Food

Syncopated Harmony

A look at foods that employ the skill of blending and pairing them with blended whisky
By Seáneen Sullivan
There is something thrilling about a solo performance, be it the deep thud of a double bass resonating through the soles of your feet, or the crash of a cymbal and the boom of a drum; a solo is pure skill and showmanship. While I can appreciate the sonorous warmth of a bassoon solo, I also long for the balanced harmony of the symphony. In this tortured analogy if single malts are the solo, then at their best, blends can be the blinding thrilling crescendo of the full London Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Ninth symphony.

The blender's skill and art is not limited to whisky production. In the wine making, tobacco, olive oil, chocolate, tea and coffee industries each element in a blend brings its own flavours and characteristics. While these blended products are exulted for their creativity and balance, blended whisky is sadly often treated as inferior to its single origin counterparts. Blends are often disparaged as 'accessible' or 'gateway' whiskies, which carries with it the suggestion that they lack the complexity and excitement of single malts. When whiskies are blended well they teem with aroma and flavour. Spice is present, herbs sometimes too, and beneath that perhaps leather, caramel, tobacco, all finely strung together, held in syncopated harmony and balance. John Glaser, of Compass Box who are innovators in the field of blending opines, "If you make blended Scotch with the highest quality whiskies, aged in the highest quality oak, blended with care and skill, you can make versatile whiskies with real flavour, integrity and interest." Ben Ellefsen from Master of Malt agrees, "Not less delicious, just different. I like difference."

The possibility for variation in blended whisky is seemingly endless. With the many incarnations possible, one could spend a lifetime exploring blends and their limitless variety. To return to the realm of the kitchen, on which I tread more familiar ground, I often fancy that the big blending houses treat their casks like a spice rack, selecting judiciously to balance sweetness, peat, fruitiness and richness and create variety. It is these twin pursuits of balance and variety that other blending traditions also aspire to.


Chocolate



With its achingly cool branding, Mast Brothers factory is reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s digs post-minimalism, complete with bearded Oompa-Loompas. The brothers have recently expanded from their Williamsburg base to Shoreditch in London. To mark the auspicious occasion, the ‘bean to bar’ ambassadors have launched a London blend bar, a sibling to its original blended chocolate, Brooklyn. While originally their operation focused on single origin, single harvest bars (the chocolate equivalent of single cask releases) their blends allow them the opportunity to play with their favourite beans and bring the different flavours, textures and aromas that they enjoy together in a bar. The London bar blends four different chocolates, each aged individually for between one and four months before being married together at the tempering stage of production. The chocolates are from Papua New Guinea, a smoky sweet chocolate made from beans dried by coconut husk smoke, Peru, which imparts fruit and spice, Tanzania which brings bold bitterness to the party and Brazil, the robust bruiser of the piece.

Chocolate Truffles

I used the Mast Brothers London blend alongside Compass Box Artists blend while the Brooklyn blend played happily with the rich round smoke and sherry of the Glasgow blend in another batch.

INGREDIENTS

  • 400ml double cream

  • 400g dark chocolate

  • 30ml whisky

  • Cocoa (for dusting)



METHOD
1. Bring cream to boil in a pot.
2. Break chocolate into pieces in a bowl and then pour cream over the top.
3. Leave for a minute then stir until the chocolate has melted.
4. Stir in whisky.
5. Pour the mixture into a flat bottomed container.
6. Cover and chill for two hours.
7. The next bit gets messy, so wear thin disposable gloves.
8. Spread the cocoa on a saucer.
9. Roll teaspoon sized balls of the semi-set mixture between your hands into balls. They will be knobbly and misshapen, this is part of
their charm.
10. Roll the balls in the cocoa and place on a plate back in the fridge for at least an hour to set.


Coffee



While single origin coffee has become increasingly fashionable in recent years, demand remains for blended coffees, even from the craft roasters. Steve Leighton from Hasbean prizes balance in a blend. “To create a blend, think of individual beans, how they might complement each other and what they can bring to the blend, primarily in terms of taste, but also in respect of mouthfeel, viscosity, aroma and complexity of flavours. It is about balance.” Hasbean’s Blake blend has a bold robust body, with aromas of dried fruit and an earthy rich mouthfeel. The balance plays well off the blend of grain and pot still whiskeys contained in Jameson. Irish Distillers Master Blender Billy Leighton echoes the coffee roaster’s sentiment while speaking about his blended Irish whiskey, “For me, all the elements must be in harmony. There should be no single characteristic, which dominates. Neither should there be separation of flavours.” A classic Irish coffee brings them together.

Irish Coffee

Per person

INGREDIENTS

  • 35ml Jameson Black Barrel

  • 10ml honey

  • 250ml freshly prepared coffee Lashings (approx 50mL) whipped cream



METHOD
1. Warmed wine glass or brandy balloon at the ready.
2. Whip the cream until it holds its shape in soft peaks. Place into a jug. Pour the whiskey and the honey into a warmed glass, and immediately pour over the hot coffee, stirring gently to combine.
3. Allow the surface of the coffee to stop swirling and become still.
4. Layer the cream atop the coffee over the back of a warmed spoon.


Tea



Benjamin & Blum are a tea company who pair single malt Scotch with single estate teas, creating surprising comparisons and contrasts. Applying the same approach to blended tea and Scotch produces some incredible flavour combinations. Ninety per cent of the tea consumed in Britain is blended, a similar figure to the world wide breakdown of blended Scotch when compared to single malt. Some of these teas contain 35 different varieties and the blender’s art is to ensure that they remain constant in quality, character and flavour. Scotch and tea are both quintessentially British drinks, so it makes sense to try them together. Paul Benjamin suggests sipping them side by side, either warm or chilled. Paul also suggests “pouring a few drops of tea into the whisky in the same way as you would add water. That way you can enjoy the flavours of the tea as well as the whisky, and with a little time in the glass new aromas and flavours develop!”

Some Suggested Pairings

Grant’s Family Reserve and Russian Caravan
Grant’s Ale Cask and Earl Grey
Johnnie Walker Black and English Breakfast