For most of us, the transition from cocktail hour to mealtime calls for a change in the potable course. It's a cue to put away the shaker and sit down to the task at hand – eating – with a no-fuss wine or beer. But a cocktail, properly mixed, can work wonders with food, brimming with a spectrum of flavours as complex as those on the plate.
I learned that lesson long ago, probably at the insistence of a wise bartender; I'm especially fond of bourbon drinks with barbecue. Robust smoky meat – whether classic slow-cooked pork or brisket or quick-charred steaks – makes fast friends with the mellow sweetness and luscious depth of American whiskey, especially when the beverage also features the complementary zip of citrus fruit. Let's face it, even chilled white wine or beer can turn tepid in the glass before the flesh comes off the cooker. Not so with an ice-conditioned cocktail.
Bourbon's affinity with barbecue is no news to residents of the American South, where Southerners have long enjoyed all manner of bourbon-based cocktails with their 'cue, from the classic mint julep to whiskey sours to spiked lemonade and iced tea.
The spirit gets its rounded, sweet character from corn, as do most Canadian whiskies. Unlike virtually all other whiskies, however, it's aged for at least two years, often much longer, in new, heavily charred oak barrels, imbuing the distillate with toasty, spicy overtones. Wood also adds its own sweetness in the form of vanilla and caramel flavours. In a sense, bourbon is a potable analogue to the caramelized, smoky taste of barbecued red meat – one reason it works so well in marinades, too.
Add fresh citrus to the mix and you've got velvety richness with palate-cleansing tang, as in the classic whiskey sour. At Barque Smokehouse in Toronto, the kitchen adds its own incendiary touch to a few cocktails as well as the food. The Smoked Bourbon, a riff on the whiskey sour, combines 11/2 ounces of Four Roses Bourbon with an equal volume of lemon juice mixed with simple syrup. In this case, the lemon juice is first placed in a container and left in a smoker for about 20 minutes to soak up the essence of smouldering wood. "The flavour is pretty strong, but the drink has the acidity that really cuts through the richness of the food," says Gerardo Diaz, Barque's assistant general manager. "The key word is refreshing."
Among the signature drinks at Peckinpah, a Carolina-style barbecue restaurant in Vancouver with more than 40 bourbons, is the Apple Bourbon Thingy. To make it yourself, place 1 ounce Buffalo Trace Bourbon, 2 ounces apple juice and a dash of Angostura bitters in a shaker with ice; shake and strain into a rocks-filled highball glass; top up with ginger ale and add a splash of Southern Comfort.
The establishment's most popular drink, though, is a Caesar made with bourbon instead of vodka and garnished with a slice of house-smoked beef jerky. "It goes awesome with the food," says server Crystal Mohr. Frankly, it sounds like you could order it as food.
Though the Caesar lends itself to considerable experimentation, bourbon lovers might consider it a Confederate crime to mess with the classic mint julep. (Not that it hasn't been tried – hello, basil!) Julep junkies have been known to stand on ceremony, insisting on silver or pewter mugs and ice pounded in a canvas bag into a snowy powder, but the basic recipe is pretty straightforward.
Add 1 teaspoon of confectioner's sugar, 2 teaspoons water and 1 or 2 spearmint leaves to a large, old-fashioned-style glass. Muddle the mint to release its oils. Fill the glass to the rim with crushed ice and pour in 21/2 ounces of bourbon. Most crucially, garnish with 3 or 4 sprigs from the top of a mint plant (where the leaves are smallest), allowing the sprigs to extend about five centimetres above the rim. Then serve with a short straw, forcing the imbiber to bury his or her nose in the verdant forest.
Some people in fact insist on omitting mint leaves from the first step, arguing that the drink is all about pure bourbon flavour and the mere aroma, not flavour, of mint. But for fatty barbecue I like a kick of refreshing green right in the drink.
At the Palomino Smokehouse in Calgary, summer marks a surge in sales of Lynchburg Lemonade, the establishment's own take on a cocktail traditionally made with lemon-lime soda, triple sec and Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey. The Palomino's version is 11/2 ounces Jack Daniel's, 1/2 ounce triple sec, the juice of about half a lime and a splash each of orange and lemon juice. "It's essentially a margarita made with whiskey," says general manager Arlen Smith. "It's as palate-cleansing as bourbon can be."
If even that sounds too strenuous for a lazy summer's day, consider an easy-peasy bourbon-spiked lemonade before defaulting back to beer or wine.
"Lemonade romantically works because it's out of the Southern tradition," says Al McPherson, chef at Boneheads BBQ in Halifax. Though Boneheads serves only beer, not cocktails, Mr. McPherson says one of the best barbecue pairings he's ever enjoyed was something he dreamt up this summer: bourbon, lemonade and peach schnapps in a roughly one-four-one ratio. "There was a little bit of that Southern fruit, the peach, which lifts up and marries well with the sweetness that you have in barbecue sauces."
He adds that he didn't bother to name the drink. "It was a kind of mucking-around-in-the-back-yard stuff. But you could call it the Bitter Zeke if you want, after my dear-departed dog." Not bitter at all, actually. Quite sweet, in fact.