Pairing chicken wings, pretzels, and chocolate cake. Yes, we’re trying to drink whiskey at every meal.
Whiskey Sommelier Chris Straka has spent 20 years working in the restaurant industry as a beverage manager, and is now the moonshine master at Denver’s new Hearth & Dram whiskey-focused bar (opening January 28)— a dark and wood-fired restaurant with 350+ whiskeys on the menu.
We sat down with Straka in an attempt to add some manly posh to our sometimes not-so-classy meals. Thanks to his whiskey know-how, we’re happy to report there’s a craft bourbon or rye for every dish you’ll eat this month. Yes, chips and guacamole too.
Pair it with…
For simple grilled steak, I would look for a really good Bourbon Manhattan. When you grill, you get a nice char, which is a caramelization of the meat, but also gives the steak a little bitterness. Made with a little sweet vermouth, the Bourbon Manhattan will give more sweetness to the dish and contrast nicely with the bitter grill marks.
Soft Pretzel + Grey Poupon Mustard
I’d go with one of my favorites, and a very important Colorado whiskey, Leopold Bros. Distillery. They make an American-style, lighter, softer, more approachable whiskey that is typically a little lighter than rich bourbons. Typically, the whiskey is not aged quite as long and doesn’t contain heavy caramel and fruit flavors. With that pretzel, Leopold’s will cut through the Dijon mustard and work nicely with the saltiness of the pretzel. A soft pretzel doesn’t have big, forward flavors, so a whiskey too heavy will overpower.
Chips and Guacamole
Scotch. Something not too crazy. There’s a producer called Compass Box. The one I recommend is the Hedonism. It’s really well balanced, smokey, with the hints of iodine you want to see in scotch. Normally with this dish you’d drink mescal which has smokeyness. Scotch would be similar.
is so delicate it can be overpowered very easily. I’ll revert back to a cocktail. Something very simple like a Whiskey Collins; made with Whiskey, lemon juice, sugar, and soda water. This cocktail has a little more acidity to tone down the alcohol. This would pair very nice with something that would be delicate on the pallet.
Pepperoni and Italian Sausage Pizza
A really nice Rye whiskey. There’s a really good Colorado one out of Colorado Springs, 291 Distillery. They call it their Colorado Whiskey because it’s heavy in Rye but not as heavy as most. Typically, a rye can be 80-95-percent rye, but they only use about 65 percent. You’re going to get more of a spice characteristic that way (pairing with the spice in the pepperoni and Italian sausage), but still a good amount of bourbon flavor, which brings a caramel and fruit flavor that compliments the tomato sauce. Definitely Rye with a pizza.
One of the single greatest pairings with whiskey is a dark chocolate in the 70-72-percent coco range with an Islay Scotch. The reason is, that slightly sweet/slightly bitter richness pairs with the iodine of the scotch. Specifically, Islay scotch has more richness, more maltiness. I recommend Lagavulin— their 16-year is absolutely phenomenal.
Spicy Chicken Wings
I would want to go with a wheat whiskey. Wheat whiskey’s (produced with a higher amount of wheat) typically have a sweeter characteristic. One of my favorites will come from Dry Fly Distilling out of Spokane, Washington. It’s got great complexity and is extremely well balanced. Any time it’s a spicy dish you want to have a little bit of sweetness to your whiskey pairing. Otherwise the heat can make the alcohol heavier on your pallet and bring out more of the burn.
Mac & Cheese
Stay with a really well balanced whiskey; I would go with a Maker’s Mark. If you wanted to up the ante, Maker’s Mark Reserve. And I would want it on the rocks. This is a really good sipping whiskey. It’s very smooth and won’t overpower the mac & cheese— which is not a complex dish. Stay away from your ryes. Cheese can be interesting because it’s fattiness sticks on your pallet. Maker’s Mark is a good drinking bourbon, and since they have a higher wheat, but they aren’t a wheat whiskey, it’s a little richer.
Definitely young Rye whiskey because of the spices used in apple pie. For that I’m going back to a Colorado craft whiskey, the A.D. Laws, produced in Denver. Their Secale Rye is one of my favorite ryes being produced in the nation right now. It’s got a beautiful spice to match the apple pie. It will be a knockout.
Lead photos courtesy Hearth & Dram