Smokin' and Drinkin': BBQ Meets Its Match

by Jeff Harding
July 2013

While most BBQ joints don't keep a sommelier on the payroll, you can bet that the pit master has a favorite drink for whatever they're smoking, grilling, or slow-cooking. And just as cooked meat culture varies from South Africa's braai and Korea's galbi to Canada's smoked brisket, Germany's Grillkultur, and Kansas City's ribs, the drink of choice is equally varied.

"Barbecue is like politics, religion, and college sports: Everybody has an opinion," says Jimmy Hagood, owner of Food for the Southern Soul. While opinions may differ on the definition of barbecue (Is it sauced? Is it rubbed? Is it smoked?), everyone agrees that good 'cue needs good drink. But again, tastes vary. For every dark, spicy sauce somebody wants a big bold Zinfandel, while another argues that a crisp Chenin Blanc is the only way to go. We ask the pros what they drink when they 'cue.

Pork Ribs, House-made Buffalo Sauce, and Blue Cheese Custard from Chef Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic – Austin, TX

Pork Ribs, House-made Buffalo Sauce, and Blue Cheese Custard from Chef Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic – Austin, TX

Rib Sampler at Blue Smoke, NYC; photo by William Brinson

Rib Sampler at Blue Smoke, NYC; photo by William Brinson

Tipsy Texan Brisket Sandwich from Chef Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue – Austin, TX

Tipsy Texan Brisket Sandwich from Chef Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue – Austin, TX

Tipsy Texan Brisket Sandwich from Chef Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue – Austin, TX

Tipsy Texan Brisket Sandwich from Chef Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue – Austin, TX

SMOKE@ICC Executive Chef Andy Husbands gets down with his prize-winning Team IQUE brisket

SMOKE@ICC Executive Chef Andy Husbands gets down with his prize-winning Team IQUE brisket

Smoked Creekstone Farms Brisket Sandwich from Noah Bernamoff of Mile End – Brooklyn, NY

Smoked Creekstone Farms Brisket Sandwich from Noah Bernamoff of Mile End – Brooklyn, NY

Berkshire Pork Belly with Steen's Pure Cane Syrup from Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly – Houston, TX

Berkshire Pork Belly with Steen's Pure Cane Syrup from Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly – Houston, TX

Australian Lamb Chops from Chef Vincent Muraco of Andaz 5th Avenue – New York, NY

Australian Lamb Chops from Chef Vincent Muraco of Andaz 5th Avenue – New York, NY

Chef-owner Jason Dady of Jason Dady Restaurants – San Antonio, TX:
As far as our style of barbecue, we keep it traditional, central Texas style. Dry rub, half green and half aged oak, nothing over 250°F, and patience. We do not fluff it up.

With drinking and barbecue in Texas, beer is king. It's disappointing because a great alternative is a good, cold gin and tonic, which lives up to the smoke. Carbonated, high acid, and cold—it's the perfect complement.

Wine drinking is a little more difficult. Everyone wants to say the generic, predictable "Riesling or Gewurtz," but I really prefer a Gruner Vetliner. It's simple, clean, crisp, and cold. (Dady's favorites are Darcie Kent from California, Franz Etz, and Berger from Austria.)

Another thing we do at home, which is a touch sacrilege, is serve chilled Pinot Noir with barbecue (favorites are Amici, O.P.P. and Ponzi). It's the perfect complement, yet approachable with the smoke, spice, and richness of barbecue.

Senior Managing Partner Mark Maynard-Parisi of Blue Smoke Enterprises – New York, NY:
We are one of the few places that do what we call a "culinary road trip of Southern food," with all the major regions represented: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, North Carolina, and some other things like fried chicken, sausage and pimento cheese, and shrimp and grits.

With Memphis ribs, I love a delicate Pinot Noir to go with the mild sauce; Peay makes tremendous Pinot Noir that is both elegant and approachable. Kansas City sauce is more thick with molasses and spice, so with that I go to Rhône varietals or certain Cabernets if not overly tannic (School House's Mescolanza Syrah Blend and the Sinskey Cabernet/Merlot blend "POV" are great). Zinfandel is what most people think of [with barbecue], although spicy ribs and 16 percent ABV can make a rough "hot on hot" pairing—my favorite is Frog's Leap Zinfandel, certainly not shy and retiring, but it's not all about the alcohol. Kansas City classic spare ribs and Texas beef brisket both have high fat content, so look for wine with tannin to help balance things out—Red Hook Winery's "The Puncheons" Cabernet Sauvignon blend is pretty cool with this.

Vinegar and tomato sauces are more challenging, but we are transitioning to an all-American wine list, so I've recently been trying our pulled pork with Finger Lakes Riesling (Red Tail Ridge) and Viognier from Virginia. Barboursville Reserve 2011, which is also good with smoked chicken, is very popular and a great alternative to Chardonnay.


Dean of Wine Studies Scott Carney of International Culinary Center – New York, NY:
For me barbecue is Zinfandel time. It's all so American! From the more restrained Dry Creek and Ridge Geyserville, to the blustery Turley and the Amador County beasts. OK to get a bit macho with meat and fire outdoors. And one of my all time favorites—Rafanelli. It's a beauty.

