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Sara Hansen

Great Bourbons to Pair With Barbecue & Grilled Food (Without Breaking the Bank)

We’ve previously talked about both beers and wines that can be paired with BBQ. But one thing is for sure, bourbon and barbecue are also a fantastic duo. Bourbon has long been welcome at the table of many outdoor cooking occasions. There are even festivals focused on bourbon and BBQ. Plus, many top Pitmasters not only drink bourbon alongside their barbecue but also use it in their homemade BBQ sauce, marinades, and even smoked/grilled desserts

But, with so many brands available these days, it may leave your head spinning trying to figure out which are the best bourbons to pair with barbecue. So, we’ve got you covered (without overwhelming you even further). In this article, we’ve put together 4 great options as well as broken down exactly what bourbon is. Let’s take a look:


So, What is Bourbon Exactly? (and Why it Pairs with BBQ)

To truly understand why bourbon goes so well with barbecue, it’s important to know exactly what it is. You may (or may not) have heard the phrase, “all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon”. This is the extremely simplified answer to the question “what is bourbon?”.

Whiskey is made by distilling a fermented mash of grains, often including rye, wheat, barley, and corn. But, for a whiskey to be considered a bourbon, it must:

  • Be made from a fermented grain mash that contains at least 51% corn (in order to meet the requirements set by the U.S. Congress as a distinctive product.) Many of the best bourbons use a mash that contains as much as 80% corn.
  • Be made in the United States. Technically it can be made anywhere in the US, but 95% of bourbon comes from Kentucky. This is because of the perfect mix of fertile soil and pure limestone water that is found in Kentucky. The limestone-filtered water helps to significantly improve the taste of the bourbon.
  • Be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) and no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) when it is barrelled.
  • Be aged in brand new charred American White Oak barrels. So a barrel can only be used once to age bourbon. The charring within these barrels is what adds to the unique flavor characteristics of bourbon. (Ones that pair very well with smoked and grilled foods)
  • Have nothing added to it, besides water, in the distilling process. If anything else, like honey or maple flavoring, is added then it is no longer a bourbon. For example, when Wild Turkey added honey to their bourbon, it became Wild Turkey Liqueur (later called Wild Turkey American Honey).


what is bourbon | bourbons to pair with barbecue | bourbon and BBQ pairings
Source: The Spruce Eats


Bourbons often have robust rye, oaky vanilla, complex fruit, subtle spice, and smoky char flavors. All of which are perfect matches for barbecue. The hint of sweetness from the bourbon is a great balance with the umami and salt flavors of the meat. Depending on the specific bourbon and which are the more forward flavors, bourbons can pair very well with smoky and fatty meats (think brisket and pork butt), lighter meats (like chicken), and even smoked seafood.

Plus, bourbon won’t fill you up like drinking beer will. Ensuring you can focus on filling up on the delicious barbecue while still enjoying a perfectly paired drink.

In the bourbon options below, we’ve gone into more detail about the exact flavor profiles of each and what types of barbecue they pair well with. So, without further ado, here are some of the best bourbon options to go with BBQ, without having to spend a ton of money on a bottle.


4 Bourbons That Go Great With BBQ:


Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Aged between 6 and 7 years, 90.4 proof, 750 ml, $31 (on average)

For a great bourbon with a very reasonable price, Woodford Reserve is a top option. The deliciously complex flavor of this bourbon pairs extremely well with the flavor of smoked meats, especially beef brisket. Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon is made up of more than 200 detectable flavor notes, from bold wood and spice to sweet aromatics, fruit, and floral.

This bourbon has a nose that is heavy with rich dried fruit and hints of orange and mint dusted with cocoa. There is also a faint aroma of vanilla and tobacco spice. The taste is rich, rounded, and smooth, with complex cinnamon, citrus, and cocoa flavors. You’ll also note caramel, toffee, chocolate, and spice. Enjoy a silky smooth, almost creamy finish with a warm satisfying tail.


