A right pair

Is whisky really suited to food? Ontario-based writer Andrew Coppolino finds out
By Andrew Coppolino
The ties that bind are reluctantly torn asunder. Old established alliances are relied on; they’re second nature: a cacciatore and a chianti, a duck paté and a muscat, oysters and Champagne, a chunk of French munster, its soft creamy texture and nutty taste betraying only momentarily the sharp nip that makes it such an excellent partner for the crisp spice of an Alsatian gerwurztraminer.

Conventional wisdom lead us routinely down these safely-forged gastronomic trails. We willingly oblige.

But another route exists – albeit less travelled and more challenging – and it is an adventure that can yield a deeper, richer, and more satisfying fruit: the pairing of food with Scotch as more than just a cooking ingredient.

Initial reactions to departing on such a journey – a spirit embracing a foodstuff – are reserved at best, vehemently rejected at worst: “Heaven forfend, Scotch is a postprandial. As a beverage, it’s too strong, its alcohol too potent to be matched successfully with food. Much better joined by a cigar.”

Yet the proof is in the tasting, and imaginative tastings clearly show that Scotch – blend or single malt – can be on duty for an entire meal. A splash of fresh, pure spring water in the Scotch is optional, but it can open up the complex aromas that lie hidden within.

It’s a splash of an idea whose time has come – around the world.

For Ian Logan, international brand ambassador for Chivas Brothers Pernod Ricard: “The rise in interest with food and whisky – with its plethora of flavours – is the next step in the development of the world’s most popular spirit.

“With the world becoming much smaller, and people travelling much more, there has been an upsurge of interest in this pairing, led initially by wine and food.

“Whisky also remains an aspirational drink to many people around the world, so it creates a genuine interest with consumers from across the globe.”

The chemistry involved in the creation of whisky – the processes that transform fermentable sugars into alcohol, the vaporisation and distillation that ultimately result in a spirit – is dry, inert, and lifeless compared to the art and craft of the distiller with which he coerces and conjures that science into the magic of Scotch.

That, too, is the chef’s challenge: disparate, unconnected ingredients, each with its own quality and essence lay uninterestingly in the prep kitchen until the cook’s experience, technique, and inspiration intervene and conspire to produce a dish that tantalises the senses, the whole of the creation always greater than its parts. It’s only one reason why Scotch and food go so well together – sweet, sour, bitter, tart – with a complexity not found in wine and food.

For instance, smoky, peaty whiskies such as a Laphroaig are big and chewy enough, says Stefan Schuster, to match wonderfully well with spicy food. He explains that Scotch “can really come alive with peppers, jalapenos, and bolder flavours. The more spice the merrier. And the Scotch certainly adds to the food too.”

Schuster, convenor of an Ontario chapter of An Quaich, says: “During the last couple of years, I’ve seen increasing numbers of tastings that pair Scotch with food and more and more restaurants introducing Scotch and food combinations.

“For a long time, people have been cooking ribs with bourbon in the sauce as a background ingredient, for example, so this evolution that gets Scotch to the forefront has been inevitable.”

With Scotch and food pairings, begin at the beginning.

The amuse-gueule – the teasing foreplay of food that trips lightly on the palate – is a hint, an adumbration of the gustatory voyage that is about to begin. The amuse is more than complimentary, more than appetiser: it conveys playfulness and surprise, its compact enchantment presaging the almost riotous assimilation and contrast of flavours that are to come.

One Scotch and food pairing featuring The Glenlivet of Speyside and the Provencal dish of brandade brings together the tang of pureed salt cod and heady, full-bodied olive oil with the added punch of garlic.

Smoky, salty brandade has a creamy milk base that gives the dish a round mouth-feel and a hint of sweetness. This, in turn, is contrasted by a deep, intensely nutty flavour generated by walnut oil lashed over frisee – a feathery member of the chicory family with a slightly bitter taste and rough grassy texture. It adds a layer of flavour complexity for something like The Glenlivet 12 year-old.

The lightly golden appearance of the Scotch picks up those visual tones in the brandade and a gentle swirling flourish of the glass slowly releases zesty tropical melon fruit scents that slowly emanate from the glass. A clean, fresh, slight vanilla palate balances with the creamy, salty texture of the puree and the nip of raisiny sherry vinaigrette.

Dark green, spiky arugula with its peppery accents mingles with treviso – a variety of radicchio (and itself in the chicory family) – to produce brilliant colour contrasts and another layer of gentle bitterness. Toasted pine nuts pick up on the walnut oil as a bridge to the smoky, salty cod.

Salads and their highly acidic vinegars pose problems for wines, and in fact, wine is rarely served with the salad course. However, the multiple layers that a chef can create to be paired with Scotch can result in a delightful combination with a soft finish in the aftertaste that you’ll never find with a wine and salad.

Barely having assimilated the flavour punctuations of these preliminary courses, beef tenderloin and The Glenlivet’s 15 year-old French Oak Reserve elevate the pairing in both body and heightened intensity.

It’s umami – that fifth taste of ethereal protein satisfaction – combined with a slight sweetness in medium-rare beef that possesses both full mouth-feel texture and body along with a rich, hearty flavour. The golden amber Scotch provides a corresponding sweetness and an aroma that suggests spicy citrus and a touch of salt.

On the palate ripe fruit and a dash of cinnamon both contrast with the tenderloin and pick up the sweetness before its oaky finish. While it seems that these flavours ought not be put together, they work surprisingly well in tandem.

A take on Welsh rarebit – a simple dish of melted cheddar cheese and ale on toast – forms an ideally crisp topping for the tenderloin.

The softer mouth-feel of the cheese beneath that crust, and its tang and nip, coincide perfectly with the fruity and peppery essences of the Scotch.

Oh yes, that taken-for-granted alliance of wine and cheese dominates, yet if you think about it that salty little morsel of Queso de Zuheros, an aged gouda, or the deliciously smelly, velvety-textured Reblochon, can flatten wine with devastating force.

Not so Scotch. Take for instance Lincolnshire Poacher Cheddar, a buttery unpasteurised cows’ milk cheese from Ulceby Grange in the Lincolnshire Wolds, Simon Jones’s fourth generation family farm and its prized and pampered cattle.

Then take The Glenlivet 18 year-old golden-hued coalescence of fruit and flower nose, a spiced oak and lightly chocolate taste with a surprising hit of orange and a finish that gently slips away like a softly sustained note on the piano. Scrumptious.

The influence of sherry maturation or port woods in a Scotch can nestle against aged cheese magnificently and can even make a humdrum cheesecake sing.

The Lincolnshire cheddar has a hue to match the Scotch, appealing to the eye even before it hits your tongue, a bittersweet nuttiness, and a hard “grana” texture – a small-eyed granular consistency like Parmigiano-Reggiano – that is intriguing in the way it picks up the Scotch’s honeyed oakiness and a long, creamy finish that lingers and recalls the entire meal. Intermingled with all this you can pick out ripe pear flavour.

Take the path less travelled.

Scotch matched closely with food is iconoclastic but delectable throughout the entire meal.