Pairing whiskey with food presents a delicate proposition. First, wine tends to dominate that conversation, with beer coming in second. Bourbons, ryes, gins, and even vodkas are mostly afterthoughts. Second, it’s not quite the same as a lower-alcohol pairing, where you’d course things out. If you course out a whiskey pairing, you’ll be on the floor before dessert.
Nevertheless, whiskey happens to feature flavor notes that place nicely with a hearty autumn-winter meal. Especially those big, carb-heavy, umami-rich, butter-laden holiday feasts.
To help us better understand food and whiskey pairings, we reached out to some serious whiskey experts. We asked distillers, critics, consultants, awards jurors, writers, and drinkers for the one bottle of whiskey they’d bring to a big seasonal meal to pair with the food. The prices for the nine bottles vary, but they’re all squarely in the “affordable” range, with a few pushing the limits just a tad.
You should be able to find most of these nationwide with a little sleuthing, or click on the prices if you want them delivered straight to your door.
Nikka Pure Malt — Andy Nelson, co-founder Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery
Distillery: Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd., Tokyo, Japan (Asahi Group)
Average Price: $80
Impressively balanced, each sip contains a subtle, mouth-watering sweetness that makes an amazing pairing for any Thanksgiving dessert dish but also works like a charm in a highball. I often believe that the simpler something is, the better. That’s exactly why I love this whisky so much. There’s no pretension or overcomplicating things. It just is, and it’s magical.
While it sits on my top shelf at home, this one is accessible enough and approachable enough that I reach for it regularly.
Brilliant fruitiness and a perfect touch of honey compliment the delicate creaminess from front to back. A perfectly wonderful maltiness balances the sweeter notes to round out the structure without trying too hard. This one epitomizes an effortless elegance to me.
Starward Two Fold Double Grain Australian Whisky — Becky Paskin, Whisky expert and co-founder of OurWhisky
Distillery: Starward, Melbourne, Australia
Average Price: $34
When showing up to any gathering where food is served, the whisky you bring should be a crowd-pleaser. It should be something bold enough to pair with any strong flavor the host’s cooking can throw at it. But, it should also be versatile and appealing to everyone in the room.
Pairing neat whisky with food can be tricky, particularly when most of us prefer our meals accompanied by a long, refreshing drink. That’s why I recommend Starward Two Fold. A blend of malt and wheat whiskies matured in Australian red wine barrels, it’s delicious neat or with ice, makes a superb highball served with tonic or soda, or works well mixed into a cocktail.
Melbourne’s Starward Distillery is known for its signature maturation in Australian Shiraz, Cabernet, and Pinot Noir barrels. So expect plenty of apple and berry flavors with tropical fruits, cereal, and creamy vanilla with a touch of baking spice.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof — Chris Perugini, Scotch and bourbon reviewer and founder of Single Malt Savvy
Distillery: Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $75
This was an easy choice for me — since this whiskey has been a Thanksgiving tradition in my house for a few years now. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof has an incredibly dynamic range that allows it to pair nicely with anything your holiday feast can throw at you. This unfiltered, high-strength bourbon has a rich and oily body that won’t get overpowered by a variety of competing flavors (think savory gravy, sweet cranberry sauce, and salty turkey or ham). If you can hold off until dessert, give this pour a try with a slice of pumpkin pie.
At 12 years old, ECBP is a well-aged bourbon in a world where age statements have decreased or vanished with so many bottles. The result is an oak-driven profile with enough age to keep those young, spirit-forward notes at bay. This release varies slightly by batch, but expect to find toffee, brown sugar, and sweet maltiness.
With time, that profile develops into a sugary layer of ginger snap cookies and dried berries. There are undertones of leather and tobacco and plenty of vanilla as well, but the sweetness, spice, and oak are all nicely balanced and it always drinks well under its bottling proof (though you may prefer high-strength whiskey after spending enough quality time with your eccentric great-uncle). Happy Sipsgiving!
GlenDronach Allardice Aged 18 Years– Jared Himstedt, Head Distiller and co-founder Balcones Distilling
Distillery: GlenDronach Distillery, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (Brown-Forman)
Average Price: $180
Pairing whisky with food can be tricky. Do you pair in a way that the whisky and food complement each other, or are you hoping for contrast so that each brings out and emphasizes aspects of the other in an interesting way?
In my experience, desserts are the easiest to pair whisky with, but what about a big family meal? A holiday meal is going to be filling, with diverse dishes, and rich foods, with a good amount of starches — meat, fat, holiday spices, and maybe even some berries. I would want something with enough acid, body, and density to stand up to all of that without taking the center stage, which is, of course, reserved for the meal and the company.
I’m going with Glendronach 18 Allardice.
There’s no smoke to complement the proteins, but the sulfur and funk of a good sherry maturation fill that role nicely. It’s sweet enough to go with honeyed ham and a cobbler, but with enough acid and tannin to cut through the richest of dishes. Loaded with fruit notes, hints of custard, clove/allspice, and a subtle nuttiness, it is a perfect pour to accompany a traditional holiday meal.
Sazerac Rye — Bobby Childs, founder of Adventures in Whiskey
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY (Sazerac Company)
Average Price: $32
When it comes to a big meal, the flavors, aromas, and textures can fill the entire spectrum. The challenge of choosing only one bottle to pair with an entire meal is daunting, but I think I have it: rye whiskey.
Why rye? A nicely balanced rye whiskey can offer sweet, spicy, herbal, and earthy flavors that can cut through any meal and cleanse the palate in-between courses. It’s also required for my favorite cocktail — the Sazerac. And we all know that you’ll certainly need a pre-dinner cocktail or two.
