A Food Lover’s Guide to Bourbon Tasting in Kentucky

If you haven’t bitten into a honey soaked crispy piece of bacon, washed down by charred smoky bourbon, you really haven’t lived.  At least you haven’t lived in Kentucky.

“Bourbon goes great with anything. We want to serve our heritage here in Kentucky and we’re trying to do it justice with the food that we serve,” said Matt Combs, Executive Chef of OBC Kitchen in Lexington, KY.

“Not only that, bourbon just really goes great with many different kinds of food. Whether it is sweet, savory, spicy, or salty it just gives another complexity and another dimension to your food.”

OBC Kitchen, which stands for Old Bourbon County, is leading a trend to turn bourbon tasting in Kentucky into an experience rivaling a traditional wine and food paring.

“Whenever you taste, taste comes from not only your taste buds, but also the aroma that’s generated. So the Glencairn glasses that we use really allow your nose to get in and really soak up those flavors.  You know, it’s very comparable to wine glasses and all the different smells and things that you can get from wine; you can pick those up with bourbon as well.

When you pair the right bourbon with your food, Chef Combs says you’ll bring the perfect mix of indulgence and refinement to your plate.

Bourbon Tasting in Kentucky: 5 Things I Learned

Chef Combs is helping you bring this experience into your home, by sharing 5 things you should keep in mind to create the perfect pairing of bourbon and cuisine.

1. Cook with Bourbon

“Cooking with bourbon is one of the easiest ways to help pair your food with the bourbon that you want to drink. Just by simply using different techniques, whether it be to sauté, whether it be to render the fats down and add the bourbon after the fact.”

The most popular item on the OBC Kitchen menu is the “Bacon in a Glass.”


“We use honey bourbon glaze in our bacon in a glass. It helps adhere the candy shell to the bacon. So not only does the bacon in part a lot of flavor as well, you start to pick up on the different tones of the bourbon that’s actually on the bacon.

Bourbon is popular to cook into sweet items because it picks up on the caramel and toffee notes.

“So bourbon bread pudding, that’s a huge thing around these days. You can also use it if you were going to do a sauce. So like any French sauce that had cognac in it, you could replace it with bourbon.  So you can do a nice cognac demi or a bourbon demi in this case to go with a nice bold steak or some red meat.”

2. Proof of the Bourbon

The main thing to remember is the higher the proof, the bolder the food. When you’re pairing food with lower proof bourbon, you’ll pick up more sweet notes.  Meaning lower proof bourbon is perfect for desserts.

“A lower proof bourbon, the 80 to 90 range, we would pair with our scratch made donuts because they have this really nice cinnamon sugar candy shell. We serve them with a salted caramel, chocolate gnash, and raspberry melba. So a lot of those sweet notes really pick up on the toffees, the caramel, and the bourbon.”

Higher proof bourbons pair well with heavier foods, like steak and other red meats.

“Higher proofs you really want go with something that’s really got some body, that’s going to hold up to it whenever you cook. So something that’s really smoky off the grill or that’s got a little punch, or even like our shrimp and grits is really spicy.  You can pick up on a lot of spicy notes with higher proof bourbon.”

3. Floral Notes

If you’re new to bourbon, you may want to start with a floral option.  You could pick up on fruity, herbal, or even toffee notes.

“One thing that we really like to do here with our New York strip, we have this very herby garlic butter that goes on top of this New York Strip.  And I like to pair it with very floral bourbon.  The herbs and the floral, they go so well together.”

Toffee notes go well with sweeter items, like desserts.  But they also pair well with healthier options.

“It could be you need a nice sweet bourbon to go with a really nice light salad in the summer, like an arugula salad that’s really kind of peppery with a sweeter vinegary dressing on it.  So those sweet notes go really well with that salad as well.

4. Mash Bill

The mash bill is the recipe of the grain that goes into the bourbon.

“For it to be bourbon it has to be 51% corn. Then all of the other layers of the different grains is kind of what gives you all of the unique flavors.”  Chef Combs says consider whether the bourbon is high wheat, or high rye.

“A high rye has a little bit more of a bite.  So you think of something like our shrimp and grits that’s really spicy would go nice with a rye whiskey. “

High wheat bourbons pair well with sweeter items, like desserts.  But don’t forget to consider the corn in the mash bill.

“One thing we do here at the restaurant is a seared halibut dish. We serve it with a sweet born bisque, so since corn is the bulk of the bourbon, this corn bisque matched up with most any bourbon that we serve. But usually one that’s just on a slightly lower proof with the heavy on the corn.”

 5. Smokiness

Don’t forget about smoke.  Bourbon is aged in charred barrels, so the longer the bourbon is in the barrel, the more it will pick up on the smokiness.

“A lot of your smoked meats, your barbeques, your bacons, and your wood fired grills. All of those lend really well to the char from the bourbon.”

“A great thing is that smoke can also lend itself to a bourbon cocktail. So we smoke a lot of cocktails here as well. So not only does it look really cool, but it gives you that kind of outdoorsy, earthy, smoky, barbeque kind of flavor.”

The most popular drink at OBC Kitchen is the smoked old fashioned, made of 100 proof straight bourbon whiskey, that is poured into a smoking jar before it is served.

Now grab a cocktail and pick your favorite dish, it’s time to impress your friends by turning that wine night into a fabulous bourbon tour.  Cheers!

Check out my other post about Louisville:

Bourbon Tasting in Kentucky