We all know that chocolate is the food of the gods, especially when it comes in its darker form with a really high cocoa content, and that it can be the perfect companion to a late night indulgent dram.
The Balvenie is no exception to this rule and recently the whisky company teamed up with master chocolatier Bill McCarrick from Sir Hans Sloane chocolate company to create a series of chocolate and whisky tasting workshops for the customers of renowned London tailors Gieves and Hawkes.
With so many similarities between fine handmade chocolate and the whisky, and let’s not forget the attention to detail with which each is made and the hand crafted nature of each step of the production process, Whisky Magazine wanted to find out more about the brains behind the chocolate creation and what drew Bill to working with whisky.
Fortunately for us, Bill decided not to follow his father’s footsteps into the family business, a butcher in Philadelphia, USA. Instead he has followed a career in chocolate for 29 years which has taken him around the globe and seen him working in several top hotels in Asia, Australia and Dubai, as well as a stint at Harrod’s.
Bill is a true advocate of combining chocolate and whisky, and has started off with no preconceived ideas.
He says:“I have worked with a number of liquids including spirits since I started.This project took shape eight months ago when The Balvenie team approached me to work with them. Until then whisky had always been an occasion drink for me but now I appreciate it a lot more and see many similarities to chocolate, including mouth feel, texture and aroma.
“Chocolate is a great conduit for whisky.When you combine them together the chocolate takes the rough edges off the whisky and helps to enhance the floral character. It goes together without one dominating the other.
“It has been an interesting journey, but as I have been really busy lately I have not had time to revisit the project, but there is definitely so much potential.
“Next year I am planning to do something truly exceptional with whisky and chocolate so watch this space for more.”
Now a convert to the amber spirit Bill finds that he can spread the word better using the medium of chocolate.
He adds:“When I get people who say they don’t like whisky I get them to try it with a little chocolate and they are amazed how they are improved by each other.
“It gives an impressive mouth feel and leaves no fat or film coating the tongue. It is totally cleansing and satisfying.
“Using the Balvenie 10 Years Old was perfect with the chocolate. I describe it as a rolling hill of flavours and mouth feel.The balance is perfect.
“I try to keep a lot of the fruit and plum notes in the chocolate when I make it to help complement the whisky. I find if you incorporate the whisky directly into the chocolate it helps keeps things crisp, clear and precise in terms of flavour delivery.This lets the whisky notes come through unhindered by buttery fats.”
The role of teacher for Bill does not stop at reaching out to people with the tasting classes, enjoyably for Bill’s family he does take his work home – well the chocolate for his children.
He adds:“We do a lot of chocolate tasting at home or at my office so the kids can see what I do. They are getting quite good at the tasting side of things, and do pick up on certain notes.”
In terms of sourcing his ingredients, Bill has somewhat similar trials and tribulations as the distillers do.
He continues:“There are tight controls on the quality of ingredients. Mind you with whisky you can look out over the fields of barley – with chocolate most is grown 20 degrees north and south of the equator.
“I now source my cocoa directly from the farmers, this way there is more control over the fermenting and drying processes. It’s a little risky but I am starting to build up a relationship with the growers. I have even sent the farmers I deal with finished chocolates, something they had not seen before. Normally they use the cocoa to drink or in savoury dishes.
“There are similarities which continue to strike me between whisky and chocolate, and I do feel that whisky is now my spirit of choice because of this.
“I would love at some point to use some barrels to store my cocoa butter in to see what happens.The only thing stopping me is time.
“But I reckon next year I am going to have time to do some great things.”
“The cocoa fruit grows on trees and is shaped like a rugby ball and about the size of a papaya,”explains Bill. “The trees only have two harvests a year.It is mostly poorer people who work on the harvest and unlike on banana plantation, where the product is easily consumed, they cannot eat what they cannot sell.
“The fruit is cut carefully from the tree and laid on the floor so it is not bruised.It is then collected, cut open and scrapped out. There is a pulpy flesh inside the fruit a little like in mangoes.
“This mixture is then fermented between banana leaves for a period of three or four days in the sun. Timing is critical as too much fermentation will give a bitter edge to it.
“The farmers then spread the mix over a tarmac area to dry out for about five days.Here it is at the mercy of the weather.
“Finally it is roasted and ground into a paste – which is when I get my hands on it and add milk powder for milk chocolate or brown sugar. There are many steps that could go wrong.
“Temperature is an issue as if it gets too hot you loose the acids and tannin that help give flavour.”