Why Rye Whiskey Pairs Perfectly With Fatty Foods, According To Michter's Master Distiller Dan McKee - Exclusive

A bottle of Michter's rye whiskey with steak and salmon
A bottle of Michter's rye whiskey with steak and salmon - Static Media/Shutterstock

Whiskey likely isn't the first beverage that comes to mind when you're about to chow down on some food. It doesn't have the volume of wine or beer to sustain itself over the course of a meal, and the strength of its flavor can be an intimidating profile to work with. That doesn't need to be the case, though. When we were at the Nassau Paradise Island Wine and Food Fest, we had a chance to talk to Michter's Master Distiller Dan McKee about whiskey pairings during his tasting event at The Dilly Club.

"With the ryes, for sure, it likes to cut the fat," McKee told us. That could mean a decadent cheese or something more substantial like "a really nice steak." It's not all that different from pairing bourbon with food, but rye has more spice to it than bourbon. Bourbon is predominantly made with corn whereas rye is made with rye wheat. The sweetness of corn is what gives bourbon its iconic caramel flavor on the finish.

The differences between rye whiskey and bourbon are noticeable when you're comparing them side by side, but when it comes to food pairings, these distinctions don't make an enormous impression. That said, the bold flavors of rye make it somewhat more difficult to find a proper food partner. "You're looking for many different things, whether it's going to compare, contrast, but it's a lot of fun," McKee said.

Read more: The 27 Best Bourbon Brands, Ranked

Cutting The Fat With Rye Whiskey

A glass of whiskey next to a plate with salmon and avocados
A glass of whiskey next to a plate with salmon and avocados - Baranov Dmitriy/Getty Images

Just because rye whiskey isn't as versatile as other drinks doesn't mean it doesn't have a proper place. "Cutting the fats with the rye whiskey," Dan McKee explained. "That's where those aged hams, whether it's 12 months, 24 months, which is fantastic and common in Kentucky. And then a smoked salmon, it pairs very well." With such a big-bodied whiskey, you'll need to find something that has a big, fatty persona to soften up the rye while it in turn brings complexity to the meal overall.

While McKee enjoys drinking his rye whiskey neat, there are other options for those of you who want something a little less harsh on the palate or that you can drink regularly throughout your meal. There are several fantastic cocktails that use rye whiskey as their base, which can make this food pairing more accessible to other people at the dinner table who may not share your love of rye whiskey to the same degree.

If you're trying to maintain McKee's concept around cutting through fat with rye whiskey, you may want to avoid diluting the bold flavors of the rye too much but there are plenty of spirit-forward rye cocktails that strike a good balance between the two. A Manhattan is an easy recommendation as it's well-known and profiles the strengths of rye in a very positive light. Going deeper into cocktail territory, a Vieux Carré is a classic from the 1930s that also includes Cognac and sweet vermouth.

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