Next time you crave a peated dram but know your friends may not appreciate the Islay type, look to Speyside. Speyside? Isn’t that home to those sherry-finished whiskies? Where you’d expect anything from delicate, orchard fruit scents of apple and pear to the richer perfumes of dried apricot, currant, dates and candied citrus?
We tend not to associate the Highland valleys with smoky spirit. But peat fuelled home hearths as well as distillery fires for centuries.
In whisky production, the use of peat declined only in the mid 20th century. Chalk it up to the efficiency of outsourcing malt production and modernised methods of drying malt.
Recently, though, there’s been a peat revival in Speyside as whisky creators push the boundaries of flavour, variety, and a new ethos. The trend is chasing sustainability and authenticity, revisiting traditional food and drink. Some Speyside whisky makers have experimented by simply finishing their spirit in ex-Islay casks. Others have used outsourced local, peated malt. Then a couple of distillers have maintained their own malting floors.
If your goal is to reflect regional terroir, importing is okay as long as your traditional peat contained similar notes. You can still remain true to your flavour roots. But Highland peat contributes different aromatics and flavours, heather and earthiness in contrast to the marine and medicinal notes found in the Islay whiskies.
There’s a whisky for every mood, every occasion. To me, these peated Speysiders suggests peace and intimacy. So, if you’re in a quiet mood, you might try a dram.
As your companions are likely to need something to nibble as well as drink, you can prepare a simple shop, slice, and serve menu by locating a few key suppliers: a cheesemonger who offers imported items, a store that specialises in bean to bar artisan chocolate or buy directly online from the chocolate makers, and a local bakery for fresh breads. Wedges of toasted whole grain or sourdough breads can round out a cheese and chocolate plate.
I keep reminding people, “Chocolate is not just dessert anymore.” Leave chocolate confections, flavoured bars, mousse, or cake for afterward. Explore chocolate as an appetiser. Taste a square with the whisky, or take alternate bites of chocolate, cheese, and spirit. Experience the flavour synergies these create. Serve a piece of chocolate as the centerpiece of a tea-sandwich. Or melt it with cheese on toast points. Savour with your favourite peated Speysider.
Here are suggestions for compatible pairings and triads with UK-sourced chocolate and imported cheese.
WhiskyThe Balvenie Peat Week 14 Years Old (2003), Single Malt Scotch Whisky 48.3% ABV
Complex heather lift off, fruit, toasted cereal and oak, and smoky honey that carries through the palate.
ChocolateDuffy’s (UK), Rio Dulce, Guatemala 70%
Duffy’s of Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire was perhaps the first small batch, bean to bar maker in the UK. This award-winning bar has honey, blackcurrant and subtle black pepper notes. Blends so harmoniously with The Balvenie, it’s hard to tease them apart. Together you get smoke, cream, and boosted fruit.
Duffy’s doesn’t ship directly to the USA or Canada. Try cocoarunners.com. In the UK, visit the chocolate maker’s online shop at duffyschocolate.co.uk
If you wish to triangulate with cheese, choose one that is delicate. While a blue cheese or an aged Fontina works with strongly peated whisky, for this Balvenie, try a creamy brie-type with dominant butter notes, such as the double cream Fromage d’Affinois by Fromagerie Guilloteau, or the triple cream Saint Angel from the same cheese maker. The latter is particularly recommended if you’re allergic to the Penicillin candidum in rinds of white bloomy mold. Avoid bries types with cabbage-reek.
WhiskyBenriach Curiositas Peated Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Aged 10 Years 46% ABV
Matured in ex-Bourbon barrels, Curiositas has earthy peat smoke, pine nut and lemon zest notes. Its slightly oily texture gives it a pleasant weight on the tongue.
ChocolateHotel Chocolat (UK), Supermilk 65% with cacao beans
From Ghana and has a dark milk with a mild spice profile. Together you get boosted peat in an envelope of cream. Ghanaian beans seem to be used extensively in the Hotel Chocolat couverture. I sampled their 70% and 85% cacao as well but thought their 65% dark milk the most interesting. Hotel Chocolat also produces single origin bars from other cacao growing regions, but they are not yet available in the US.
International readers of Whisky Magazine will find that Hotel Chocolat has shops worldwide as well as in several UK cities. They recently opened their first shop in New York City. Hotel Chocolat also sells and ships directly through their own online shops.
Fontina Val D’Aosta PDO (Italy), aged six to nine months. Check for the consortium stamp on the outer rind of the cheese wheel to make sure this is the true Fontina. This cheese has subtle fruit, nut and mushroom notes. It shares smoke and earthiness with both the whisky and chocolate.
WhiskyGlenfiddich Fire & Cane, Experimental Series #04, Single Malt Scotch Whisky 43% ABV
This NAS is aged in Bourbon barrels, then finished three months in rum casks. There is much of the classic, fruity Glenfiddich here. Add peat and you get smoke with toffee, oak, and spiced baked apple. Smoke carries through to the finish.
ChocolateLondon Chocolate (UK), Dominican Republic, 70%
Bold and beautiful, this bar has deep fruit and cream notes that contrast with a slowly emerging background of roasted walnut and subtle spice. When enjoyed with the Glenfiddich, the impact is hearty rum.
London Chocolate is relatively new and only makes three different bars. Each bar contains only two ingredients, cacao and sugar, but their beans are roasted and refined to perfection. Try London Chocolate before the rest of the world discovers them. If you cannot find the London bars, look for a Dominican bar that is approximately 70% cacao and has red fruit and subtle spice notes rather than tobacco or leather aromas.
Le Gruyère by Gourmino (Switzerland) aged 18-24 months and/or a Manchego PDO (Spain) aged 12 months. Le Gruyère worked most compatibly with the fruit and light smoke of the Glenfiddich as a two-way pairing, better than as a coupling tried with a Spanish Manchego. But as a three-way, beginning with the Dominican chocolate by London, amazing synergies clicked, and the manchego leaped ahead as my preference.