The black sea salt with volcanic ash plays off the smoke in the whisky," a voice calls from outside the walk-in fridge. "But does it cause the fattiness of the pork to become unctuous?" I query. "Potatoes just won't work, let's look at braising barley with some Lapsang Souchong tea in the bouquet garni," was the reply, "we could play up the sherry character with some soaked figs!"
Pairing whisky with a main course is a balancing act; working to show off the best in each element of food and the whisky. It is easy for one to overwhelm the other. Enjoying food alongside whisky can cause each to change, the dominant flavours muting or amplifying in concert with the accompaniment. Where there are a lot of elements on a plate, it can become unwieldy and fall flat. One wrong step, one poorly chosen garnish or sauce, and the pairing is ruined.
While some of my favourite whisky pairings are multilayered and complex, requiring hours of trial and error (and a dismayed kitchen porter left with the washing up) I also love the quiet simplicity of pairing a single element with a complex whisky. Some of the most effective pairings I have experienced have been of this stable: simple and uncomplicated. In its natural state, food has such breadth of flavour and the mantra of what 'grows together goes together' can lead to some stunning yet simple food pairings.
One of my favourite ways to enjoy whisky alongside food is pairing whisky and sushi, especially when the whisky is lengthened slightly with soda water to create the Japanese Mizuwari. The soy sauce, nori seaweed and pickled ginger all add to this combination. Unadorned seafood also offers a lot of opportunity for pairing.
Two pairings to try:
Salmon and a single malt
The ubiquitous pairing of salmon and Scotch has become a cliché. As with most clichés, it holds true. The pairing can be tweaked to match different whiskies by serving the salmon smoked, ceviched with a squeeze of citrus or cured with herbs or spices. The fattiness of salmon allows the flavours of a whisky to complement rather than compete. Arran 10 Years Old malt and smoked salmon are a great combination, with the sweetness and grain character in the whisky acting as a foil to the fish.
Oysters and a maritime Whisky
A freshly shucked oyster holds in it the memory of the sea. The rich minerality and mouth puckering brine work brilliantly when paired with a whisky matured at a coastal distillery. A drop of Old Pulteney or Laphroaig brings beautiful peat and sweetness as a contrast to the oyster’s flavours.
It is hard to think of a whisky that doesn’t have a perfect casein heavy partner. Like whisky, the age of a cheese can have a huge influence on its flavour profile. Try different expressions from a distillery with the same cheese for interesting results. Whisky does a good job of cutting through the fattiness of the cheese and lifting its creaminess off the palate, allowing both to shine.
Experiment with local variations on the following combinations:
Highland single malt and brie
Morangie brie, produced in Tain pairs well with the Glenmorangie Original. The soft vanilla and orange notes in the whisky allow the saltiness of the brie to come through and contrast.
Pot Still and Goats Cheese
Ireland is known for its many farmhouse cheeses. One in particular, Ardsallagh is a great match for Redbreast 12 Years Old, distilled nearby in Midleton. The soft tang of the mild goat’s cheese brings out the nuttiness of the whiskey and its soft fruity spices act as a jammy foil to the tartness of the cheese.
Speyside and clothbound cheddar
Glen Elgin 12 Years Old and Montgomery’s cheddar are a traditional pairing. The deep flavour of the cheese pairs well with rich fruitiness in the whisky. It functions like dried fruit on a cheese board. The whisky allows the grassy, nutty notes of the cheese to come out while the cheese accentuates the beautiful bread-like maltiness of the whisky.
In the plush panelled cocktail bar of the Connaught hotel, custom made chocolates are served along side the bar’s 100-strong whisky collection. Flavourings include Tonka Bean, a woody spice that can give you the jitters if over consumed, and bergamot, the citrus that gives Earl Grey its distinctive flavour. There are plenty of quality commercial chocolates that shine with a dram.
Chocolate is, like whisky a fermented food. It is during fermentation that many distinctive flavours develop in the bean, and these create a versatile palate to pair with. Many of these flavours are regional, being a result of the influence of the environment in which they are grown.
Three to try:
Rum cask matured and Ecuadorian
Ecuadorian chocolate is often grown beside tropical fruit trees so chocolate from that country takes on the same notes. Try Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask and Pacari Ecuadorian 70 per cent. The big body of the chocolate allows the robust richness of the whisky to shine, while offsetting the maltiness with strong traditional roasted aromas. The sweetness of the whisky enhances the floral notes of the chocolate revealing blackcurrant and spice.
Wine cask matured and Madagascan
Madagascan chocolate is quite acidic. As such, chocolatiers often use it in bon bons with red fruits. Teeling Single Grain is matured exclusively in red wine casks, giving a wallop of red fruit tartness. Paired with Cocoa Barry Madirofolo 65 per cent Madagascan, both the whiskey and the chocolate bring warm spice and wood tannins, each amplifying the flavour of the other.
Sherried peated whisky and sea salt caramel
Dark chocolate and a puff of cocoa work beautifully against the sherry in the whisky. Bowmore 15 Years Old Darkest and Artisan De Chocolate No1 Salted Caramel is a great example of this. The bon bon shell cracks open to reveal sweet and salty caramel which echoes the soft quality of the whisky.