There was a certain degree of confusion at US Immigration. "Why are you here?" asked the chap behind the desk. I was tempted to say because you made me queue up, but responded, "To do a presentation for the CIA." He looked at me with a coldly bemused stare.
"The CIA," I replied.
He looked me up and down. "The CIA," he repeated back at me.
"Yes," I responded, realising that this might need a little more explanation. "The Culinary Institute of America." There was a pause. "Ah…" I said, "you thought I meant…"
I was now wondering whether this would count as wasting immigration officer's time. "Hmmm," he said and stamped my passport giving me another long look as if to say, I never believed you could be a spook. I gave him one back trying to communicate that if I actually was a CIA operative I wouldn't be wearing a suit and tie, and that the beard, jeans, and Talisker hoody combo is exactly what a successful undercover agent is wearing these days.
The CIA, it transpires, is a mighty fine organisation whose California campus is based in the old Christian Brothers/Heublein winery in St. Helena. Its aim, to educate and train the new generation of chefs. I was there to speak on the links between Japanese whisky and Japanese food.
My senior partner in this exercise was Chef Ken Tominaga of Hana restaurant, in nearby Sonoma, and Pabu, in San Francisco, while the whiskies were kindly donated by Suntory. Our aim was to have three pairings and, more importantly, a discussion about how its long-established links with food sets Japanese whisky apart from other distilled beverages.
Being able to be consumed with (Japanese) food was after all one of the founding principles laid down by Shinjro Torii in the late 1920s. For me, this means that Japanese whisky makers have always considered how the flavours they create will match with occasion and therefore cuisine. Scotch and Bourbon weren't established in this way. As a result, the matches are, in my experience, more difficult, and the drams more demanding.
The food pairings themselves were intriguing, kicking off with Hakushu 12 Years Old with Chef Tominaga's signature 'Happy Spoon' (salmon and flying fish roe, sea urchin, kushi oyster, ponzu crème fraîche). It was a superb coastal contrast to the piney freshness of the malt, whose subtle smokiness acted as a flavour bridge between the two.
The third pairing, Hibiki 17 Years Old, was a spin on nitsuke (braised fish) in which kinmedai (aka alfonsino) was braised in a umami-infused broth of sake, mirin and soy, and served with seared foie gras. It was, I have to say, the most astonishingly brilliant whisky and food pairing I have ever had. Dish and whisky were multifaceted, sensory overloads. Both demonstrated how whisky can - indeed should - be included on the table, how the flavours and textures of both work in harmony, and in contrast. They also proved that just as chefs blend flavours and textures, so do whisky-makers.
Now both of these matches are high-end matches and I can sense the fingers twitching over the Twitter buttons as I dare to write about them. This was why the middle pairing was the chef's masterstroke. Here he matched Yamazaki 12 Years Old paired with okonomiyaki which for those of you who haven't been out in Osaka is that city's street food speciality, a fluffy pancake containing, well anything you want really, but in our case shredded cabbage, pork belly and topped with a quails egg (not for decadence but because the portions were small) and, of course the thick, sweet okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise.
This is the food that has saved me on many late nights in Osaka - and it worked beautifully with the fruitiness of the Yamazaki. This was what Torii-san was thinking about, whisky not just a drink for the upper echelons, but a drink for izakayas, a drink to be taken by ordinary people, to be enjoyed with honest street food.