The Best Whiskey Cocktail To Sip Alongside Barbecue

Whiskey, smoke, and an open yard sound like the start of a country song, but you don't have to be a cowboy to appreciate the combo of strong brown liquor with backyard barbecue. While it may be classic to pair beer with barbecued ribs and brisket, a more robust and aromatic spirit better complements the char of the grill. All sorts of whiskeys, from blended to bourbon to rye, offer notes of smoke, caramel, pepper, and warm spices, which can open up your palate to the deep flavors of spice rubs and fatty flame-kissed meats.

Serious fans of whiskey often take theirs neat, but a cocktail offers the opportunity to add even more nuanced flavors to your glass. Food Republic asked Robyn Smith, PhD, the founder of This Blog's NEAT, for her barbecue cocktail recommendations. The whiskey expert, who used her chemical engineering background to work at a distillery, likes to keep things simple when mixing drinks for a cookout.

"I would recommend keeping the cocktail classic and spirit-forward, like an old fashioned," Smith says. "This allows you so much freedom to play around with types of whiskey (or other spirits), bitters, and sugar." An old fashioned allows the complexity of the whiskey to shine, and you can even strategically smoke your food with oak or hickory to highlight all those rich notes in your glass. Finish your food with a slather of boozy barbecue sauce for maximum complementary power.

Mixing a barbecue-friendly old fashioned

In addition to picking up the best whiskey for an old fashioned and the perfect bitters to pair with the booze, try some unconventional garnishes and sweeteners in your old fashioned, as Robyn Smith suggests. Since many BBQ sauces feature richer sweeteners like brown sugar and molasses, this an opportunity to draw out the cocktail's innate toffee notes. Try using cubes of molasses-heavy demerara sugar, rather than white sugar, to ground the cocktail.

Next, turn your attention to the aromatic components. If you have fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme around for grilling chicken or veggies, you may want to use them as a garnish to bring out the piney notes in the cocktail bitters. On that note, a dash of lavender bitters or charred lavender sprigs lend a floral complement that will draw similar herbal notes from the booze. The flower an intriguing addition to both drinks and meaty dishes like porchetta-inspired smoked pork. 

Bourbon fans might enjoy grilled seasonal fruits like peaches as a garnish. They pair nicely with the inherent caramel and vanilla notes in bourbon, in addition to making a great glaze on barbecued meats. Stone fruit will also bring out the sweetness of the spirit. A bit of espresso or cold brew in your old fashioned, on the other hand, can provide bittersweet complexity, enhance the smoky aroma of the alcohol, and add a much-needed zip of caffeine for grill masters lingering by the fire.

Other whiskey-forward, BBQ-friendly cocktails

Want more options for your guests than an old fashioned? Manhattan cocktails, which are sweetened with vermouth instead of sugar, also fall under the umbrella of classic whiskey-forward cocktails. They're a wonderful vessel to highlight a spicy rye whiskey, which can play off the piquant notes in your famous rib spice rub. You can also mix up a Sazerac and make the spicy kick more overt with a simple syrup infused with peppercorns.

To further take advantage of summer fruits, sweet and tart strawberry syrup can balance out a strong Irish whiskey. The combo of tart, sweet, and rich elements results in a drink close to a whiskey sour, which isn't as spirit-forward, but may add a refreshing note to sides like potato salad and mac and cheese. And if you want a big-batch cocktail for guests to serve themselves, try spiked punch infused with a smoky black tea like a roasted Darjeeling. This makes for a drier and more complex tea, without the sweetness that accompanies Southern sweet tea.

Since barbecue meals feature heavy, rich meats, maybe you're desperate for some acid to refresh your taste buds. In that case, experiment with a bourbon Rickey, a spin on the gin Rickey, and combine fresh lime juice with sparkling water and a hefty pour of the alcohol. Or, simply make a whiskey highball with club soda, for a more sippable cocktail with all the aromatic charm of the caramel-colored spirit.