Four Roses Single Barrel

Aged between 7 and 9 years, 100 proof, 750 ml, $45 (on average)


four roses single barrel bourbon | bourbons to pair with barbecue | bourbon and BBQ pairings
Source: Four Roses


Barbecue that uses a robust sauce, like Memphis-style barbecue with its rich and semi-sweet flavors, needs a bourbon that can stand up to its deep flavor with rich oak and spicy rye. The Single Barrel Bourbon from the Four Roses distillery in Kentucky answers that call.

Acclaimed by many as the best bourbon offered by Four Roses, Single Barrel is bottled from individual hand-picked barrels. It is full-bodied, complex, and surprisingly smooth with a long, delicate finish that’s incredibly mellow. Thus making this bourbon a great complement to fatty meat with a rich barbecue sauce. On the nose, it gives aromas of pear, dried spice, cocoa, vanilla, and maple syrup. On the palate, you’ll taste hints of cherries and ripe plum.


Bardstown Fusion #5

A blend of bourbons aged 3 years and 11 years, 94.9 proof, 750 ml, $60 (on average)

#5 of the Fusion Series from the Bardstown brand is a popular favorite among many of the top BBQ pitmasters. This bourbon blends newer and older bourbons, including an 11-year sourced bourbon, to create a unique and delicious bourbon. This choice pairs extremely well with barbecue due to its sweet cream, rich bread pudding, and toasty caramelized plantain flavor notes. It’s a bit zesty as well, finishing with a hint of bitter citrus and orange zest notes. 

One of the best pairings with this bourbon is pork, with its natural sweetness while still being able to carry flavor profiles. Smoked pork butt pulled and finished with a mustard-based sauce is a perfect complement to the sweet flavors of the Fusion #5 bourbon. Dry-rubbed spareribs with mild heat are another great pairing. It’s also important to allow Fusion #5 to showcase its heat by balancing it out with the natural flavors of barbecue meat.


Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel

Aged 8 to 10 years, 94 proof, 750 ml, $129 (on average)


elijah craig toasted barrel bourbon | bourbons to pair with barbecue | bourbon and BBQ pairings
Source: Breaking Bourbon


The award-winning Small Batch Bourbon from Elijah Craig is one of the most popular bourbons out there. But, if you want an even more elevated flavor that pairs very well with barbecue and you don’t mind spending a little more money, check out Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel. It may be harder to find a bottle of this bourbon compared to the others we’ve covered but it’s worth it. This bourbon takes the Small Batch Bourbon and, after it is matured, finishes the aging process in a new custom-toasted, flash-charred barrel, giving even more sweet oak flavor alongside a delicious smokiness. 

Toasted Barrel Bourbon offers aromas of toasted oak and rich caramel. Comforting and warm flavors of milk chocolate and brown sugar blend with delicious chipotle, pepper, spices, and smoke. This bourbon is, as described by the distillery, “deeply layered and profound”. Toasted Barrel deliciously complements just about any smoky barbecue items you can cook and makes a great option for your nicer/celebratory BBQ occasions.


Enjoy the Winning Combo of Bourbon & BBQ Today!

The options we’ve covered in this article are definitely great places to start when it comes to bourbons to pair with barbecue for a delicious combo. As you can see, you don’t always have to spend a ton of money to get a good bourbon. So, pick one of the ones above, pour yourself a glass, and enjoy it with your favorite smoked or grilled food today!

Have you tried one of the bourbons we’ve above? Do you have a different favorite to pair with barbecue? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!


If you are ready to take your outdoor cooking to the next level, you can learn straight from award-winning Pitmasters and Grillmasters here at BBQ Champs Academy.

In our first-of-their-kind virtual barbecue cooking classes, you’ll get competition-caliber cooking techniques step-by-step as well as valuable pro tips, all in stunning high-def video. Check out our All-Access passes to get the full inside scoop for competition-caliber cooking. You can also buy classes individually or check out our Championship Backyard BBQ classes to learn 20 different recipes to impress your family and friends (for only $99!).

Make sure to also Subscribe to our BBQ Champs Academy YouTube channel to ensure you don’t miss the latest BBQ news and insider info straight from the pros!

Sara Hansen

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