How to Pair Whisky with Chili
January 16, 2023 –––––– Stephen Beaumont
Chili is the Martini of the North American culinary world, in that everyone knows how to make it, but few agree on which method to use. Atop the list of debates is whether or not kidney beans belong in the recipe, with the nothing-but-meat advocates being particularly vocal in defense of their position. Then comes the matter of heat: mouth-burning from fresh chiles, moderately hot from dried peppers, or simply a bit piquant from chile powder. And should the tomato element be fresh, canned, or added as sauce, if indeed it should be present at all?
Most non-purist chili aficionados would agree, however, that there are three or possibly four primary families of chili: Texas, with cubed beef and no beans; vegetarian; beef and bean, sometimes simply known as red, featuring ground beef and red kidney beans; and the outlier, white chili made with white beans and chicken, and sometimes with cream as well.
Made with well-marbled brisket and an assortment of dried chiles, my long-simmered Texas chili edged toward the high end of the heat scale, but stopped just shy of being sweat-inducing. I tried it alongside whiskies both with and without ice, finding ice to be mostly preferable, and settled quickly on big-bodied bourbons and American sour mash whiskeys as the ideal partners. In particular, I enjoyed Michter’s Original Sour Mash served with a dense ice ball, although just about any substantial whiskey with a bit of chill should perform nicely.
Next, I experimented with white chili. After a little tinkering, I decided to employ sour cream and grated cheese as accompaniments rather than ingredients, The resulting chili’s light and relatively mild nature led me to low-rye Canadian, blended Irish, and unpeated scotch whiskies, with the last performing most impressively. As I progressively spiced it up with hot sauce, I again found that putting a chill on the whisky made it a more amiable pairing.
Another style is vegetarian, and I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of flavor it developed after simmering for a few hours. With a tomato and bean-forward version, mildly spicy, I found that a slightly fuller- bodied, but not quite robust Irish whiskey made an excellent partner; Tullamore D.E.W. rather than Jameson or Redbreast, for example. As I increased the spice, however, straight rye emerged as a powerhouse pairing, with a round and spicy Canadian just edging out its American peers, although Michter’s again performed well with its Kentucky straight rye.
Finally, with a basic red chili, unquestionably the variety most common in the culinary world, culture and history come together in delicious harmony, with bourbon proving a masterful selection alongside mild to medium heat—extra body required as the spice grows—and American straight rye suiting highly spicy versions. Add ice as the heat increases, or don’t—the result will still be a magnificent partnership.
Westward Stout Cask with any non-white chili
The chocolaty note of this expression adds depth and richness to the flavor of the chili’s peppery spice.
Lot No. 40 Dark Oak with spicy vegetarian chili
Spice meets spice in a pairing of almost perfect partners, with the roundness of the whisky rendering ice entirely optional.
Balvenie DoubleWood with white chili
The medium body and full sherry-fueled fruitiness of the whisky contribute complexity to the chili without overpowering it.