If someone were to tell you they like whisky, you might respond, “What kind?” You know how diverse the world of whisky is, and without specifying their preferences, you’d be left clueless. Similarly, if you were to tell me that you like chocolate, after 12 years of reviewing and writing about it, my first response would be, “What do you mean by ‘chocolate?” Okay, I know what the general public means if referring to some combination of flavours that include sweetened cocoa powdery-tasting-butter-like melty stuff, supported by a spine of imitation vanilla. If referring to dark chocolate, there may be bitter notes; if a milk chocolate, milkfat and caramel. Welcome to industrial chocolate!
Containing usually less than 55 per cent cacao, mass produced chocolate is made from commodity-grade cacao beans sourced from monocultural estates in Côte d’Ivoire or other West African countries. A remnant of colonialism, this type of cacao production carries the legacy of worker exploitation and forest defoliation. Commodity cacao is primarily cultivated for high volume and disease resistance, with some doubtful results regarding the latter. Inherent flavour deficiencies are covered up, standardised and stabilised. The end product is cheap chocolate, the ubiquitous bars by Nestlé, Cadbury, Hershey, and others, that, in actuality, costs us way too much. Whether from a standpoint of economics, human rights, or ecology, the Big Chocolate model is unsustainable. Industrial chocolate’s anaemic flavours dumb down our tastebuds and impoverish our senses.
By contrast, that artisan or craft chocolate bar you may think expensive, is scandalously under-priced. Why? Because craft chocolate is wondrously varied, rich and complex.
What I’ve been privileged to taste for more than a decade has been made from fine-flavour cacaos, sourced from small farms and cooperatives in Latin America, the Caribbean, and other tropical zones scattered within the narrow band around the equator where cultivation is possible; from latitude 20-degrees north to 20-degrees south. Artisan chocolate is crafted in relatively small batches by chocolate makers dedicated to bringing out the best characteristics of the beans. Increasingly, the craft chocolate community promotes ethical sourcing through direct trade with farming co-ops and sustainable growing models to preserve rainforests and rare cacao varieties. These relationships improve the quality of cacao bean processing at its origins and raise the incomes of farm families. Open a bar made from fine-flavour beans from makers Pump Street (UK), Soma (Canada), Bonnat (France), Marou (Vietnam), Castronovo or Fruition (USA) to name but a few, and you may be greeted by notes of citrus and berry, spices and herbs, roast nuts and coffee, or tropical fruits. These flavours aren’t added, but are inherent in beans with sound genetics, optimally harvested, fermented and dried at the country of origin, then roasted and refined by the chocolate maker. Every step along the way from bean to bar must be meticulously executed. Consider the premium we pay for small batch whiskies, and you may appreciate why the price tag on artisan chocolate needs to catch up through consumer education.
For me, a bar of chocolate is a work of art destined for nose and palate. When I discover a masterpiece, it captures my heart and long remains in my sensory memory. Lately, I’ve been feeling that way about great whiskies too. Yet, before researching my book Deep Tasting Chocolate & Whiskey, I was rather a purist, not a fan of pairing chocolate with anything. Great chocolate stands on its own. And so does an excellent whisky! But from the sidelines, I watched people pairing chocolate with whisky unskillfully. I read books and articles by chefs and whisky experts that tossed out sample pairings without any convincing rationale. Intuition and anecdotal experience are no substitute for methodical testing and hard data. So I decided to jump in. I knew chocolate, but I now had to immerse myself in whisky, studying international whiskies, single malts, blends, Bourbons, ryes, and so on. Because if you want to pair anything, you really have to know the individuals well.
Lacking solid knowledge of either partner is why so many bad pairings happen to good whiskies.
One evening, with a dram of Glenfarclas 17 in hand, I had just settle down to read Davin de Kergommeaux’s op ed “Whisky on the Table” (Whisky Magazine, #149) in which he expressed reservations about pairing whisky with food, when aromas akin to fruit crumble lifted my nose from iPad. “Mmm. Apple pie,” the flavour centres of my brain began chanting. I strode to the kitchen in search of anything resembling apple pie. The only thing I found were supermarket facsimiles my husband, only heaven knows why, squirrels away in the freezer. I dashed back to the dram, took a bite of the cold “pastry,” then a sip of the whisky. The result – surprisingly good! Truthfully, the Glenfarclas didn’t need any help. But clearly the whisky enhanced the industrial pastry. Still, how much better the experience might have been if replicated with a home-made pie, full of fresh, chunky apple slices, real butter, cinnamon, and no artificial anything.
Ah! To savour a complex single malt, to linger over rich fruit pie, then see what develops when mixing the two in close sequence. It’s that 1+1=3 possibility that drove the chocolate and whisky pairing experiments for my book. Yes, cardboard pastry might yield a satisfactory experience when propped up by a great whisky. Inexpensive whisky paired with cheap chocolate might create a satisfactory result in combination. But I urge you not to settle. Go for quality!
As I read Davin’s piece, in which he graciously attributed my book to a turn around in his attitude toward pairing chocolate and whisky, I found myself agreeing with much of his scepticism toward whisky dinners and the pairing of whisky with other foods in general, because in order to create a menu that pairs well, chefs need to take the time to learn whisky, and whisky experts really need to know food. One cannot outsource to the other, as is so often the case. They must be intimate with the aromas, flavours, and textures of every item they wish to match. That means endless hours of sampling. But that’s still hit or miss meets intuition. Or they can study, or avail themselves of studies of, the aromas, flavours, and textures of both whisky and food items, as well as their interactions, to quantify their compatibility in a systematic way. Good matching isn’t easy. But it’s not impossible. We just need data!
Since pairing the pastry and Glenfarclas, I’ve been dabbling in a bit of cheese, poultry, pasta, beginning a database of other food and whisky pairings. But I’m only one person. So I’ve launched a challenge to study food and whisky compatibilities. Really I need your help!
Please send me your experiences of rewarding food and whisky pairings. Be as specific as possible, because details matter. List food category, names, brands, how cooked or prepared, whether cured, preserved, and how served. Tell me whisky type, brand, name, expression, whether served neat or with something else.
Here’s how to send me the information. Follow and private message me on social media via Twitter @chocomeditator, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your participation!
Lovely chocolate and whisky
Dark chocolate, a dram and the book in question