On the spice trail

Martine Nouet takes a walk on the spiced side of life.
By Martine Nouet
How often do our tasting comments read like this:ripe fruit, enhanced by delicate spices. Peppery finish. Intense spicy character.

That magical alchemy between wood and alcohol produces spicy aromas. If it is quite easy for the professional tasters to pick cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or coriander, they are more evasive when it comes to peppery notes. I hosted a tasting seminar at Whisky Live London on that theme a few years ago, I had the participants try and find the different peppers in a range of whiskies. We managed to have a few spicy comments as well!

When autumn comes, we are ready to leave raw dishes for cooked ones, looking for more elaborate and spicy food. Here are three recipes which give spices a prominent part. I have deliberately chosen for each recipe one particular malt which dictates the choice of spices. One will note that the whiskies are relatively old. This is not surprising as the spicy character slowly builds up as the whisky matures longer. All these spicy notes originate from the wood extracts. Some new makes have a spicy character though, Talisker being one of them. The older the whisky is, the most complex the aromatic profile is and it is not always easy to isolate the spice.

But that makes cooking and sampling even more fun.

A toast to Sergeant Pepper

Pepper is a unique and multifaceted spice. A colourful family!

Pepper, piper nigrum green, white and black pepper

Coming from Malabar forests in India, pepper reached Europe during the Middle Ages. Green, white and black pepper come from the same plant.

Green pepper is harvested before it reaches its full maturity. And so is black pepper but it is dried. White pepper stays longer on the bush. The bark is taken out after soaking in water, hence the colour. This pepper has a unique aroma which is reminiscent of the farm yard.

Note that the so called “red pepper” (which is called “pink”in France) is not pepper. It is a berry which comes from the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Fruity and almost juicy, it is very fragrant and tasty.

Széchouan pepper zanthoxylum piperitum

Another ‘fake’ pepper. Coming from the province of Szechouan in China, as the name suggests, it is also a berry, which is similar though smaller to the Ash tree berry. Only the bark is eaten, the seed is said to be toxic. Very fragrant, szechouan pepper has a fruity and tangy flavour.

Cubebe pepper, piper cubeba

Coming from Java in Indonesia, cubebe pepper arrived in Europe through Venice and was first used for medicinal purpose. This pepper has a very special aroma and flavour. It is slightly prickly but warm, not hot. It is quite balsamic (camphor, turpentine, eucalyptus) which makes it an interesting ingredient in cooking. But don’t overdo it as it will convey bitter notes.

Long peppercorn, piper longum

That plant is botanically related to piper nigrum. Fruit are dried and used in seasoning. This pepper is certainly the lesser known in the pepper family. That is unfortunate as it is a wonderful “seasoner”.
It is very fruity, warm but not really tangy. It could even be sucked like a candy!

Roasted monkfish in a spicy crust with a whisky-laced fennel sauce

Serves 6


For the fish

  • 1.2 kg monkfish (pealed and cut into six pieces)

  • Mixed spices: 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp cubebe pepper, 1 large pinch chilli, salt

  • 2 tbsp olive oil

  • 2 tbsp grain mustard

  • 3 tbsp chopped parsley

  • 1 shallot

  • 1 sprig of thyme

  • 3 tbsp Talisker Distillers’Edition

For the sauce

  • 1 fennel bulb

  • 2 tbsp double cream

  • Juiceof half a lemon

  • salt,pepper

  • 2 tbsp Talisker Distillers’Edition

1. Preheat the oven (210°C). Chop the shallot and two fennel leaves. Place in an oven dish with the thyme. Mix the spices with oil and the parsley. Add mustard to the mixture and coat the monkfish pieces with it. Place in the dish. Pour the whisky on top and cook for 15 min.
2. Cut the fennel bulb into four pieces and cook it for 10 min in boiling water. Blend the fennel with a little cooking water. Add cream and lemon juice. Cook at high heat to reduce the sauce and get a velouté sauce texture. Then add the whisky, season and keep warm.
3. Place a piece of monkfish on each plate. Spoon with the fennel coulis. Serve with boiled potatoes or rice.

