Beer and Whiskey Pairings Reinvented for Today’s Curious Drinkers
This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Beer-and-a-shot specials have long been a staple of dive bars across the country, designed more as a buzz delivery system than a sip-and-savor experience. And often what was in the pint glass or bottle had been little more than a chaser for whatever throat-searing rotgut whiskey the bartender was pouring on a given day.
Now the concept is getting a makeover for the artisanal age, marrying the worldwide beer renaissance with the corresponding surge in whiskey consumption. Many bars and restaurants are beginning to offer carefully selected pairings of flavor-forward selections from world-class brewers and distillers.
Beer and whiskey pairing is still a nascent discipline, and there are no definitive rules about which types of whiskey match best with which styles of beer. There are some fairly intuitive guidelines based on elements that are common to both beverages that can help you through an evening’s pairing adventure.
Kölsch: The team at StormBreaker Brewing in Portland, Oregon, experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when they were developing their now-extensive beer and whiskey pairing menu. They assumed they’d be pairing a peaty single-malt scotch from the Scottish island of Islay (the smokier kind) with a stout. “Then we got to the Kölsch, and we actually all liked that better with the scotch,” recalls Rob Lutz, who co-founded StormBreaker with his friend, Dan Malick. StormBreaker’s menu pairs Bowmore Legend Islay single-malt scotch with the brewery’s Total ReKölsch. The appeal is in the contrast.
“The peaty scotch paired well with a very light beer,” Lutz says. “It’s actually one of our more popular pairings.”
Pilsner: Contrast is also key when selecting a whiskey to pair with hoppier lagers; that’s why bourbon tends to be the right way to go. The vanilla and caramel notes common in bourbon balance a solid pilsner’s characteristic bitterness, advises Scottish-born whisk(e)y expert Stuart MacLean Ramsay, who runs the website Ramsay’s Dram. Ramsay, also based in Portland, recently launched a concept called WhiskyBack, where he develops beers designed specifically to pair with certain types of whisk(e)y. For bourbon pairing, he created WhiskyBack Gold, modeled after pre-Prohibition-style lagers. The convenient thing about bourbon is that it must be distilled in the United States if it’s going to be called bourbon. That makes it easier to design a pairing based on a theme. For instance, try an Empire State tribute: Hudson Baby Bourbon, produced by Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York, with Brooklyn Pilsner.
Witbier: Belgian-style witbier’s delicateness creates a challenge when trying to figure out what whiskey won’t overpower it. For a solution, it helps to consult with a world-class brewery that also has an established distilling operation. When Ballast Point expanded into spirits in 2008, it was the first legal distillery to open in Southern California post-Prohibition. Since then, it’s gained quite a following for its Devil’s Share whiskey line, which includes a single-malt, bourbon and moonshine. It’s that last spirit—technically an unaged 49.3% corn whiskey—that may be the most complementary. “Our moonshine has this kind of candied corn kind of flavor,” says Ballast Point brewmaster Colby Chandler. “There’s a candied corn, orange peel kind of play. The maltiness of the Wahoo [wit] would help with the higher proof, the ethyl burn.”
Amber Ale & Scotch Ale (and, in some cases, ESB): For scotches and some other malt whiskeys (including Japanese and Irish) that lack that smoky Islay character, your best bets are malty ambers and 80-shilling-style Scotch ales, due largely to comparable caramelish character. “I’m leaning toward amber ales or red ales, Scotch ales, ESBs—things that have melanoidin,” offers Chandler, referring to sugars produced during the roasting process of some malts used to give amber and reddish ales their color and enhance their flavor fullness. “You get a lot of that from the whiskey as well. When you char the wood [in barrels] you get that melanoidin wood component. All of the same types of sugars can kind of play back and forth with each other and enhance both.”
Pale Ale: As versatile a style as American pale ale can be with food, the same holds for its preferred whiskey partners. The more balanced the pale, the more flexible it is with its spirit match. StormBreaker’s Right as Rain Pale’s moderate 36 IBUs and mild herbal and citrus notes makes it an ideal companion for some of the similarly citrusy components and peppery spice of a rye whiskey, particularly one whose mash bill is almost entirely rye. StormBreaker chose to pair it with James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye, 90 percent of whose base is that signature grain.
IPA: Ramsay likes to steer clear of trying to match a whiskey with a hop-forward style like an IPA because the amped-up bitterness, he says, creates an imbalance in the pairing. But that applies mainly to traditional whiskey styles. On the alternative whiskey spectrum are some specialty creations that would harmonize quite well with hoppy beers. Corsair Artisan Distillery is famous for its line of hopped whiskeys, including Hopmonster malt whiskey—distilled with Amarillo, Hersbrucker, Saaz and Strisselspalt varieties—and its single-hop Amarillo bourbon, Mosaic malt whiskey and Citra Double IPA malt whiskey. A good exercise would be tasting these side-by-side with beers of similar hop compositions. “What’s interesting is there’s a translation in distillation, where some flavors are amplified and some are lost,” observes Corsair co-founder and owner Darek Bell.
Another option is to venture out of whiskey entirely and consider pairing it with an artisanal gin. The complex interplay of gin’s botanicals lend a distinctly floral character that shares a great deal in common with the more flowery elements of many hop varieties, especially Cascade.
Porter & Stout: As noted, dark, roasty beers often go best with peat-smoked, malt-based whisky (Laphroaig, Bowmore and Lagavulin are the Islay brands you’re most likely to encounter). Some of the brinier elements of Islay’s maritime terroir find their way into the region’s typical peated malt and align the whiskey with an oyster stout. (The smoky nature instantly brings to mind rauchbier, which is another good match for Islay. However, anyone other than hard-core smoke chasers might find it to be a smoky overload.) “I think the combination of flavors with a complex, oily, peaty Islay needs to have an equally complex beer,” Ramsay explains.
StormBreaker found the roasted coffee notes of Parliament Distillery’s Ghost Owl whiskey to be a good match for similar characteristics of the brewery’s Opacus oatmeal stout. The interaction between Ghost Owl’s malted barley base and the charred oak interior of the whiskey’s quarter barrels—smaller barrels speed up the aging process—give it those roast flavors.
Bourbon is also a good companion for that beer style, especially with the more creamy and chocolaty elements present in oatmeal stouts. Those notes complement bourbon’s dominant vanilla and caramel flavors.
Those looking to challenge their palates a bit more also might consider stepping outside whiskey and experimenting with some other spirits for their porter and stout pairings. Since the smoke makes a solid companion for roast, why not introduce the former element with a glass of tequila’s cousin the agave-based mezcal? It gets its hefty hit of smoke from the underground, charcoal-fired ovens in which the hearts of agave are baked pre-fermentation.
The two components of a beer-and-shot combo may be getting a bit more refined and using somewhat fancier ingredients, but that doesn’t mean there’s an air of pretension or exclusivity about them. It’s quite an accessible experience at a variety of drinking establishments.
Whether the evening leads you to venues romantic or ironic, ditch the shot glass. Slow down and savor every drop.
Jeff Cioletti is author of The Year of Drinking Adventurously and founder of the beverage travel site, DrinkableGlobe.com.