List all the complimentary flavours that naturally go with chocolate – orange, nuts, dried fruit, caramel, vanilla –and you have something that’s also starting to sound a lot like a whisky tasting note. Add in the cocoa note that can sometimes be detected in your dram and you have a natural synergy of flavours between chocolate and whisky that make them perfect partners.
For starters, both are luxuries that share a wonderfully rich history.The Mayan civilisation was enjoying the feel-good phenols of cocoa in liquid form centuries before our Celtic forefathers first discovered the enlivening properties of drinking a liquid made from distilled barley. Parallels can also be drawn from the distinct provenance and sheer diversity of expressions – with so many types, blends and varieties of chocolate to taste. It’s possible to detect up to 300 different flavours in chocolate, with the more unusual flavours depending on the blend and where the cocoa beans are grown.
With such diversity and complexity to discover within quality chocolate, no wonder it can inspire the same level of connoisseurial appeal and fanatical devotion that we experience as whisky devotees.
“Wait a few seconds with both on the tongue and kaboom!”
The combination of whisky and chocolate is nothing new, of course – a fact testified by the abundance of whisky liqueur chocolates. However, these gloopy confections are doing neither parties any great favours as talented London based chocolatier, Paul A.Young explains: “The sugary syrup of the liquid centre distorts the flavours of both the chocolate and the alcohol.”
A former head pastry chef at some of Marco Pierre White’s flagship London restaurants before devoting his career to his favourite ingredient, Paul believes he is one of the only chocolatiers to be enthusiastically experimenting with better ways to encapsulate the pure flavours of malt whisky and other alcohol into chocolate. Rather than churning out the ubiquitous Champagne truffle, Paul is making chocolates with gin and Pimms as well as whiskies like Glenmorangie Original.
Paul incorporates the whisky within the coverture itself to capture the intensity of the whisky more clearly and best marry the flavours. He simply dilutes the whisky with a little spring water to open it up but not too much that the chocolate overpowers it before blending. According to Paul, this way is much more preferable than the usual method of adding whisky flavourings to creamy truffle centre. “I avoid using cream in my chocolates as it can mask even the strongest of flavours,” says Paul.
He uses natural fruit, herbs and spices in infusions and purees, rather than flavourings, to create his range of chocolates, which include a seasonal collection and a selection aimed at men, using earthy flavours like cedar, pine, chilli and spices – again flavour accents that instinctively pair well with whisky.
The two chocolate emporiums that Paul runs in London – in Islington’s Camden Passage and the City’s Royal Exchange – also stock a range of top quality bars from fine chocolate makers like Amedei and Valrhona that can be tasted alongside whisky. Paul’s business partner, James Cronin is a keen whisky aficionado, so the duo run tasting evenings for interested consumers to taste the chocolates with some specially selected drams.
They’ve found that Speyside malts and Irish whiskeys have a natural maltiness that works well with chocolate. And Venezuelan chocolate has an earthy, soily character that can work well with peaty island malts.The natural vanilla notes of Valrhona’s Ampamakia chocolate from Madagasca and the woody, barky notes of Ghanaian chocolate work with whisky’s woody character.
Paul believes that whisky goes better with this solid dark chocolate than other alcoholic drinks because it acts as solvent in the mouth to help melt the chocolate and meld the flavours. Whisky makes a better after dinner partner than coffee too.“People have coffee with chocolate, but coffee is also made from a roasted bean and can be quite bitter, so the two together they just kill each other,”explains Paul.“Whisky, meanwhile, will not compete with the chocolate but really let the flavours shine through.”
There are plenty of people within the industry that would advocate such a view, and they include director of The Glenrothes, Ronnie Cox, who has worked on various chocolate and whisky pairings. ”As the cocoa taste in whisky comes from the wood rather than the spirit, chocolate pairs well with the older vintages,” explains Ronnie.“The 1987 vintage goes well with a lighter lower percentage cacao whereas the older richer styles from the 70s cope well with a stronger chocolate with a higher cocoa content,”he says. He also finds nutty praline – a note often found in Glenrothes – is delicious with the older vintages like the 1978 or 1972.
Ronnie is particularly a fan of American kosher chocolate company Scharffen Berger and Switzerland’s Felchlin chocolate: “Their Dominican Republic chocolate is sublime with the 1991 vintage.”Felchlin’s Madagascar 64 per cent chocolate with The Glenrothes 1972 Vintage made a particularly surprising and uplifting union. Although very different in character, the chocolate kept its acidity and stimulated liveliness in the whisky. One of The Glenrothes’ latest colloborations has been with Spanish chocolatier Sampaka.
As another single malt whisky with discernible cocoa notes,The Dalmore also works with chocolate. “Cote D’or 84 per cent cocoa chocolate offers the perfect balance as it’s well rounded and not too bitter for a dark chocolate, matching the notes in both the 12 and 15 Years Old,”says Whyte & Mackay’s Richard Paterson. “Godiva’s 76 per cent also works well,”he adds.
"It’s possible to detect up to 300 different flavours in chocolate"
Richard believes that tasting chocolate with your dram is a great way to help tease out the complexity of a whisky – an ideal combination for quietly sipping and savouring. Also keen to get consumers in a contemplative mood is Chivas Regal.The brand is promoting an ‘indulgent tasting’ of chocolate with its 18 Years Old, designed to aid consumers in detecting the nuances within its blended Scotch. Chivas has teamed up with top French chocolate house, Valrhona and chocolate expert Chloe Doutre Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur, to select chocolates that emphasise individual components of the blend.There’s a creamy chocolate for the grain whisky, cocoa nibs to show the smoky Islay element and a nutty chocolate to echo the Strathisla at the heart of the blend. It’s hoped consumers will then use the experience to choose a suitable whisky to go with a dessert.
The best thing about matching chocolate and whisky is how easy it is to experiment at home – no gourmet cooking required!However, you do need to be choosy with your chocolate – don’t let cheap confectionery sully your prize dram.
“Big confectioners use cheap cocoa beans and in small quantities, so the beans are over-roasted to get more flavour out but this makes them bitter so sugars, fats and additives are added to disguise it,”explains Paul.
Seventy per cent cocoa solids are often quoted as a quality indicator but if the beans are poor, the percentage is irrelevant. Criollo and Trinitario are the premium and most flavoursome cocoa varieties compared to the cheap, high yielding Forestero beans and quality also depends on the way the beans are handled by the chocolate maker to coax out the best textures, aromas and flavours.
The best chocolate will simply contain cocoa beans, cocoa butter, vanilla, sugar and some soya lethicin as a natural emulsifier.
To finish things off, Ronnie Cox has some final tasting tips – he recommends taking just a small corner of chocolate, letting it melt on the tongue and deliver its flavours before sipping the whisky.
“Wait a few seconds with both on the tongue and kaboom!”
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 12 year old with Valrhona 70per cent Tropilla noir
Glenmorangie 18 Years Old with Valrhona Caraibe 66 per cent
Highland Park 12 Years Old with Valrhona Ghanaian Nyangbo 68 per cent
Connemara peated single malt with Amedei Toscano Black 66 per cent
Cragganmore 12 Years Old with Valrhona Guanaja 70 per cent
Jameson 1780 12 Years Old with Amedei 9 75 per cent