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Pairing Whiskey with Beer

The combination of drinking whiskey by the shot and chasing it with beer is known as a boilermaker, a process that generally is like throwing a haymaker to one’s head. It’s a method more familiar to the 1960s and B-movies than the current era, if only because whiskey and beer are so much better these days.

Yet, if you stop to consider that both whiskey and beer are made from malt, it can make sense to put them together again, precisely because the quality of each continues to improve with innovation. So I decided to give some thought to pairing whiskey and beer in the same three ways that one would pair food and beer. In other words, choose beers whose flavors are either complementary to the whiskey, a contrast to the whiskey or that refresh the palate.

The results were quite surprising.

Given the ruminative qualities of whiskey, which have inspired many an artist and writer, one might hope this pairing revelation initially resulted from intuitive thinking, if not drinking. Alas, I must confess that it was while working on a story about Caskmates made by Jameson Irish Whiskey that the idea occurred.Jameson Caskmates Old Rasputin Whiskey Beer

Caskmates is aged in barrels that previously held an Irish stout and prior to that, these same barrels were used to age Jameson Original. The Caskmates whiskey is highlighted by notes of cocoa with a hint of hops – which came from using the same aging barrels used by Franciscan Well of Cork, Ireland to make its Jameson Stout.

In the company’s media release about Caskmates, this mild-mannered suggestion was included: “With the subtle suggestion of hops in every sip, it also makes a perfect accompaniment to stout beer.”

Initially, I went to a Guinness stout as a pairing – in part because the Franciscan Well Jameson Stout is not available yet in the U.S. Alas, the Guinness pairing made me long for something richer.

So the journey began. At one of my favorite beer emporiums I bought a four-pack of Old Rasputin by North Coast Brewing Company, a truly rich Russian Imperial Stout. I also picked up a bottle of Taddy Porter by Samuel Smith’s as well as a six-pack of Boulevard Brewing Company’s Unfiltered Wheat. Once at the counter, I confessed that my selections were all whiskey chasers. “Oh, you’re going to have a merry holiday season,” was the reply. The pairing idea already seemed to be gaining traction.

Once at home by the fireplace (where there was no fire due to this year’s mild winter), my glass held two fingers of Caskmates and standing nearby was a pour of Old Rasputin, impenetrably black and topped by a creamy tan head. If straight whiskey invariably has a dry, hot finish, it quickly began to make real sense to follow it with the wetness and coolness of beer. And then start over. Soon the fire was roaring.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ingram


The Old Rasputin indeed offered a complementary richness to the cocoa and hop notes of the Caskmates and a soothing wet finish. It helped the palate find the subtle but noticeably present hoppiness in both. It was a warm, sensuous, flavorful and almost analgesic combination.

BoulevardThe next logical step was a sip of the whiskey followed by the Unfiltered Wheat in order to “cut” or cleanse the palate. I thought an American wheat style would be a bit more hoppy, less spicy and yeasty compared to European wheat beers, therefore a good selection as a palate restorer. What surprised me was how much the Caskmates and its distilled malt brought out the sweetness in the malt of the Boulevard. In one respect, this beer had never tasted so good, and the whiskey sustained its contrasting appeal of the cocoa and hop notes amidst the distilled malt. Still, it was not nearly as bracing or levitating as the complementary pairing of a Russian Imperial Stout.

The remaining method of food pairing calls for a beer that offers a contrast. I chose the Taddy Porter to pair with the whiskey because it tends to have a slightly more caramel and tangy flavor found in a classic English Porter, but is “stout” enough to hang with whiskey. Although a bit roasty, Taddy Porter is less hoppy and less chocolatey than many current stouts or American porters.

There was indeed a contrast – the Taddy blossomed in terms of its dark fruit notes and the whiskey retained its slightly dry notes of cocoa and hops plus a wee bit of the green apple, a flavor note in the Jameson Original used to make Caskmates.

The initial conclusion was that it only takes two fingers of whiskey straight up to handle three different pairings. So it’s not a volume thing like boilermakers. Certainly a feeling of bonhomie emerges, not surprisingly, with each beer and whiskey combo. But one combination stood out. The real upwardly bound sensation concerned the complementary matching with the mighty stout; the other two seemed to enhance the flavor of the beer without returning the favor to the whiskey.

Flying DogAfter this heady introduction to sipping and drinking and maybe even a little thinking, it was logical to go for another tasting with a beer from my cellar, where I found a nicely aged year-old bottle of Gonzo Imperial Porter from Flying Dog Brewery – an extra hoppy version of a Baltic Porter first created in honor of Hunter S. Thompson. Gonzo journalist Thompson was fond of beer and whiskey, among other inebriants, and probably came up with a few pairings of his own along the way. So this seemed to be a perfect candidate for an alliance with the Caskmates, although I couldn’t decide if it should be considered a complementary or contrasting pairing.

The Gonzo Imperial is a thrilling beer, no doubt, starting with Ralph Steadman’s extraordinary label in tribute to Thompson; much like the various collaborations of these two journalists, the label tends to introduce hallucinogenic phobias. The beer is a meaty porter as opposed to tangy or chocolatey with an intentional burst of extra hops. These characteristics were emphasized by a year in the cellar before a brief stay in the freezer to bring it down to 55 degrees. Alas, the beer fell in between complementary or contrasting when drunk with the Caskmates – extra bitter and not enough cocoa or fruit.


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