forward presentation next to the charred oak, woodsy flavor that resonates in bourbon. It is smoked chicken, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, sweet and spicy salmon, pulled pork, sticky ribs, and bourbon-glazed pork belly. (Photo by TNTProTools from Pixabay)

Another ingredient that pairs well with bourbon in desserts is fruits. Think peach cobbler, apple crisp and cherry pie. All can add a sweet, sour and buttery delectable base that pairs well with the bold flavors in bourbon. But, think outside of the boxes, like bourbon marinated, grilled peaches with mascarpone cream or vanilla ice cream and raspberry syrup. Each flavor, from the peaches to the ice cream provide bold, full-fat, fruity, smokey flavors that help to balance out the bold bourbon flavors.

Crème brulee. There, I said it. The custardy goodness in this dessert provides an undeniable sumptuous base that pairs effortlessly with bourbon. The bruleed hard sugar top adds sweetness and dances with the caramel notes in bourbon. Add a hint of smokey goodness and finish with a bouquet of mixed berries to deliver a dessert that is sophisticated, but bold enough to partner with bourbon.

It is summer. The overwhelming smell of barbeque grills and smokers enrobe the air giving us constant reminders that it is peak barbeque season. Barbecue. Smoked. Marinated. Sweet. Mesquite. Spicy. Bold. The main dish should be the star of the show, so it is important to provide main dishes that can stand up next to bourbon’s bold nature. Grilled food can balance harmoniously with bourbon because of its smoke-forward presentation next to the charred oak, woodsy flavor that resonates in bourbon. It is smoked chicken, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, sweet and spicy salmon, pulled pork, sticky ribs, and bourbon-glazed pork belly. Barbecue is like a gift wrapped up for bourbon to be its premium sidekick.

When considering optimal meats to partner with bourbon, you must think of all of the qualities that bourbon can help to accentuate. Think, full fat. Spice rubbed. Maple glazed. Honey, soy, ginger. Beef brisket is bold in flavor and the fattiness pairs beautifully with bourbon. Salmon is a very fatty fish, so pairing it with bourbon would be another desirable choice. Consider food profiles that add that boost to your tastebuds. Think sumptuous, flavor bombs such as Gumbo, Shepherd’s pie with a bourbon infusion, or Korean fried chicken with a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce. Pick dishes that provide a full-body, seasoned, bold food experience that turn up your tastebuds.

With sides dishes, think the same way. It is giving honey Dijon roasted Brussels sprouts, four-cheese mac and cheese and honey ginger glazed carrots. Also consider risotto in a bourbon mushroom cream sauce, bourbon honey sweet potato cornbread or a cheesy potato gratin. The key is to play on the caramel, smokey, vanilla, woodsy, savory and bold notes of bourbon. Heat is welcome, but do not fry the tastebuds. Even though bourbon is bold in flavor delivery, the whole experience can become cloudy if the balance of flavors tips the scale too far in either direction.

Starters or appetizers set the stage and the groundwork for what is yet to come. It is that welcoming introduction that gets the pallet excited about the food journey that is about to take place. Enter the charcuterie board. Cured meats like prosciutto and country ham have the flavor profile to complement a bourbon-tasting experience. The same goes for cheeses. A creamy brie, a sharp cheddar or a smoked gouda all have the characteristics to show up next to bourbon. Add nuts, tomato jam, bourbon bacon jam, apricot jam, spicy brown mustard, and buttery crackers and we have a smorgasbord of options to sample and experiment with.

Bourbon barbecue meatballs, barbecue cocktail sausage, candied bacon, dried fruits, kettle-cooked potato chips, bacon-wrapped scallops, Panzanella salad, grilled wedge salad, pretzel bites with Kentucky beer cheese or Cajun shrimp and grits. There are a wide variety of options to get your tastebuds excited.

Food and bourbon can create a beautiful experience. From creating bourbon glazes, gastriques and creamy sauce accompaniments, to dishes with sweet, spicy, salty, fatty full-flavored dishes. It is giving a bucket list. If you come to Kentucky, drink and eat like we Kentuckians do. Think flavor. Think complementing. Think contrasting. Think balance. As always, remember to eat and drink responsibly.

Salmon is a very fatty fish, so pairing it with bourbon would be a desirable choice. (Photo via Pixabay)

Bourbon glazed salmon


¼ cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 ½ tablespoons tamari

1 teaspoon tomato paste

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 large garlic clove, minced

½ cup bourbon

4 (6-ounce) center-cut salmon fillets


Whisk the brown sugar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, cider vinegar, tamari, tomato paste, crushed red pepper and garlic together in a small saucepan. Pour the bourbon in as well, whisking it in with the other ingredients.

