The typical barbecue drink seems to be beer. I have nothing against beer. I like beer, in fact. I’m probably most partial to nut brown ales, especially English nut brown ales. I like microbrews, too, and I think it’s great how good beers are easier to find today than they used to be (however, I think the day of the local microbrewery restaurant has mostly passed… It’s too expensive for most places to stay open if they don’t bottle and sell outside of a restaurant).
The Accidental Hedonist recently asked about good Scotch whisky, which made me realize I don’t think I’ve mentioned how well Scotch can go with barbecue. Scotch is a different level of drink. It’s not something you drink as a beverage, to help wash down some brisket. Shiner Bock does that really well. Scotch is more something to have after barbecue. Sound odd to put scotch and barbecue together? I don’t think it’s odd at all.
I first had scotch when I was a freshman in college. My roommate, Jake, got a bottle of Chivas Regal, a blended whisky. I had always heard the old saying that scotch ‘is an acquired taste’. That phrase usually means that something either has a very strong taste, or it’s bad until you get used to it, like brussel sprouts, which I’m still not used to and don’t have to eat since I’m adult. With scotch, I didn’t have that taste-acquiring period; I liked it right away.
That’s not true of all Scotch whisky. Some of it just plain sucks. I’ve never cared for the bite that Glenfiddich has. I don’t really care for most blended scotches, though Johnnie Walker Blue is pretty good, at a price of about $200 a bottle.
As a college freshman, though, it was just kind of ‘classy’ enough to like Chivas Regal (around $35/bottle now; I think was more like $20 then). It was probably at least three or four years before I had any single malt whisky. The difference between blended and single malts is easy to see when you try them, but single malts are made from 100% malted barley from one producer, and blended whisky is made from blends of malted barley whisky and grain whisky from any number of producers. To me, there’s more character in a single malt scotch; some I like, some I don’t. I don’t like every wine or every beer I’ve ever tried, either.
After years of preferring Glenlivet (about $40 a bottle today vs $25 when I started drinking it), I have other favorites, though someday I’d love to try the Glenlivet 50 year old whisky (About $2600/bottle) or the 1964 vintage ($2666/bottle). My current favorite is more closely related to barbecue and matches it much better. The southeastern Islay scotches are generally known for a strong peaty flavor, which means smokiness. There’s also a taste of the sea and maybe a touch of mineral flavor as well. This is the liquid equivalent, to me, of a well-smoked brisket. Both are the pinnacle of their type, and both have a great smokiness to them.
My favorite of the Islay scotches is Lagavulin (pronounced "lag-a-VOO-lin"). Laphroaig is also great, and I probably couldn’t tell you which is which if you had me try one. I won’t turn down either, but I’ve tried them side by side and prefer the 16 year old Lagavulin (though I’d love to get a bottle of the 12 year old cask strength Lagavulin!). Lagavulin has a sweetness to it, and is really smooth, with a great smoky aroma and flavor.
The culture of barbecue tends toward southern ‘hickness’, but it doesn’t have to. Even if you don’t barbecue, get some brisket take out at the closest restaurant that has decent brisket (you can always get it shipped from Lubbock, TX). Instead of slathering on barbecue sauce and having baked beans and cole slaw as sides, try some horseradish with the brisket, with sides of baked potato or garlic mashed potatoes, and a glass of red wine. Then finish the meal with a few sips of Lagavulin. It may change your mind about how to enjoy barbecue.