When I was a student sommelier I agonised over the ins and outs of pairing wine with food, preparing a dish to complement an individual wine, and selecting just the right wine to enhance a particular meal. With my fellow apprentices we were each tested on it. Over and over. No wonder our classes so often ended with a dram!
Among these pairings I found some exquisite marriages but very few outright abominations. Although our teachers encouraged experimental, perhaps even controversial matches, generally speaking it all boiled down to a few very simple and oft-repeated rules: red wine works best with red meat, and white wine with fish, light meat, and vegetables. Spicy Asian food? Almost any Gewurztraminer will confirm your superior matching skills.
Wine has been a favoured meal-time thirst quencher for millennia because it is made to be consumed with food. What began as a crude libation developed over centuries into an art form, as delightful combinations of certain wines and foods evolved in tandem. They just tasted better together. A greasy pork chop or sausage, for example, became all the more appetising washed down with a local acidic wine.
The benefits of that slow evolution were brought home to me recently when my alma mater asked me to comment on student pairings of wine with food. Their challenge was to choose a wine to complement aloo tikki, an Indian vegetarian cutlet made of spicy potato and peas with coriander-mint chutney and tamarind sauce. With no known Indian tradition of drinking wine with food to guide them, what would the students choose as a perfect match? They certainly tried hard, but when all was said and done although some pairings were pleasant none of them was particularly memorable.
"Any combination of chocolate becomes an epicurean delight when served with whisky"
This long influence of wine, and the never-ending opinions of its cognoscente, has led aficionados of other beverages to transfer wine’s rituals to their chosen libation. Whisky-food pairings are slowly making their presence felt. If it works with wine, then why not with whisky?Simply put, chefs often enhance a meat dish by adding a small amount of fruit, but grain or oak?
It seems to me that pairing whisky with food is a forced fit, although the growing popularity of whisky dinners, particularly with single malt clubs, would disprove that. Generally a meal of typical Scottish fare, which always includes the quintessential haggis, is “matched” with whatever malts are on the tasting agenda that evening. Truthfully, whisky dinners are often more about all things Scottish than they are about whisky.
So how well does whisky complement this choice of food? Wine and beer can quench any thirst, but whisky? With its higher alcohol content, whisky is best when sipped slowly. Consumed in thirst-quenching quantities it does little more than numb the palate and a mouth-clearing-sized swig of whisky will more likely induce gasping coughs than ready the palate for another bite of food. This is one reason why whisky-dinner tables include an inviting jug of water.
Still, there are a few whisky-food pairings that work wonderfully. Shellfish, and particularly oysters, are all the better with an added dash of whisky. Witness the line-ups at the Lagavulin oyster tent at Feis Ile. The same goes for some very rich aged cheeses. Still, what can be a challenge as a pairing can make for an excellent ingredient as the food is being prepared. For example, whisky-plank salmon, barbequed on red cedar impregnated with bourbon is a North American seafood specialty. Other than raw shellfish, it is difficult to think of food that pairs well with whisky itself. No, whisky is better as an aperitif, or a digestif, or with dessert. A soft dram with poached pears can be heavenly, and nearly any combination of chocolate becomes an epicurean delight when served with whisky. But with your daily fare? Best to stick with wine or water.