Bring the saucepan to a simmer over medium-high heat, and then turn it down to medium-low and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes. The sauce will thicken into a glaze and should reduce to about ⅓ cup of liquid.

Strain the glaze into a bowl or measuring cup using a fine-mesh sieve. Reserve a few tablespoons of glaze in a small bowl to serve with the salmon.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with nonstick foil. Transfer the salmon fillets to the foil-lined baking sheet and paint the remaining glaze evenly over the top and sides of the fillets with a pastry brush.

Bake the salmon in the oven for 8 to 13 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Move the sheet pan to a rack a few inches under the broiler and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the glaze bubbles and begins to caramelize around the edges.

Serve the salmon with the reserved sauce on the side, and sprinkle it with chopped scallions if desired.

Beef brisket is bold in flavor and the fattiness pairs beautifully with bourbon. (Photo via Pixabay)

Corned beef with bourbon-molasses glaze

(Recipe courtesy of Andrew Zimmern, via Food Network)


Corning The Brisket (optional)

1 whole beef brisket, 10?12 lbs. cold water

1/3 cup paprika

1/2 cup brown sugar 3 bay leaves

1 tablespoon ground allspice

2 tablespoons black peppercorns 2 tablespoons granulated garlic 1/4 cup pickling spice

2/3 cup Prague powder pink curing salt, available online

Corned Beef

8 cups beef stock, plus more as necessary, to fully cover beef

1 stick cinnamon

1 teaspoon mustard seed 8 black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 corned beef brisket, 4?5 lbs., from corned beef brisket recipe, or store-bought


1/4 cup molasses

1 teaspoon dry mustard 1/4 cup bourbon

1 cup brown sugar


4 tablespoons unsalted butter 8 Kaiser rolls

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish

3 tablespoons chili sauce, preferably Heinz brand kosher salt


Corning the beef (optional): Lay the brisket on a flat surface. Feel where the fat is thickest, and use a sharp knife to trim off about half of the fat. Discard the fat. Square the meat off by trimming the edges so it cures and cooks evenly. You should be left with a brisket that’s about 4–5 pounds. (Note: This recipe calls for half of a whole brisket. Save the trimmed meat for another recipe, such as Edward Lee’s Korean-Style Texas Chili.)

Place the trimmed brisket into a non-reactive container. Pour in enough cold water to cover by one inch. Add paprika, brown sugar, bay leaves, allspice, peppercorns, granulated garlic, pickling spice, and Prague powder. Use your hand to stir the ingredients into the water, and gently move the brisket around in the liquid to help dissolve the sugar. Let the meat rest fat side up in the curing mixture. Cover container with the lid and refrigerate, 7–8 days.

Corned beef: Pour broth into a stockpot; add cinnamon, mustard seed, peppercorns and bay leaves. Pull the corned beef brisket out of the curing solution and rinse with cold water. (Note: Alternatively, start by rinsing pickling spices off a 4- to 5-pound store-bought corned beef.) Place the corned beef into the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook until spoon-tender, or to an internal temperature of 175 degrees, about 2–3 hours. (Alternatively, you can place the meat in a 275 degrees oven for the same length of time.)

Preheat broiler. Remove corned beef from cooking liquid, pat dry on a dish towel, and place on a rimmed baking sheet. If you’re cooking the nose portion of the brisket, trim off the top for even glazing. Combine molasses, mustard powder, bourbon and brown sugar in a bowl to make the glaze; stir until all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Pour ⅓ of the glaze on top of the corned beef, distributing evenly. Place the corned beef 6 inches under broiler for about 1 minute. Remove and pour on half the remaining glaze. Place under the broiler for 30-40 seconds. Remove and pour the rest of the glaze onto the corned beef and broil another 30-40 seconds.

Assembly: Remove corned beef from oven and let rest on a cutting board while preparing the buns, about 10 minutes (reserving the drippings in the pan). In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat until it’s foaming. Add 1-2 buns, cut side down, and cook until light brown and toasted, 30 seconds. Continue with remaining butter and buns until all are toasted.

Meanwhile, make Thousand Island dressing: Combine mayonnaise, relish and chili sauce in a bowl; season to taste with salt and stir. Slice corned beef at an angle, against the grain. Place on a serving platter and drizzle with reserved drippings from the pan. To make a sandwich, layer corned beef on griddled buns and top with a dollop of dressing.