Why choose Talisker Distillers’Edition?
Talisker Distiller’s Edition melds with this refined dish without dominating it. The fennel freshness acts as an echo to the whisky liquorice notes. There is a subtle fusion between the delicate spicy crust which wraps the monkfish and Talisker spiciness. Its smoky touch seals the marriage between surf and turf. The Talisker standard version would dominate the dish with its assertive pepperiness. Whereas the amoroso finish has toned down (but not masked) Talisker spicy profile and brings out sweet ripe fruit and liquorice notes.

Spicy lamb chops in a honey and whisky sauce

Serves 6


  • 2 racks of lamb (18 chops)

  • Mixed spices: a few cardamom pods, 10 cubebe peppercorns, 10 black peppercorns, 10 long peppercorns, a large pinch of ginger powder, a cinnamon pinch, a tsp cooking salt

  • 3 oatcakes

  • 1 tbsp crushed hazelnuts

  • 2 tbsp honey

  • 50ml Highland Park 18 Years Old

  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar

  • 60g butter

  • 1 cloved onion, 1 laurel leaf, 1 leek leaf all diced

  • 10 ml dry vermouth

  • 7 carrots diced

  • 1 tsp cumin seeds

  • 50g butter

  • 2 tbsp honey

1. Debone the lamb to obtain a fillet. Seal the bones in olive oil. Cover with water and vermouth. Add the onion and other vegetables. Simmer for 40 min then sieve.
2. Peel the carrots, cut them into slices and cook for 15 min in a little water with butter, honey and cumin.Season and keep warm.
3. Lightly toast the spices and crush them in a mortar with oatcakes and hazelnuts. In a pan, melt some butter and seal the lamb fillet. Keep it on a plate. Heat the honey and the whisky and brush the meat with the mixture. Keep the remaining for the sauce.
4. Reduce the lamb stock to obtain a concentrated coulis. Add vinegar and the rest of honey plus whisky. Reduce a little more. Roll the lamb fillet into the spices and cook for a few min. Cut into slices, spoon the sauce on and serve.

Why choose Highland Park 18 Years Old?
That dish is marked by a contrast between sweetness and spicyness. Both underline the depth and richness of the Orcadian malt. Highland Park is a model of balance and complexity especially at the age of 18. The peated notes keep backstage. The sweetness of the carrots and the cereal notes of the oatcakes are an echo to the whisky malty heart. A generous circus of flavours which suit an autumnal atmosphere.

Strawberry and rhubarb salad with a dash of whisky

Serves 6


  • 500g strawberries

  • 5 rhubarb sticks

  • 3 tbsp brown sugar

  • 2 vanilla pods

  • 2 star anis berries

  • ground black pepper

  • 3 long peppercorns

  • A few crushed szechouan pepper berries

  • 1 pinch cinnamon

  • 20g fresh ginger (finely sliced)

  • 3 tbsp Balblair 1986

1. Cut the strawberries in two. Cut the rhubarb into big slices.
2. Bring 300ml water to the boil. Add the sugar and the spices and let simmer for 10 min. Cover with a lid and infuse. Drain the spicy syrup, keeping the star anis and the vanilla pods.
3. Bring the syrup to the boil again. Poach the rhubarb slices in it, cooking them for more than four minutes. Take them out of the syrup and place in a bowl.
4. Reduce the syrup over high heat for 10 minutes. Then pour the whisky.
5. Add the strawberries to the rhubarb. Delicately pour the syrup and mix. Leave to cool. Divide into six bowls. This fruit salad releases even more flavours when enjoyed a little warm. Serve with a strawberry sorbet or a whisky granité.

Why choose Balblair 1986?
This refreshing sweet plays a fruity score in a soft acid key which the spicy syrup uplifts. Balblair 1986, matured in bourbon casks, is perfectly comfortable with that. Vanilla, star anis and grassy notes keep to the frame.