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Here’s What We Learned from BBQ & Bourbon Experts

Advice for Pairing BBQ Dishes with Bourbon Whiskey

BBQ and Bourbon Fest Chefs & Guests
Cheers to the 3rd annual BBQ & Bourbon Festival

For busy Austinites in need of a reviving break from the city, Camp Lucy in Dripping Springs feels like an oasis with its beautifully-landscaped grounds, abundant oak trees, resort amenities, open-air patios and decks, and Tillie’s, its onsite restaurant devoted to modern Texan cuisine. Andy Knudson, the executive chef of Tillie’s, has forged close ties with pit chefs, craft brewers, and artisanal distillers from all over Central Texas, which is why his BBQ & Bourbon Festival, which celebrated its 3rd year at Camp Lucy, is something of a “family reunion” where his culinary pals can show off their stuff while an enthusiastic group of attendees enjoys the flavorful results. 

The BBQ & Bourbon Festival was a celebration of smoke, meat, and whiskey on the stunning grounds of Camp Lucy in Dripping Springs.

This outdoor gathering happened on the hot evening in June with a wonderfully balanced crowd of serious BBQ fans, industry pros, and curious Austinites eager to try some flavorful bites and some potent bourbons.

Knudson’s invite list for participating chefs and distillers focused heavily on Texas-based folks, with Nick Fine of Wild Oats in Houston, Lance Eaker of Eaker Barbecue in Fredericksburg, Allie McMillian of ATX Cocina in Austin, Jim Tripi of the Driftwood Golf Club, Thomas Gardner of Hudson Meat Market, and, of course Knudson himself displaying their Lone Star State-honed expertise. The only pit chef from outside Texas was Florida grill master Rick Mace of Tropical Smokehouse in West Palm Beach, who didn’t hesitate to deliver big Florida flavors.

On the beverage side, Texas was also prominently featured with Treaty Oak serving straight pours of bourbon and rye (along with a refreshing spiked Arnold Palmer). Austin’s own Still Austin Whiskey talked guests through tastings of their Straight Bourbon, Straight Rye, and Cask Strength Bourbon. Garrison Brothers welcomed bourbon aficionados. Milam & Greene let the southern Hill Country get a word in edgewise with their Triple Cask Bourbon and a few other smaller-batch varieties. Nine Banded Whiskey offered up their Kentucky-distilled bourbon that’s blended with Hill Country water to give it a very Texan twist. Other boozy libations included beers from Twisted X Brewing and Vista Brewing, wine from Lost Draw, pours of High Desert Cactus Vodka, and hard seltzers from Canteen Spirits.

Key tips for enjoying barbecue and bourbon together:

Bourbon and barbecue make a lot of sense as a food and drink pairing. They’re both smoky, richly-flavored, and complex. Also, their shared cultural footprint binds them together. Bourbon and BBQ are deeply rooted in American culinary traditions, particularly in the southern United States. Both have a shared heritage and are often associated with gatherings, celebrations, and outdoor events. Their cultural connection and historical proximity make them a natural pairing. Creating exceptional bourbon and BBQ takes expertise, patience, and quality ingredients.

Expert pit chefs and distillers at BBQ & Bourbon Fest shared their advice:

Excellent cuts of meat should be matched with top-flight pours of bourbon. When you’ve got the really good stuff coming out of the barbecue pit, don’t expect a blah bottle of bourbon to do the trick. Instead, find a bottle with a flavor profile that you truly love. “If I had the choice to drink any bourbon, I would pick anything made by Willett that is made in Kentucky, especially the Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon that is cask strength from a single barrel. This would be served neat. I typically like to enjoy this with American-raised Wagyu beef that has been dry-aged. If you are going to pair, do it the best that you can!” Knudson insists.

Steer clear of flavored bourbons. While a flavored bourbon can make for a fun sip on its own, Meredith Shaffer, the banquets executive chef of Camp Lucy, warns against trying to pair it with a barbecue spread. “Keep in mind that the wood used also has flavor and will alter flavors in the item you are smoking, so don’t try too hard looking for a flavored bourbon. Keep it simple, like a Kentucky straight that’s oak barreled,” she says.

Lower-proof bourbons are easier to pair with food than higher-proof versions. To get the best balance of bourbon taste and BBQ flavor, consider going “with a lower-proof bourbon,” says Dan Garrison, founder of Garrison Brothers. He points out that “the high-proof bottles will overpower the salt and pepper seasoning in the barbecue.” 

Bourbon cocktails are a great option for a BBQ beverage. When we asked the pros for their favorite bourbon cocktails to drink at a barbecue, they overwhelmingly agreed that lively and fresh-tasting drinks with citrusy and herbaceous notes work perfectly with glazed ribs, smoked brisket, and any number of other BBQ staples. 

Tasting bourbon is the best way to learn about bourbon. The world of whiskey can feel intimidating to newcomers. However, at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as an empirically “bad”’ bourbon or “good” bourbon–rather, there are bourbons that you might not enjoy and bourbons that you might like a lot. To figure out where your particular bourbon tastes lie, Lance Eaker urges you to “try them all. Start with your favorite BBQ and bourbon and experiment.  Have some friends over for a tasting and discuss amongst each other what works best with what and why.” Don’t be afraid to have fun with it!