Few meals are as primally pleasing to prepare as steak cooked on the grill. Summer is when countless Americans get in touch with their inner Neanderthal, carefully choosing the cut, thickness, and age of steaks for a meal of flame-cooked flesh.
Whisky, of course, makes a natural partner with flavors of smoke and char, but as it turns out, creating the perfect pairing of whisky and steak requires a little more inspection than you might first think.
“The provenance of the beef is more important than the cut,” says Danny McCallum, chef at Toronto’s premier steakhouse, Jacobs & Co. “While fat and texture do make a difference, the entire cow is going to have a similar taste,” he notes. With this in mind, McCallum advises paying attention to the environment in which the animal was raised, what it was fed: corn, grain, or pasture raised. Even the composition of the local water impacts flavor.
McCallum points to Idaho beef from Snake River Farms, which he describes as one of the most famous sources for Wagyu beef in the U.S. and also an environment quite rich in minerals. This elevated mineral content, McCallum says, translates into the beef, affecting not only the flavor of Snake River steaks, but also their cooking time, which can take twice as long as that of comparable cuts of typical beef.
To illustrate this, McCallum offered a medium-rare tenderloin from a farm on Canada’s similarly mineral-rich Prince Edward Island. The metallic tang of the meat was apparent from the first bite, an accentuation of the blood-iron taste apparent in any pink-hued steak. The iodine and smoke of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, or the fuller but less peaty Talisker 10 year old are ideal partners, teasing out sweetness from the meat.
Most beef in the U.S. hails from large farms that feed their cattle diets high in corn, resulting in sweet, fat-pocketed steaks that lend themselves to rich and rounded bourbons. McCallum contrasts this with the bright flavors and freshness of grass-fed animals, usually leaner and raised on smaller farms, which pair well with drier and leaner whiskies from Scotland; lighter malts for tenderloins and bigger bodied, sherried malts for fattier cuts and burgers.
While provenance of the animal sets the stage, chef McCallum concedes that cuts clearly matter, as they influence characteristics like fattiness, the presence of bone, and the potential for dry-aging. The tenderloin, he says, is the purest expression of the meat, with no bones to mask the flavor, whereas an on-the-bone rib eye offers a, “full, bloody, beefy experience.” Striploin falls between the two, while the prominent bone of a T-bone steak amplifies beef’s nutty, earthy character. “Dry-aging changes everything, intensifying all the flavors,” he adds.
A moderately fatty, unaged tenderloin will welcome a lighter bourbon like Maker’s Mark or a relatively robust Canadian whisky such as Lot No. 40 or Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve. As you up the fat and flavor, like a 30-day aged bone-in rib eye, reach for the bigger flavors of a high-rye bourbon like Four Roses Single Barrel or a round and full single malt such as Highland Park 18 year old for pasture-raised beef.
In between, where striploins, sirloins, and T-bones reside, the key is to keep an eye on the marbling of the meat and step up the robustness of the whisky accordingly. The fruity butterscotch flavors of pot distilled Irish whiskeys like Green Spot suit lower fat content steaks and a sturdy rye whiskey like Sazerac 18 year old works wonderfully beside bone-in, dry-aged steaks. So be sure to confidently choose the perfect whisky for your next backyard steak. Sometimes, it’s the only thing separating us from the cavemen.
3 Whisky and Steak Pairings to Try
Auchentoshan 12 year old + pasture-raised tenderloin
Dry maltiness and gentle grassiness complement the fresh taste of lean, pastured beef.
Yoichi 15 year old + supermarket T-bone
An oily, spicy, salty whisky acts as seasoning for the earthy bone-in steak and refuses to be overwhelmed.
Stranahan’s Colorado + dry-aged, corn-fed striploin
Corn-fed sweetness is accentuated with accentuated with age and suits the sweet, nutty-spicy character of the Colorado whiskey.