Chef Graham Harvey first learnt to appreciate the joys of pairing whisky and food at a young age – with an impromptu demonstration at a traditional Burns Supper in his early teens.
“The haggis, neeps and tatties arrived and in my youthful ignorance, I asked the huge hairy Glaswegian sat opposite me if there was any gravy coming,” explains Graham.
“He immediately stood up, reached over the table and poured his entire glass of whisky over my food, saying “that’s the only gravy you need on haggis laddie!”
The memorable combination certainly created an impression as Graham has maintained a passion for pairing whisky and food pairing ever since, experimenting with various combinations for more than 30 years throughout his career in the hospitality trade.
He now runs Craggan Mill Restaurant along with partner Sheila McConachie in Grantown on Spey, nestled in Scotland’s whisky heartland of Speyside. Here the couple serve up a range of dishes based upon the best Scottish ingredients and products – and that includes liberal use of Scotch, of course.
The popularity of the whisky-imbued dishes that regularly appear on the daily specials board at menu has led the duo to write The Whisky Kitchen, a new book that features 100 inspiring recipes for cooking with whisky.
In the past, much of the activity surrounding the subject of whisky and food has concentrated on elaborate pairing dinners and although this highlighted the pinnacle of potential for matching the two elements, it also made the whole concept appear rather unapproachable to the average cook or whisky lover. Although Graham can clearly demonstrates the highest level of culinary skill, winning the accolade of Spirit of Speyside Chef of the Year in 2007, the book he has written with Sheila is based on a solid foundation of simple yet delicious home-cooking that is designed to be easily achievable in the domestic kitchen.
Many of the dishes are tried and tested family recipes which have been simply enhanced by the addition of whisky. These range from the popular Jura whisky tomato sauce that’s served with steak burgers in the restaurant to a Banana and Honey Teabread made with Dalmore.
“We wanted the dishes to be accessible to anyone, whether they are an accomplished cook or a novice,”explains Sheila.
“Most of the recipes are very easy, even if there is sometimes a huge list of ingredients,”continues Graham.“We’ve also included ideas on presenting the dishes so the reader is still be able to achieve that wow factor if cooking them for a dinner party”he adds.
The duo hope that the book will help a wider range of people to appreciate the enormous potential of whisky and see just how versatile it can be as an ingredient for use in everyday cookery. “Although we are a Scottish restaurant using the best Scottish produce, our cooking style naturally has French and Italian influences and we took the view that if these countries regularly use the native alcohol in their own cuisine, why not use whisky in our food?”asks Sheila.
One persuasive reason for using Scotch in recipes is the infinite variety of diverse tastes and flavours it can offer the home cook - however it’s more a matter of conquering people’s many preconceptions on the idea of using whisky in cooking.
It is those people who dislike whisky as a drink that prove the hardest to win over.“Many believe the dishes will taste heavily of whisky but that is not the case, nor the intention, so if the food is overpowered by the whisky, then the recipe is wrong,”asserts Sheila. “Of course, you can always adjust the recipes, by cutting back on the whisky a little to suit your taste but when the whisky is cooked, it changes its character so you’ll find it loses its strong taste and adds an extra layer of subtle flavour.”
Graham adds:“In the blind tastings carried out when writing the book, the tasters preferred the dishes with the whisky in them without exception.”
The perceived expense of using whiskies, particularly single malts, is another prohibitive factor against getting people cooking with the spirit at home but the recipes in The Whisky Kitchen are based around one or two miniature bottles so it’s much cheaper to experiment.
“Most people have unfinished bottles of whisky lurking in their cupboard to experiment with but in any case, a little goes a long way,”advises Sheila.
“But don’t let that stop you buying a full bottle of a malt that you have found particularly to your taste!”exclaims Graham enthusiastically, recommending Cragganmore 12 Years Old as one of the most complex and versatile whiskies they have come across that works well in various dishes.
Once past those initial preconceptions of overpowering flavour and expense, it’s just a matter of realising the full potential of whisky for use in the kitchen. “Some people are happy to accept whisky with chocolate or Christmas cake because they have experienced the combination before but they are astonished to consider using whisky in savoury dishes,”says Sheila.
“One of my greatest revelations was when I first experimenting with pairings was discovering that Drambuie whisky liqueur was absolutely fabulous with orange in a sauce for roast salmon and opened up my eyes to the possibilities of using other whiskies in savoury dishes,”she admits.
This sauce has now been adapted to use the citrus notes of Aberlour and is recommended as a great starter recipe to try, along with the Strathdon blue cheese and whisky sauce, which can be served with beef or pork, vegetables, pasta and even seafood.
Other inspiring ideas for simple sweet dishes includes soaking dried fruit in BenRiach Dark Rum Wood 14 Years Old for a fruit cake or roasting a few firm fruits in a pan and throwing in a splash of Glayva whisky liqueur and allowing it to flame off.
Alternatively, you could recreate Graham’s favourite pairing from the book, the Haggis Veloute – which combines his favourite Speyside malts, Glenfarclas, with the other ingredient that has remained close to his heart through his years of match-making whisky and food.
I’m sure the hairy Glaswegian would approve.
Graham and Sheila’s top tips for cooking with whisky
Nosing and tasting the malt will often lead you to what ingredients it would work well with.
Classically, peatier malts match well with dishes that have strong flavours of their own such as blue cheese or spicy dishes, seen in our recipe for Bunnahabhain Mussels with Strathdon Blue.
Unpeated west coasters exhibit sea spray notes that work well with shellfish, while dishes with earthy flavours like wild mushrooms are best married to Highland malts with a similar character. The woody undertones of Royal Lochnagar 12 Years Old are a perfect match with Chanterelles for example. The rich sweetness of sherried Speyside malts, such as Aberlour abunadh, are fantastic with chocolate. Glen Moray 16 Years Old is great in a chocolate torte, for example as the sweetness and hint of cinnamon in Glen Moray complement the chocolate so well.
Lowland malts are generally quite delicate so work very well with vegetable and pulse dishes.
Be aware that during cooking, the structure of the whisky changes, so some high notes may be lost in evaporation and background flavours are concentrated during reduction. Also when you bake with whisky often all of the high notes, background and finish are trapped, to be revealed when you taste the dish. Another thing to bear in mind is that the longer you cook the dish, the less pronounced the whisky flavour will be.Taste and taste again as your dish cooks, add more whisky if you feel it needs it. All the reason you need to get experimental in the kitchen and start cooking and whisky.