Winemaker Adam Mason of Mulderbosch Vineyards – Stellenbosch, South Africa:
[The word braai is Afrikaans for 'barbecue' or 'grill' and is one of the most popular social customs in South Africa.] Boerewors (farmer sausages) are taken pretty seriously here in South Africa, so much so that there is even an annual competition to find out who makes the best ones. Every family has their own closely guarded recipe. For pairing wine with Boerewors, I'd definitely go with a rich, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet blend. Our current release Mulderbosch "Faithful Hound" 2009 Cabernet Blend is perfect for Boerewors as it has some lovely savory flavors that go well with the spices and fat of the sausage.

Sosaties (usually pork, lamb, or mutton marinated in curry and cooked on skewers) are a reminder of the incredible spice trade that used to pass through the Cape 500 years ago. For pairing wine with Sosaties, I'd definitely go with a richer white with some high acid to cut through the heat and spice of the curry marinade. A good South African Chenin Blanc would be the perfect match for pork. Our current release Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc Steen op Hout 2011 has some really refreshing acidity and is perfectly counteracted by a creamy mid palate.

Owner Joe Carrolll of Fette Sau – New York, NY:
We do a Brooklyn all-dry rub, not a copy of an existing style. Our goal is to remain true to the barbecue technique but use other kinds of meats like pork belly, beef cheek, beef tongue, leg of lamb, etc.

My favorite pairing is hard apple cider, and we pour Doc's Cider from Warwick Valley Winery on top. The acid in cider cuts the rich fat, and American ciders have residual sugar, which helps with the heat, spice, or hot sauce.

Owner Jimmy Hagood of Food for the Southern Soul – Charleston, SC:
We cook whole pork shoulder for 24 hours over pecan wood after applying a dry rub of 10 spices and seasonings. A plain yellow mustard rub gives the meat a tackiness so the rub sticks to it, creating a thicker "bark," crisping it up to give it a mahogany finish. We then pull and serve with three sauces that are distinct to our region. The coast of North and South Carolina is vinegar sauce country; western South Carolina in the mountains, you have sweet tomato sauce made with Worchestershire sauce, coffee, and a bit of sugar; the central part of the state was founded by Germans and they use mustard in their sauce—envision something more tart than vinegar, using plain yellow mustard with chile and black pepper.

For beverage pairing with barbecue, you can definitely have Pinot Grigio or something that is lighter to balance the heaviness of the pork that might be spicy. Beer goes along with that, but I'm not a big beer drinker. Given the choice, Pappy Van Winkle 15-year would be great with one big ice cube and a splash of water. In summer particularly, I would get an ice cold Foggy Ridge Cider (from Virginia) to balance the vinegar and other sauces.

Owner Eric Son of Shon 45 Wine and Spirits – New York, NY:
Galbi means "ribs" in Korean, and is a popular Korean dish, but the ribs are cut differently, across and along the bone. Each piece that goes on the grill is one section of the rib, with one piece of bone in it.

There are few different ways of marinating galbi, but the main ingredients will never change: soy sauce, black pepper, garlic, ginger, honey, onion, sesame oil, water, and Korean pear. If you have never tried marinated galbi, picture this in the back of your palate: soft but chewy, sweet, salty, juicy with a light spice melting in your mouth. Another key part of eating galbi is the sauce, called ssamjang, which is like your ketchup for burgers, a mix of soybean paste, hot pepper paste, chopped green onion, minced garlic, honey, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. In a small bowl with a spoon, you get the fresh flavor of Korea.

The most popular drink pairing with galbi would be soju. Soju is a rice wine ranging from 17 percent to 45 percent alcohol. Soju would be best described in taste like vodka, but it doesn't have that same strong bite. It is clear and colorless and has a slight sweetness in it. Most brands of soju are made in South Korea. Though it is traditionally made from rice, most modern producers of soju use supplements or even replace rice with other starches, such as potatoes, wheat, barley, sweet potatoes or tapioca.

More recently, Koreans have developed a taste for wines, and I have seen a lot of changes in the beverage side of their lists. I find pairing a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or an old vine Zinfandel goes well with the sweet, salty yet spicy flavor from the galbi and ssamjang. A few of my favorites are Ridge Three Valley, Ravenswood Big River Zinfandel, Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon.

