Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

By Liz Crowe

Ah bourbon…there you are. Come here. Let me hold you.

We’re socked into one of my least favorite months, when the nights last forever, the sun hides more than it shines, the holidays are totally over, and taxes are almost due. Or, as I like to refer to it: brown liquor season. When the bourbon comes out, drinking means business. Tequila might make your clothes fall off, but bourbon only does that after you’ve been mistaken for a diva at some nightclub and you’ve danced on at least one table. You might be naked and on the express train headed for Hangover City, but it was classy.

It’s a much misunderstood libation, bourbon. There are some rules around it. Horses don’t drink it, but you drink it while you’re watching them… 

Alright, let me back up a minute. 

First off, “bourbon” is a specific type of distilled brown liquor. Its mash (the base from which it is distilled) must be made up at least 51% corn, which gives it that distinctive — for lack of a better term — “whang.” That sort of slam into your taste buds and throat that some folks never really get used to, or care for very much. That’s okay. I have the same reaction to Scotch whiskey — which always tastes to me like I’m sipping the liquid distilled off a smoking peat bog.

Bourbon is not bourbon if it’s being aged in a barrel that’s not charred. Nor is it bourbon if that charred barrel has already been used once. If you’re enjoying the latest and greatest bourbon whiskey from Ireland, or Japan, or wherever, you’ve been had. By law, bourbon is a distinctive product of the United States of America. But NOT just Kentucky, as much as we native Kentuckians like to make that bourbon-snob claim.

 Kentucky was, many argue, where it began. Is was the result of a perfect storm of way too much corn, the soft, limestone filtered water in Kentucky, and a bunch of Pennsylvanians looking to avoid the Whiskey Excise Tax. A lot of familiar names abound when you dig into the history — Evan Williams (opened the first commercial distillery) and the Reverand Elijah Craig (came up with the concept of the charred barrel aging) being a couple you might recognize from your last trip to the liquor store.

The one other rule about bourbon is this: it can contain no additives. So in order to make a particular bourbon stand out from the crowd, the distiller can’t just toss in some spices, or blueberries, or any other weirdness. The differences are made at the basic ingredient level. A traditional bourbon is 70% or so corn, the rest equal parts rye and barley. This gives you sweetness and spice (some Famous Commercial Examples (FCEs): Jim Beam, Wild Turkey).

In wheat bourbon, wheat replaces the rye, which makes the final liquid much smoother, less likely to heat your chest once you swallow it (FCEs: Maker’s Mark, Old Fitz). Rye (sometimes called “high rye”) bourbon is the “burniest” of all the options, and uses less corn, almost no barley, and double the rye. Make no mistake, this one has bite (FCEs: Basil Haydon — yours truly’s absolute fav; Woodford Reserve, Bulleit. FCE Note: another one called Whistle Pig is a fairly new rye brand from Vermont. It’s pricey. And worth every dang penny).

But let’s not do history or any more factoids, shall we not? Let’s do some chocolate with our bourbon. In order to do so properly, I reached out to one of my favorite experts, Aaron Goldfarb, booze columnist for Esquire, PUNCH, and many others. He’s also written a couple of awesome books about brown liquor and cocktails in general. More on that in a minute. 

Let’s get some pairings going, because “Valentine’s Day” and all that. As with most booze and food pairings, there are no hard and fast rules. But there are some guidelines, and Aaron and I are here to guide you through this one. Like wine and beer, some types of bourbons are going to complement or contrast with certain chocolates in ways that will make that whole Ratatouille thing happen in your mouth again (you know what I’m talking about, don’t pretend like you don’t).

I’ve got Aaron’s brown liquor and chocolate tasting chart with specific commercial examples, and will add my own after each entry. 

Ready? Set? Drink…

Milk chocolate  — Uncle Nearest 1856

This new-ish Tennessee whiskey brand not only offers strong chocolate notes itself, but hints of berries, nuts, and buttered pecans. It’s a candy bar of a whiskey already, and a perfect pairing.

Liz says: try something spicy to contrast the smoothness — maybe a Bulleit 10 Year? Or even my previously stated favorite, Mr. B. Haydon.

Dark chocolate — The GlenDronach Original 12 Years Old

This Highlands single malt is matured in Spanish sherry barrels (Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso), which I find leads to some really creamy, dark chocolate notes, along with hints of raisins, cherries, and spice. A perfect after-dinner pairing with dark chocolate.

Liz says: Definitely want to crack that wax off a bottle of Maker’s Mark for this one.

Salted caramel chocolate — Old Forester 1920

This “prohibition-style” bourbon is rich with notes of caramel, toffee, and even crème brûlée. Be careful though — it goes down easy despite being 57.5%!

Liz says: Liz approves. But watch out — keep your clothes on for this one!

Peanut butter chocolate (peanut butter cups or whatever) — Booker’s Bourbon

The intense peanut butter notes in this Jim Beam small batch product pair perfectly with peanut butter cups. The high proof of the Booker’s assures that Valentine’s Day is not going to last deep into the night!

Liz says: I still have a bottle of Booker’s from Christmas, and it’s by golly time to break out the Reese’s Cups from Halloween right about now.

White chocolate — New Riff Straight Rye Whiskey

Since white chocolate is so buttery, you need something drier and a bit more aggressive to cut through it. This four-year-old bonded rye from one of Kentucky’s newest distilleries is perfect — intense notes of cinnamon and other baking spices elevate the white chocolate.

Liz says: I love it when Aaron tosses out something I’ve never heard of (and now have to go find). Sounds like a great excuse for a trip home to Louisville!

A few bourbon chocolate tangents for your Valentine’s Day/Month reading pleasure:

A pie made with pecans, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and a couple or more tablespoons of bourbon is called a “Derby Pie.” Some people make it with walnuts and call it “nutty chocolate bourbon pie.” This is blasphemy. It’s best served with freshly whipped cream infused with (you guessed it) more bourbon.

I tried a couple of different bourbon ball recipes this past Christmas and kept about a half dozen of each to age so we can enjoy them on Valentine’s Day. I like the one that had me soak the chocolate chips in the bourbon for a day (I did it for 3 days…because why not?). If you are going to make these and give them as gifts, note that they must age at least three weeks (five or six is better). 

If you want to combine the bourbon and chocolate into a drink and not a dessert, I found this recipe and tried it out a couple of times (okay, three times) with very happy results. 

Fill a rocks glass with ice, then add:

– 2 dashes chocolate bitters (Fee Brother’s Aztec Chocolate Bitters from Plum Market)
– 2 dashes cherry bitters (Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bitters from last year’s Christmas stocking, but I found them online too)
– 1 oz simple syrup
– 2 oz bourbon (I’d go with something spicy, but I think we’ve well established that is where my palate lies with this stuff. I made this with Woodford Reserve the first time, and I’d give it 4 stars. The 5-star version was made with something else I got in my stocking (yes, my family knows me). The most amazingly balanced traditional bourbon I’ve had in a while — Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel.)

Stir with care and love, sprinkle with grated dark chocolate, and garnish with a chocolate-covered cherry (suggestion: Imperial Chocolate Covered Cherries from Cherry Republic).

Go on. Give “America’s Spirit” a shot — I mean, uh, a try, this Valentine’s Day. Keep your clothes. Or not. We’re all grown-ups here.

Oh, and you must read Aaron Goldfarb’s books, Hacking Whiskey and his latest Gather Around Cocktails.

If you want to watch something super entertaining (and female empowering vis-a-vis distilling), be sure and catch “NEAT. The Story of Bourbon,” on Hulu.


Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries. (fan page)

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