Daring Pairing #3: S'mores/Bourbon
Why we thought it would work:
Lauren: Bourbon and s’mores share soooo many flavors—chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, molasses, toast, etc. Bourbon is also, generally speaking, a bit on the sweeter side so that doesn’t hurt (we are pairing with dessert here). I think though that the high alcohol content (we’re going neat) will help cut through some of the sticky-sweet richness and provide a welcome palate reset. I don’t think, for instance, that hot cocoa would work here: all sweet and no relief.
Branden: My good friend and bartending mentor, Beau du Bois once commented on the prevailing toasted marshmallow character of the vaunted Pappy Van Winkle 20yr—which we had the fortune to be sipping one night after a particularly long shift (we deserved it). I took another sip or two and wholeheartedly agreed. I have since discerned the same character in a number of other Bourbons (funny how that works) but admittedly not to the extent of rare and pricey Pappy. We didn’t have any Pappy on hand so we went with Old Grand Dad Straight Bourbon (it was on hand) which is made with a slightly higher proportion of rye than many of its brethren and will therefore provide a little peppery spice to spar with all that sweetness.
Our Conclusion: 5/5
This was our favorite pairing to date. The s’mores were great on their own—that helped (more on that below)—but add the Bourbon and they were absolutely evil. This is the essence of a knock-it-out-of-the-park pairing: a combination that is so much better than the sum of its parts that having them individually will thereafter always be a bit of a let down. I, Branden, have many such hardwired “pairings” based on long conditioning in the gustatory wasteland of a lower-middle class upbringing: buttered white bread with nearly every meal; pizza with milk; potato chips with pizza. To clarify, I can enjoy both potato chips and pizza individually but in my mind they will never be nearly as good solo (re:re:re Hall and Oates; The Beatles; sex and candy—not the song). By the same token I will never again be able to enjoy a s’more without thinking of how much better it could be with a dram of Bourbon, or be able to again sit in a posh whiskey bar without observing (loudly) that they would do well to set out a s’more or two. Seven Grand, you have been warned.
Most of our intuitions were correct. The complimentary flavors were there in spades and the sweetness was balanced well by the peppery finish of our Bourbon and the slight bitterness of our chocolate (70% cacao; more on that below). The high alcohol content played a big part—a much bigger part than expected—in terms of cutting through the sweetness and allowing us to consume nearly a full sleeve of Maria cookies (more on that below), a full bar of chocolate, and the better half of a bag of marshmallows. A lot of Bourbon was involved but that’s just Tuesday.
Epilogue I: Let Me Get This “Straight”
In the United States, a whiskey distilled to no more than 160 proof and barreled at no more than 125 proof in a new charred oak barrel and then spending no less than two years in said barrel and then amended with nothing more than water (to reduce the alcohol content to no less than 80 proof) may consider itself “straight.”
The most important takeaways here are the ‘at least two years’ part and the ‘nothing but water’ part. You can be sure that the only thing in the bottle is aged whiskey—no neutral grain spirit, no flavorings, no caramel color. The same cannot be said of blended whiskey or whisk(e)y from other countries (e.g., even single malt Scotch may legally contain caramel coloring).
Epilogue II: S’more Better
Milk chocolate is mostly all gross, and Hersey’s takes the cake for the grossest.* To date, I’ve never found an application that calls for milk chocolate that hasn’t been improved by the substitution of dark chocolate and s’mores are no exception. Another improvement—if we may be so bold—was our substitution of Maria cookies for graham crackers, which are made by Goya and have a very similar flavor but are not quite as dry and mealy. They also lack that annoying propensity for breaking along the seam (or just in pieces) when you try to compact your s’more. They’re also much more attractive than graham crackers and style will get you everywhere.
Epilogue III: Why Not Scotch?
Scotch seems like the obvious choice.** It’s smoky, and fires make smoke, and marshmallows are cooked over campfires, and there was a campfire in Footloose staring Kevin Bacon (nailed it***). The reason Scotch seems like a good idea is because both Scotch and toasted marshmallows are flavored by their direct interactions with fire, right? The malted barley that will eventually become Scotch whisky is kilned over an open peat fire, imparting a distinctly smokey (and peaty) character. Toasted marshmallows on the other hand, despite being briefly hoisted over an open flame, don’t really absorb much smoke. Scotch, you are not the father.
What the flame does impart is caramelization and a little char and this, my friend, is where Bourbon turns around and says “who’s askin’?” Remember that Bourbon—by legal definition—must be aged in new and unused charred oak barrels. This means that all of those caramelized wood sugars, all that char, and all that vanillin (a chemical compound found in wood that is closely related to vanilla—which is, ya know, marshmallows) are going right into the liquid. Compare this to Scotch which is produced under no such restriction and is practically always aged in used barrels which have already given most of their warm and toasty goodness to the last guy (or more likely last several guys if it’s French oak ;) ;) ;).
Reach for Bourbon. Save the Scotch for steak and penicillins.
*Though they’ve never publicly admitted it, Hershey’s milk chocolate is likely made by a process called “controlled liposys” whereby their milk is intentionally soured to increase shelf life. The byproduct of this process is butyric acid—also found in vomit—which lends their chocolate that characteristic sickly tang (some Hersey’s competitors just add butyric acid to their product to mimic the flavor). That being said, my grandma used to have this homemade Hershey’s-scented candle that she bought at a tanning salon that smelled amazing. Also, two of Lauren’s uncles grew up in the Hersey’s Boys Home (long story) and have a lot of good to say about it so Hersey’s is not all bad.
** Once for an event I attempted to create a toasted-marshmallow-infused Scotch for a cocktail. Two weeks and a wasted bottle of J&B (don’t infuse the good stuff) later and I was convinced of the error of my ways.
***Dear people born in the 90s or (god forbid) later: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was a game we used to play pre-Netflix. The rules can probably be found on an old HTML website somewhere.