The Best Whiskey To Pair With Barbecue

You might imagine enjoying barbecue alongside a crisp beer or a tall glass of sweet iced tea, but have you ever thought about how well whiskey could pair with your favorite dishes? Whiskey barbecue sauce is a fairly popular concept, as the deep, complex, barrel-aged flavor profile pairs deliciously with rich and smoky meats, and the spirit works just as well when sipped alongside. This liquor comes in a huge range of varieties, but we've got the details on which style you should stock for your next backyard bash. Food Republic spoke to Robyn Smith Ph.D., founder of This Blog's NEAT, to get her professional guidance.

"A lot of people would say that the obvious type of whiskey to pair with barbecue is bourbon because of its rich, bold, oaky flavors," Smith says. "However, I think the better option is American single malt." Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made with mostly corn, and Smith says single malts are similarly "rich and bold." However, in her opinion, her pick provides much more variation in flavor, meaning you can be selective with the bottle you choose to suit every style of American barbecue to a tee.

What is American single malt whiskey?

American single malt whiskey is inspired by a very popular style from Scotland: single malt Scotch whisky. Just like its Scottish counterpart, U.S.-made single malts are fermented using a base of 100% malted barley, and matured in oak casks. To earn the "single malt" distinction, the whiskey must be produced at just one distillery, not made of a blend of spirits from different producers. "The types of malted barley used in the mashbill, the way it's distilled, and how it's aged vary from distillery to distillery," says Robyn Smith. "This leads to a big diversity of flavors."

All of these choices, as well as various environmental factors, allow each maker to put their own distinct stamp on the taste of the spirit. "You can find everything from sweet to smoky to oaky to grainy and everywhere in between," Smith says. This stands in contrast to bourbon, a very specific product that follows even stricter rules about how it's produced, making it different from other whiskeys

The single malt category definitely gives you more freedom when dreaming up pairings for barbecue, but if you're feeling overwhelmed, Robyn Smith suggests a like-with-like approach: "Choose a whiskey that's from the same region as that barbecue style." She gave us plenty of examples of her own preferred pairings.

The best brands of whiskey for sipping with barbecue

If you're gearing up to make some classic Texas-style barbecue, Robyn Smith recommends the Lineage single malt from Balcones Distilling out of Waco, Texas (a 750-milliliter bottle sells for about $39). She describes it as "decadent, fruity, and chocolatey." On the other hand, because Kansas-style BBQ sauces are on the sweeter side, Smith likes the 10th Street Port Cask Finished Single Malt (about $66 per bottle) for its smoke-forward profile. In this case, the malted barley is flavored with peat smoke which lends "campfire notes [that] are balanced with fruits and honey." 

Smith prefers an American rye whiskey for Carolina-style barbecue. The New Southern Revival Rye whiskey from High Wire Distilling Company (around $56 a bottle) is her top choice. She adds that "They recently released a Chardonnay-finished expression that had so many lovely red fruit notes that would pair perfectly with the tangy, mustard-based sauce typically found in South Carolina barbecue."

For other styles that have a vinegar-forward sauce, our expert recommends Van Brunt Stillhouse American whiskey (about $65 per bottle) for its "toffee, grainy, and honey-forward" nature. Whether you've got Texas brisket or zingy Carolina pulled pork on the menu, there's a whiskey out there that can hold its own against those bold, meaty flavors.