Millions of us spend our weekends grilling various forms of meat over open fires. Mostly, though by no means exclusively, those meats take the form of sausage, from the humble all-beef hot dog to bratwursts, chorizos, spicy Italian sausages, and the odd lamb merguez or Dutch boterhammenworst.
Enjoyed alongside all those wursts and foot-longs will be plenty of cold beer, principally lager, or in a pinch, chilled white wine. What will only rarely merit grill-side consideration is whisky, and it’s time to rethink that position.
“Every kind of sausage is an emulsification of fat and protein,” explains Jesse Vallins, executive chef at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Tavern and three-time champion of the city’s chef-driven sausage cook-off Sausage League. “The main thing that gives it flavor is fat, plus obviously the various spices and seasonings.”
Vallins’s ideal sausage fat content of at least 30 percent can overwhelm many wines and even some beers. However, the higher alcohol of a whisky allows it to cut through the fattiness, making it an ideal partner, particularly when the meat is cooked over wood or charcoal and the whisky speaks loudly of peat or the charred wood barrel in which it matured.
Texture will also have an effect on pairings. Vallins divides the world’s sausages into two broad categories: highly emulsified ones, like hot dogs and most mass-market kielbasa, characterized by a smooth, even consistency, and coarse sausages, such as Italian and chorizo, which contain chunks of fat.
The smoother sausages will tend to emphasize aromatic spices and flavorings. Hot dogs with garlic, salt, pepper, and often some combination of paprika, coriander, and nutmeg are well-suited for wheated or multi-grain American whiskey, rather than spicy, rye-forward varieties. If the weather is particularly warm, an ice cube or drop of water can help them harmonize.
This partnership extends to the slightly coarser American farmer’s sausage, which Vallins characterizes as a riff on the British banger and notes is often sage-accented. With their mild and brunch-friendly character, most “breakfast sausages” are versions of farmer’s sausage. All play well with the sweetness of an Old-Fashioned, even more so when garnished with a twist of very fresh orange peel.
Vallins notes that fennel is a common flavor in Italian sausages, which would seem to suit them more to sambuca than whisky. Combined with the typically coarse fattiness of the sausage, however, the anise-like character of fennel actually welcomes the contrast of a light, fresh, and floral Irish whiskey.
Among other popular summertime favorites, bratwurst and kielbasa belong in the American-friendly hot dog/farmer’s camp. Venturing toward nationally-oriented sausages, the herbes de Provençe-flavored Toulouse soars when enjoyed with a full-bodied Scottish malt. Branching into the ‘exotics,’ such as ostrich, venison, and duck sausages, pairing should be guided by fat content. The richness of duck demands the weight of Mortlach. Leaner meats, like venison and bison, are notoriously difficult to make into sausage unless additional fat is added, according to Vallins, but when well executed they deserve a rye-forward Canadian whisky such as Wiser’s Legacy.
Three Whisky and Sausage Pairings to Try
Lagavulin 16 year old + Haggis
Scotland’s national dish is indeed a sausage, and its oaty, offal character loves smoky whiskies.
Manatawny Still Works Keystone + All-Beef Wiener
The four-grain complexity of this Pennsylvania spirit complements the hot dog without overwhelming.
Tullamore D.E.W. + Italian Sausage
Fennel and florals define this pairing, with the Irish spirit providing an intriguing contrast.