Anne Braly

Red goes with beef and white with chicken, but what about brown? We're talking whiskey, and it's one of the latest food trends in restaurants, including Easy Bistro & Bar, where chef/owner Erik Niel says there's "been a massive increase in the popularity of bourbon over the past 10 years. It's become a mainstream idea to pair whiskey with food."

It's an art that's kind of tricky — not nearly as easy as pairing wines with food. But, Niel says, "it's still a lot of fun and is a way for people to experience some of the unique flavors of whiskey and understand why whiskeys taste the way they do."

The bar at Easy stocks more than 300 whiskeys from around the world, each with its own characteristics, such as their tannins and the type grains used in making them — corn, malt, rye and wheat among them. Educating patrons about which ones go best with what foods is something Niel hopes to accomplish.

I'd always thought of whiskey and bourbon as a drink to be enjoyed on a cold winter's night sitting beside a roaring fire.

"But what if someone handed you a s'more to go with that whiskey?" he asks. "That would be an OK thing, right?

Those two things go really well together — the spiciness of the chocolate and the sweetness of marshmallow. You've got all those flavors going on, then pair them with a little dram of whiskey at the same time."

All of a sudden, the idea of whiskey paired with food made delicious sense.

So what might be Niel's favorite whiskey among the hundreds from which he can choose at his bar?

"That's a difficult question," he says. "Right now, I'm really liking Irish whiskeys. I really think it's their time to shine. But I'll always be a bourbon lover. Bourbon whiskey is my first love, though I'm an equal-opportunity lover of all whiskeys — even the less-expensive ones."

And one of his favorite food pairings?

"Oh, maybe a whiskey with a strong tannin, like Old Forrester, paired with our strawberry-endive-blue cheese salad."

So what do people think when they decide to try pairing whiskey with food? Education begins at the bar, with bartenders suggesting whiskeys and food that might pair well.

"It's fun to see people's reactions when they try a pairing," Niel says. "You see a look on their face and it's like an aha moment. Like they're wondering, 'How did that happen?'"

Here are some more pairings you might try at Easy:

* Creme brulee with Rebel Yell, a whiskey with a sweet edge to complement the sweetness of the brulee.

* A dry-aged steak with a funky, 100% rye whiskey. The spiciness of the dry-age steak works really well with a funky whiskey like Whistle Pig or Willett.

* A brisket Po' Boy with a Tennessee whiskey like Belle Meade. "It's unbelievably spicy and uplifting."

* And seafood? "That's where it gets a little bit harder," Niel says. "But I'd like to pair our shrimp and grits with a sweeter whiskey with a sherry finish that would complement the saltiness of the shrimp and grits. We put andouille in our grits. That's what makes it salty. So pair your favorite seafood dish with a 12-year-old Powers Johns Lane."

Father's Day happens Sunday, so expect Niel to add a couple of heavier dishes to the lighter fare offered on the brunch menu, such as a dry-aged steak to pair with a dram of Willet or a pork milanese paired with a wheated whiskey such as Weller, which, "would be fantastic," Niel says.

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