A fishy tale

In the latest in an occasional series of matching whisky with food, Dave Broom compares and contrasts some sushi-whisky combinations
By Dave Broom

Scene I

An almighty shout had stopped us in our tracks. None of the diners seemed at all fazed by the entire staff of the restaurant stopping work to bellow at a group of people walking through the door.

As we were to find out, this was perfectly normal behaviour at Nobu. Everyone is greeted like this, though since there were 20 or more in our party straggling through the door the shouting continued for longer than usual.

We were at this, one of Tokyo’s most chi-chi establishments, to conduct Whisky Magazine’s inaugural whisky and sushi tasting.

Eight different sushi would be paired with eight different whiskies, see here...

Whisky Magazine sushi tasting

All whiskies were reduced with water to a 1:1 ratio

Talisker: oyster 8.1
Yamazaki 18 year-old: salmon roe 7.8
The Arran malt: salmon 7.7
Auchentoshan Select: scallops 7.2
Glenmorangie Port Wood finish: yellow tail 7.1
Macallan Gran Reserva: fatty tuna 7
Wild Turkey 14year-old: squid 6.5
The Glenlivet 12 year old: sea urchin 5.6

These exercises are always fun, occasionally they’re even illuminating, but the result of any panel tasting is a consensus which normally gives broad guidelines and little more. Here, the approval ratings were unusually high, inferring that something deeper was going on.

Only two matches were felt to be poor: the cask-strength Wild Turkey was too strong for the squid while the Glenlivet 12 year old fought a valiant, but losing, battle against the sea urchin – though the low mark reflected most of the (predominantly Scottish) panellists aversion to the intensely flavoured echinoderm.

Talisker won the day, but that was a foregone conclusion. Skye’s malt and oysters is a match made in heaven. That Arran went well with salmon wasn’t too surprising either, this is a classic Scottish combo.

What was more intriguing was how the Yamazaki matched the salty (yes, you can describe it as such) salmon roe: “the roe is fishy, the whisky zesty, dry and spicy, but together it’s a meaty/savoury combination,” said Talisker’s Alastair Robertson.

Equally the Auchentoshan did well when paired with scallops, the effect as Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden pointed out of a delicate sushi needing a light-tasting whisky.

The porty sweetness in the Glenmorangie finish was generally agreed to be the key for working with the yellowtail, though the panel was split over whether The Macallan Gran Reserva matched or overpowered the fatty tuna.

Still, the exercise was a real success.

This might surprise you because if you play a game of word association when you say “sushi” you’ll get the following: raw, delicate, fish, blades, seaweed, light, snack.

You’d think a bold assertive spirit such as whisky would stomp like Godzilla over the food. Those descriptors infer that sparkling wine, or a good Loire white would be better suited.

The fact that the whisky:sushi match worked just raised more questions.

Scene II

The next day, Messrs Jackson and Robertson continued their bid to become the sensei of sushi and whisky matching by pairing Diageo’s six Classic Malts with sushi, see here...

Classic Malts and sushi matching

All whiskies were reduced with water/ soda to a 1:1 ratio

Cragganmore: red tuna
Dalwhinnie: squid
Glenkinchie (with soda): boiled shrimp
Lagavulin: scallop
Oban (with soda): sea urchin
Talisker: salmon roe

Once again the combination worked, but the pairings were very different. This time Talisker was up against the salmon roe, while the sea urchin found a more amenable partner with Oban and soda (and a Japanese audience).

After the session Alastair gave me the briefing notes he’d been supplied with by whisky writer Mamoru Tsuchiya and also comments by UK food consultant Richard Whittington.

The latter had chosen different pairings and they too had worked. This suggested that this wasn’t just about finding the one sushi which matched the one whisky, but an overall compatibility between the food and the drink.

Scene III

A London TV studio. I’m replicating the sessions with another range of whiskies paired with different sushi. Trouble is, I’ve had no chance to taste the pairings before we go live on air.