Hand Pulled Berkshire Shoulder; Berkshire Belly; Berkshire St Louis Style Pork Ribs; Beef Tongue Pastrami; Beef Brisket with Coffee Rub; Cold Broccoli Salad with Garlic, Chile, and Lemon; and Guss' Half-Sour Kosher Pickles at Fette Sau - Brooklyn, NY

Hand Pulled Berkshire Shoulder; Berkshire Belly; Berkshire St Louis Style Pork Ribs; Beef Tongue Pastrami; Beef Brisket with Coffee Rub; Cold Broccoli Salad with Garlic, Chile, and Lemon; and Guss' Half-Sour Kosher Pickles at Fette Sau – Brooklyn, NY

Smoked Local Cabrito Ribs, Polenta, and Natural Jus from Chef Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria - San Antonio, TX

Smoked Local Cabrito Ribs, Polenta, and Natural Jus from Chef Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria - San Antonio, TX

Kansas City Royal 1st Place Australian Beef Brisket, Lexington Slaw, from Chef Andy Husbands Tremont 64 and iQue BBQ – Boston, MA

Kansas City Royal 1st Place Australian Beef Brisket, Lexington Slaw, from Chef Andy Husbands Tremont 64 and iQue BBQ – Boston, MA

Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Honey-Mustard Barbecue Sauce from Miller Union – Atlanta, GA

Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Honey-Mustard Barbecue Sauce from Miller Union – Atlanta, GA

Sommelier Andrew Marshall of Charleston Grill – Charleston, SC:
Chef Michelle Weaver is an Alabama girl. We typically have grilled, smoked chicken barbecue with traditional white sauce, "Alabama White Lightning." The chicken has its own red sauce, but the white sauce is classic for [her home] region.

For the chicken and white sauce, if I'm going red, I often go for cru Beaujolais. A favorite is the 2010 Jean Foillard Morgon, "Cote du Py." This particular Beaujolais has the structure to stand up to most fowl, and the classic Old World notes of crushed earth and smoke coupled with dark red fruit provide a great complement to the smoked chicken. There's an underlying minerality that really pairs nicely.

For a white pairing, I love Chenin Blanc. I'd recommend the 2009 Domaine du Pas St. Martin, "Jurassique," from Saumur. It's an 80-year-old vine Chenin Blanc with great acidity and just a kiss of residual sugar for those who love the white sauce and its sweet tangy goodness. Great wine, killer value.

Beverage Director Alex Cauchon of Wildwood BBQ and BR GUEST – New York, NY
Beer is always a safe (and often the best) option. For wines, jammier/jucier reds with moderate to low tannins work best. Low (below 15 percent) alcohol Zinfandels, Rhône Valley wines like Gigondas, Vacqueyas, and Valpolicella blends all work well. A favorite pairing for me would be Quintarelli Rosso Ca'del Merlo with dry rub ribs.

Chef-owner David McMillan of Joe Beef – Montreal, Canada:
Sommeliers love red wine with barbecue, but I think even beer is too much. I enjoy barbecue and smoked meat, but I like a lot of it, and the only way I can go the distance is with crisp, high-acidity, un-oaked white wine or apple cider. McKeown English Cider is just right, and we pour Doc's Cider from Warwick Valley Winery, but any well-made American cider with plenty of acid and a bit of sweetness will do. Also, a simple Chablis or white Burgundy from a good producer is a good call. Barbecye with Shiraz or Cabernet is the classic pairing, but it doesn't make sense. It's an exhausting fruit bomb wine with high alcohol. It works in the mouth but what makes you a fucking excellent eater is a crisp, acidic white wine.

Owner Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Delicatessen – New York, NY:
We specialize in smoking meats and fish in the non-barbecue style. Most of our products are inspired by the traditional Jewish delicatessen, but we start with high quality, sustainable ingredients.

Our wine offerings tend to be on the acidic end of the spectrum, preferring to pair acid against the fattiness of our meats and sausages rather than with the fruit. Because of this tendency, we prefer bracing, mineral-driven wines from Beaujolais and northern Rhône, Piedmont and Lazio, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Oregon, and certain selections from Austria and Germany.

We also love American craft beers. We like to keep it crisp and fresh rather than rich and heady. Low alcohol really helps stay away from sweetness, which tends to work less well with our dishes.

Overall, it's important to us to find beverage products from producers who care as much about their products as we do about ours. That means small-production, conscientious methods and ingredients, and family-owned operations.

Wine Director Jill Zimorski of Hotel Jerome – Aspen, CO:
Pairings depend a lot on what kind of barbecue you're talking about. My personal favorite is North Carolina barbecue, which is a vinegar-based sauce. The problem with vinegar and wine is that vinegar is so acidic, it makes a dry wine with less acid taste sweet-ish. So an easy way to get around this is with off-dry Riesling. There is nothing more delicious in the hot summer than cold Riesling (hello! Summer of Riesling?), and something just off-dry like a QbA with a touch of sweetness or even just a Kabinett-level estate Riesling. Something from the Mosel with whiffs of petrol work nicely with smoke and a touch of spice (because you have to put hot sauce on your pulled pork sandwich). Some of my favorites are 2011 St. Urbans-hof "Ockfener Bockstein" Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel (or their QbA "Urban" Riesling if you're a little more cost conscious) is a great go-to for me.

My other favorite non-wine barbecue pairing is a classic Pimm's Cup (Pimm's, ginger beer, cucumber, lemon, and maybe mint if you're feeling fancy). It's more adult and sophisticated than lemonade, and looks like iced tea, but is so much better.

Or a nice cold can of beer—something cheap and domestic. PBR tallboys in a beer huggie, or a bottle of Shiner Bock, if you're opposed to cans.