So with that in mind, I’d bring a bottle of Sazerac Rye. It’s tasty and won’t break the bank.
Buffalo Trace Distillery’s popular rye whiskey has a fair amount of corn, which gives the whiskey some body. The nose is classic rye whiskey with caramel, toasted rye bread, vanilla, and cloves. You’ll find some toffee and vanilla alongside spicy rye grain and some baking spice on the palate. The finish is warming and has a slightly lingering spearmint note.
The whiskey itself is around six or so years old, so it doesn’t lend itself to a lot of heavy oak notes and retains its grain-forward freshness. It’s just what you’d need for that big Thanksgiving meal.
Monkey Shoulder — Gillian Murphy, Tullamore DEW Ambassador
Distillery: Kininvie Distillery, Dufftown, Scotland (William Grant & Sons)
Average Price: $35
One of my go-to scotches is Monkey Shoulder. This 100 percent malt whiskey, is made from a blend of three unique single malts and is a deliciously tasty sipper. From cocktail classics to modern mixes; richness and vibrancy combine with mellow vanilla notes to make it perfect for mixing. And for me, that makes it the best candidate for bringing to a big holiday meal. You can go any way with this whisky — sip it neat, on the rocks, in a highball, or in a cocktail.
Everyone’s happy around the table!
Balanced, rich, sweet, and smooth. This whisky leans into creamy puddings with plenty of vanilla, Christmas spices, and fruit. The malts come through and join cloves, red berries, dried apricots, and a note of honey.
Method & Madness Single Pot Still Finished in French Chestnut Casks — Greg Dillon, founder of Great Drams and Drinks Producer of the Year 2019
Distillery: Irish Distillers, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland (Pernod Ricard)
Average Price: $85
Firstly, I love the name and the idea behind Method & Madness from the great team at the Midleton Distillery and wider Irish Distillers group. And the products are, frankly, superb. So what is Method & Madness Irish whiskey all about then?
Having been designed by a husband and wife team of designers who have never designed a whiskey bottle before, I must say the result is great. There’s lovely faceting on the bottle. The corks (especially the 31-Year-Old Single Grain) are nicely engineered and the copper foiling is fantastic. Each product has had a unique artwork created using screen printing to represent the flavor profile and to add good shelf standout in-store, and presumably in bars.
The MM logo marque, for Method & Madness Irish whiskey, is neat, tidy, and very grown-up. There’s a sophistication that is an interesting take on what a new Irish whiskey brand means when you compare it to other startups and expressions from existing brands looking to introduce new ranges.
The Irish Whiskey Act allows distillers to push boundaries in wood programs much more than the scotch producers are allowed to. Irish distillers don’t just have to use oak, for example. For this release explore they used sweet chestnut wood to finish the single pot still whiskey. And boy, does it deliver.
This started off as a pot still spirit being matured in American oak with a little bit of sherry influence, but not much. Then it was put into French chestnut casks and checked every three months to ensure the wood was working and the flavors were maturing how they wanted them to.
The nose is sweet and very oaky. I would have to say, it has the perfect palate with a nice medium toasted note there too with lots of juicy exotic fruits. It’s my favorite of their releases to date, for sure.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon — Adam Levy, Alcohol Professor, and founder International Spirit Competitions
Distillery: Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $32
There are certain expectations when your friends know you are in the liquor industry and they invite you over for a big meal. Showing up empty-handed is not an option. You want your drink to be your comfortable companion and not a whiskey that will be a challenge all night. You want a whiskey that you can drink from when you arrive through dessert.
One of my top picks to bring with me is Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon. It’s one of the stars from the great value whiskey portfolio from Heaven Hill Distillery.
When you raise your glass and your nose first interacts with the whiskey, you will find the presence of vanilla along with hints of caramel and oak. Once in the mouth, the taste continues to match with vanilla and continued traces of oak. As it swirls around your mouth hints of spice and nutmeg are on the edges of your tongue. The experience of the finish isn’t syrupy but more balanced with a sweet soft low-fire end.
This is a whiskey for all night long with friends and good food.
Writer’s Pick: Woodinville Straight Bourbon Finished In Port Casks — Zach Johnston, Deputy Editor UPROXX Life and host of Expression Session
Distillery: Woodinville Whiskey Company, Woodinville, WA
Average Price: $50
I like to bring things from my home to big meals. It’s a conversation starter and a chance to highlight something cool from my neck of the woods. I’ve really been into Woodinville’s whiskeys this year and their Port Casks finish has been a standout. The whiskey has a heritage reaching back into Maker’s Mark history. The grains are all sourced locally from a single Washington farm. Their straight bourbon won “best bourbon of 2020” at San Francisco while the distillery has been named the best distiller of 2020 throughout whiskey media.
The Pork Cask is one of the most sought after bourbons in the line. The bourbon is aged for five years, as per bourbon rules. It’s then transferred to Ruby Port barrels for a final six months of mellowing before bottling. The only downside is that it’s a very limited edition and might be harder to find outside of the Pacific Northwest.
This is a wonder in a glass. Out of a Glencairn, you get a nose full of candied fruit, roasted nuts, plum, vanilla, Christmas spices, and a touch of smoke and oak. The sip has a velvety body that really leans into the buttery and molasses-laden Christmas cake while adding a layer of bourbon corn next to more oak, vanilla, spice, and a note of stone fruit in the background.
After some water, a whisper of worn leather and dark cacao arrives.
This is stuffing loaded with dried fruits, nuts, and butter next to all the pies you could want that leads right into all the crackling fireside Christmas vibes in a glass. It’s big, bold, and will stand up to any meal while accenting it nicely.