A Spicy Experience

Elbow deep in rices, spices and whiskies
By Neil Ridley
Requiring a suitably robust pairing, Indian food is not the first place one would expect to see whisky at the top of the list. So let’s explore some revolutionary flavour partners.

Ok, I’ll be honest with you. While it may sound especially sceptical, I’ve often found it really hard to buy into the notion of whisky-themed dinners or food combinations, which pair a whisky alongside. So often they seem artificially bolted together, in the hope that the diner will discover a magical (and often subliminal) lexicon of flavour, if they search hard for it.

But let’s face it, outside of some fairly traditional pairings (blue cheese, dark chocolate and at a push, shellfish) whisky is frankly too powerful a spirit to comprehensively enjoy when paired over a multitude of courses. Similarly, outside of the already self-confessed whisky lovers, are the palates of the general public really ready to commit to consuming numerous neat whiskies alongside their haute cuisine?

This was the conundrum, which recently faced both myself and my Caskstrength colleague, Joel Harrison. Having been commissioned by highly renowned London Indian restaurant Moti Mahal to come up with a whisky pairing flight, themed around a special six course seasonal menu, it got us thinking about the sheer difficulty of simply picking six neat whiskies to throw into the mix.

Under the stewardship of head chef Anirudh Arora, Moti Mahal has become well known in its own right for a comprehensive whisky menu, with a strong slant towards Scotch single malts, especially a plethora of fine Islay expressions, with Ani citing both Caol Ila and Lagavulin as his personal favourites. But for us to embrace the restaurants other culinary forte, namely exquisitely crafted food inspired by India’s Grand Trunk Road, (at more than 2500km and dating back to the Mauryan dynasty it is undoubtedly India’s longest and oldest established trade route) we’d need to fully embrace Ani’s passion for infusing seasonal food with a complex array of spices – and move away from just serving up simple drams of delight.

“How you enjoy neat whisky is really down to exploring the individual palates we all have,” points out Ani, who can count former Indian Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and a growing list of celebrities as fans of his unique style of cooking.

“But for me, I much prefer it either mixed or in a cocktail. It’s much more adventurous. I’ve seen whisky all my life, as India is one of the biggest consumers of whisky in the world, so you could say it’s in my blood.”

"I’ve seen whisky all my life, as India is one of the biggest consumers of whisky in the world"

The style of food chosen for our whisky pairing menu revolves around a simple but plentiful sharing style of Indian cuisine, relying on ingredients right in the prime of their season but also a fine balance of flavours and levels of spice. After heartily enjoying our first research session at the restaurant, it struck us that finding whiskies, which harmonise with Indian food is not a straightforward experience.

The first course, a black truffle-enriched naan, filled with mature cheddar cheese would easily swamp most whiskies, so we retreated to the Caskstrength lab to work on the ultimate way to deliver enough flavour and refreshment to complement the naan’s powerful buttery richness. What we hit upon was a twist on a classic Whisky Sour, using Cutty Sark’s brand new blend Storm (with robust oak and dried fruit sitting alongside a fresh tasting zesty grain note), some spiced infused sugar syrup and freshly squeezed lemon juice. To accent the spiciness some more we constructed a few bottles of bespoke Grand Trunk Road cocktail bitters, using an array of spices pilfered from the restaurant kitchen, including garam masala, black cardamom, shai jeera and curry leaf, all powerful flavours that can be found along their namesake road.

One course down, five to go. The next challenge was to pair something suitably robust with a fabulous roe deer tikka, which was arguably the highlight of the menu. For this, we visualised the classic flavours often associated with roast venison in Scotland: juniper, cherry and citrus orange all work in harmony with the gaminess of the meat, alongside a distinct smokiness. So we borrowed the traditional recipe for a classic Blood and Sand cocktail, gave it a smoky kick-up-the-behind and an additional richness by using Lagavulin 16 Years Old Distillers Edition at its heart. Served in a chilled silver goblet, it not only looked the part at the feasting table, but also gave the dish an additional complexity on the palate.

Part of our involvement in this unique pairing menu was not just to explore new flavour pairings for Indian food, but to also bring new ways of serving whisky to a less than savvy audience of diners. When faced with the distinctly earthy, woody flavours of a wild mushroom biriyani our thoughts turned to a brand new Indian whisky from the Paul John distillery. Creating a take on a classic Old Fashioned cocktail base (using the cask strength Paul John, a dark muscovado sugar syrup for sweetness and whisky barrel aged bitters for warmth) we obtained a tiny two litre charred American oak cask to additionally ‘mature’ the cocktail in, which began to develop a very distinct woodiness/forest floor note in no time at all, giving diners an insight into the unique flavours found in whisky.

Similarly, freezing a shot of cardamom infused, waxy Clynelish 14 Years Old and providing a brace of ‘atomised’ whiskies for diners to spray over their homemade kulfis hopefully helped to connect how we all rely on a combination of our senses to truly enjoy a great gastronomic experience.

“We’re probably the only Indian restaurant that’s really trying to do something different in this area,” points out Ani, “especially with whisky. It’s a much more sophisticated drink than wine, is more complex to make and offers a much greater versatility.”

Based on the fun we had developing these pairings, the flavours found on Grand Trunk Road will take a lot of future exploration.

Caskstrength & Moti Mahal Present

A whisky pairing with a difference

Truffle and Cheddar ‘Naan’ with Gold Leaf with “Grand Trunk Road Sour”

(50ml Cutty Sark Storm, 12.5ml spice-infused sugar syrup, 15ml lemon juice, Grand Trunk Road bitters, egg white).

Roe Deer Tikka with Grape Chutney, Mint Parantha with “Hart Peat”

(25ml Lagavulin Distillers Edition, 25ml freshly squeezed blood orange juice, 12.5ml cherry brandy, 20ml Antica formula vermouth, juniper bitters, shaken with ice & garnished with mint).

West Country Wild Red Mullet served with Welsh Mussels with a “Sweet Valley Highball”

(25ml Penderyn Welsh whisky, 10ml elderflower cordial, 10ml Dolin blanc vermouth, topped with Fever Tree Indian tonic water, served over ice).

Wild Mushroom Biriyani – Warm Game Pickle with “Cask-Aged-Old-Fashioned-New-Yorker”

Paul John single cask Indian whisky Old Fashioned (aged in a one litre American Oak cask with muscovado sugar syrup, whisky barrel bitters and orange zest) stirred down over ice and garnished with a cherry.

Cardamom ‘n’ Saffron Bread Pudding with Clynelish 14 Years Old single malt

Served from the freezer, cut with cardamom-infused water, served at the table to share.

Rose Petal and Pistachio Kulfi with Atomised Laphroaig 10 Years Old and Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese whisky

Spray away to your heart’s content.