When I was 8 years old, I walked through my family’s Choctaw, Oklahoma, backwoods with a single shot .22, scanning the trees for squirrels. This gun had been passed down two generations in my family and the sights had become crooked, so catching a moving squirrel became a guessing game and I missed more than I hit. Nonetheless, I returned home to grandpa’s with a couple squirrels after every adventure. Grandpa skinned them with his pocket knife, threw butter in the cast iron skillet and we’d eat them for lunch or dinner, usually drinking buttermilk to wash it down. That’s my earliest memory of enjoying game meats. And while I no longer seek squirrel with my single shot, those moments led to a lifelong craving for meats rarely carried in grocery stores. Now, as a spirits professional, I’ve chronicled a few pairing strategies with game for folks like me who enjoy the taste of the wild.
Pairing distilled spirits is a little different than wine or beer, both of which are just fermented. Distilled spirits are fermented alcohols that are distilled and will have up to five to 10 times the alcohol percentage of a glass of wine. So, you must take into account the heat from the alcohol and consider cocktails. But grizzled whiskey drinkers find the beauty of pairing bourbon neat or with a little water or ice.
What you look for when pairing: You want alcohol to complement the flavor of the food instead of taking away, meaning if the spirit overpowers the food it’s not a good pairing.
The way the game is prepared is important, too. For example, crispy skin on a bird presents a plethora of savory notes and a texture that becomes the leading element in the palate. Your spirit should match the bird. In the case of crispy skin that has a touch of sweetness, maybe a honey glaze, you’re looking for a savory whiskey with a touch of honey, such as a Redbreast 12-year Pure Pot Still Irish whiskey, where the savory undertones match the crispy skin’s flavor and the whiskey’s malt offers up a taste of honey.
Thus, when you’re cooking, you want to keep your pairing strategy in mind. You’re always looking for complementary flavors. If you smoke your meat, use a whiskey with a smoke note. Loading up on oregano in a game meat pasta? Look for an herbal cocktail. Stuffing the bird with oranges and topping with using a citrus glaze? Perhaps an orange liqueur cocktail could do the trick.
In other words, don’t overthink this. You want the spirit to share a note with the game. And when you put both in your mouth, an explosion of flavor hits.
Here are some of my favorite pairings:
Pairing to deer is not as easy as it may sound. Some bucks taste straight-out bloody while others are as close to as Holstein steak as you can get.
For deer, I like to pair American whiskey with a dehydrated citrus note that really stands up and even compounds the gamey or blood note in venison. Brands to look for George Dickel, Barrell and Old Elk carry the note that is perfect neat with a venison steak that’s been cooked over an open fire, broiled or grilled.
This is as much about the animal as it is the whiskey. A buck that’s survived a few winters will be gamier than a cornfed young buck. For those of the latter, you’re looking to pair a traditional bourbon, like an Elijah Craig, which has some savory and sweet notes, similar to you would with a steak. Slow cook the less gamy venison, breaking down the meat, place a forkful in your mouth and wash down with a nice taste of Elijah Craig. Oh, boy, that’s like butter.
Quail and Pheasant
These two birds are delicious and can be found on menus throughout the country and even in grocery stores. I love pairing two things with these birds —- rum and rye whiskey. Which? Well, it depends on how they’re cooked.
Interestingly, I have found meats to taste better with whiskeys made from the same bases that the animal ate. For example, steak (cattle eat corn) and bourbon (made from 51% corn) are heavenly together.
Both quail and pheasant love rye seeds. And even though in the US rye is a cover crop and not planted in abundance, they seek this cereal grain out.
When oven cooked, with a crispy skin, these birds are meant to be paired with Kentucky rye whiskeys, such as Russell’s Reserve 6 Year and Rittenhouse Rye, because the two just explode in the palate with savory goodness. That’s served neat; for a cocktail, the spiciness of a high rye bourbon cocktail, such as a Four Roses’ Manhattan, blossoms a roasted pheasant or quail.
If the birds are placed in a frier or pan fried, the meat can be a little less chewy, making me want a touch of sweetness with spice instead of savory and spice. Thus, I’m a sucker for the Jamaican rum here.
Appleton Rum neat has a funky sweetness and spice that oddly pulls out the original gaminess of a fried bird. It’s one of the great pairing wonders of the world — Jamaican rum and fried pheasant.
But is it better than fried squirrel and buttermilk? Well, not for me. That’s nostalgia. And nothing beats your early hunting stories with your grandpa.
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