I’m doubly nervous because my fellow taster is the UK’s most brilliantly innovative chef, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck restaurant, a man who is fascinated with the science of flavour, with challenging our perceptions of what food is and what “should” go with what.

Once again, amazingly, it works. Talisker is once again a star performer (this time with salmon), but Bunnahabhain with tuna is the winner.

“I was surprised how well they went together,” Heston said to me later. “They just felt comfortable in the mouth. It wasn’t one of those matchings where you start thinking there might be something there but you have to work hard to find what it is. This was relaxing.”

So why does it work? Let’s rewind to that assumption that sushi is light.

This comes from our western belief that sushi’s flavour is driven by raw fish, but as Heston pointed out, meat and fish have very little flavour in their raw state and even less so if fresh.

“Scallops have a sweetness, roe is salty and mackerel has taste and flavour, but these are exceptions.”

The overall package is an accretion of different – and pretty powerful – flavours, tastes and textures. That fish is given flavour by the addition of vinegared rice (the sushi itself), nori seaweed, soy sauce, wasabi and palate-cleansing slivers of ginger.

Not delicacy, but potentially a big package of flavours. It’s a classic demonstration that the most important links between food and drink aren’t the main element (fish or meat) but the peripherals.

“The taste of a dish, say the perception of acidity, has an effect,” said Heston, “but it is the smaller elements in terms of quantity which will have a greater effect.

“Aspice in a sauce will be a greater driver of what wine or whisky will go with fish than the fish itself.”

So, after the TV tasting, Heston and I dissected the sushi, tasting the whisky against soy, seaweed, rice. Surprising connections began to reveal themselves, the main one being the link between the brewed/malty notes in soy and those in malt whisky.

The seaweed, which also undergoes a kind of fermentation when being dried also contributes a fresh, almost briny note.

The vinegared rice, as Mamoru Tsuchiya points out, adds sweet and sour elements. What is happening in sushi is that all the tastes are being stimulated, giving a complex and balanced overall effect.

That’s taste and not flavour. We get them confused. We can only taste salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and another (of which more in a minute) while flavour is taste plus aroma.

Try this experiment. Get a willing accomplice to hold their nose while you place cinnamon on their tongue. They’ll only taste bitterness.

Only when they let go of their nose will the “taste”, (which is in fact flavour), of cinnamon appear. Sushi – and whisky –have a wide range of those tastes and sushi has another trick up its sleeve, the forgotten fifth taste: umami.

Umami was discovered in 1907 by Japanese scientist Dr Kikunae Ikeda. It is the taste driven by glutamic acid, a protein building block freed by fermentation, cooking, curing etc.

Seaweed is high in umami as is soy sauce, tomato, cooked rice, cooked bacon, cured cheese/ham, dried shiitake mushrooms and of course that ubiquitous flavour enhancer monosoldium glutamate (MSG).

It’s the “mmm, delicious,” sensation which can be confused with texture. Trouble is, just because there’s glutamic acid in something doesn’t mean it will tickle your umami receptors.

Even if the jury is out on that, there’s no doubt that texture plays a major role in bringing whisky and sushi together so well. Each whisky has a different mouthfeel, as does fish, seaweed and rice.

This textural element, this juicy mouthfilling viscosity has a significant impact on why this is such a great pairing. No surprise that Mamoru’s notes talked as much about presence and feel as they did about taste and flavour.

We might have started out matching certain dishes with certain whiskies but we’ve ended up in a sensory world. Sushi (and whisky) works because it stimulates all our senses.

It also keeps our brain active. Our senses switch off when we taste the same food for a long period. Have you not noticed how that giant steak is great for a few bites but then the flavours seem to die away?

It’s your brain saying “OK, I’ve experienced that, now gimme something new”. Sushi gives you bite-sized pieces of exciting brain food. Like a cup of green tea or a dram at the right moment it wakes the mind up. Try it.