Scotching the myth

The concept of whisky and food has come a long way in recent years. Dominic Roskrow charts its progress
By Dominic Roskrow
A couple of years ago The Guardian newspaper in Britain reviewed Whisky Magazine alongside a selection of British wine magazines.

The fact that the female journalist bracketed a whisky title in with a group of wine ones says a great deal in itself – I have long maintained that wine and whisky don’t mix – but it was clear from her words that she was clearly a wine snob.

In the first place she couldn’t understand at all how we might include a literature column within the magazine. But worst still, she considered the notion that whisky might make a good accompaniment to food as nothing short of preposterous.

Our general reaction to such a Luddite view has always been amusement, but it illustrates just how alien the idea of whisky and food was outside a very elite group of enthusiasts.

Even those charged with growing the interest in whisky through the promotion of innovative marketing ideas such as the concept of whisky with food could see the difficulties with it. Not just for the diner being invited to consume a strong spirit with food either, but from the whisky lover, too, appalled at the idea of ‘dumbing down’ the whisky drinking experience.

“Drinking malt whisky while eating opposes all received wisdom and the very idea may elicit a disapproving response from many who are connoisseurs of the distillers’ art,” stated Nicholas Morgan, Diageo’s marketing director for premium malt whiskies some years back. “Yet we believe that it is vital to keep an open mind in a world where attitudes to food and drink are constantly changing.”

That was then. And while no-one’s pretending that whisky and food are a common combination on an everyday level, a perceptible shift has taken place. A month or so back a female journalist from one of the weightier British Sunday papers rang to talk about the current trend towards whisky accompanying food. She had, she said, been horrified when she had gone to a girlfriend’s for dinner to be presented with a mini whisky tasting and to find whisky served with the first course. But she had loved it, she said.

Much has happened in two years. We have become more aware of societies where the concept of food and whisky is not so strange and we have seen the growth in interest in South East Asian countries. And in Europe whisky with food, while not exactly commonplace, has become the subject of investigation.

"No longer is the whisky dinner about a few affluent individuals with a love of malt"

There are few dinner tables where fine malt is being downed with each course of a meal, and whisky dinners remain the exception rather than the rule. But the idea that whisky might find its way in to one course as an ingredient or be served alongside the entrée or dessert has taken seed.

Ronnie Cox, who regularly hosts whisky dinners as part of his ambassadorial work as director for the Glenrothes, says the trend is very clear.

“It’s very marked,” he says. “If you’d suggested putting whisky on the table with food a few years back people would have considered that there was something seriously wrong with you. Now people are much more amenable to the whole idea.”

Undoubtedly there are a number of different reasons for this.

The efforts of some of the whisky companies has helped to an extent, but the trend has been aided by the seemingly insatiable desire of diners to have a new experience, the trend towards drinking less but better, and a growing understanding of the flavour possibilities that whisky can offer have all helped.

No longer is the whisky dinner about a few affluent individuals with a love of malt – it’s reaching pub tables too. For top Irish chef Paul Rankin whisky can not only make a great accompaniment to food, but it can be a key ingredient and it offers oven-shy cooks the chance to work with strong flavours in a relatively simple way.

He has done a series of Bushmills-influenced recipes aimed at the male who doesn’t feel at home in the kitchen but might want to impress a girlfriend or partner. A lobster dish with garlic butter and Bushmills, for instance, or a pepper steak flambeed in whiskey.

“These are masculine dishes and the whiskey plays its part in that,” he says.

“For many men who have never spent time in the kitchen but might like to, this is fun, simple non-feminine cooking and it works for them.”

There are two distinct ways of looking at whisky and food – using whisky as an ingredient as Rankin suggests, or using it as an accompaniment.

In the past this column has focused predominantly on the former, and our writer Martine Nouet has been at the forefront of that trend, creating whisky dinners for the likes of Glenrothes (see elsewhere on the page), Aberlour and Ardbeg.

This year’s Ardbeg dinner at the Islay festival sold out in minutes.

But it would seem that there is only limited mileage in this direction. Cooking with malt whisky in particular is time consuming, difficult and expensive. For many, too, what is the point when the drink offers so much on its own?

“I recall Guy Savoy, the celebrated French chef, saying that the Glenrothes 1979 Vintage was so much like a liquid dessert – all dates, raisins and Dundee cake – that it would be a waste to do anything other than savour it in its natural form,” says Ronnie Cox.

“It is clearly more about appreciation –quality rather than quantity – which is precisely the point of single malt Scotch.

“I feel the move is more to a simpler idiom of whisky and food; light seafood lunches, for example, or as an accompaniment to a plate of good cheese for dessert.”

While the idea of food with whisky has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, there remains much to discover as different pairings are tried and the strangest bedfellows are discovered.

And there’s plenty more to come, as this column intends to show during the coming issues.

“Obviously whisky will never replace wine as the first choice at the dinner table,” says Ronnie Cox.

“But people are more sophisticated in their tastes today and they seem to look for food and drink that talk of that place. So shouldn’t whisky fit in?”

A Glenrothes whisky dinner

Crispy skinned bass and spiced coconut soup

Served with Glenrothes 1991

Honey braised duck breast with pistachio and orange jus

Served with Glenrothes 1987

Passion fruit and poached pears with white chocolate mousse

Served with Glenrothes Select Reserve

A Diageo whisky dinner

Butter puff cheese straws and grissini with Parma ham

Served with Glenkinchie 10 Years Old

Trout with caper butter sauce and potato cakes

Served with Talisker 10 Years Old

Chocolate nemesis tart

Served with Dalwhinnie 15 Years Old

Roquefort cheese with dried apricots

Served with Lagavulin 16 Years Old