Being a frequent traveller to Scotland and always on the look-out for the most charming B&B or country house hotels with genuine Scottish fare, I am always surprised to notice a lack of dishes cooked with whisky on the menus. It is a fact that, apart a few traditional delights like cranachan or haggis laced with a generous dash of whisky, Scottish Cookery books do not promote the use of whisky in the preparation of food.
When you really think about it, it is the same in France with wine. Except great classics such as coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon, there are not many French dishes using wine. A gourmet foreigner dining in a French restaurant could be surprised in the same way as I am in Scotland. The general idea which prevails among people reluctant to use wine or spirits in cooking is that you should not 'waste' a good drink in a sauce. Their verdict on a poor whisky or cognac would be 'it's not drinkable and should be kept for cooking'.
And this is why in France you will always find flasks of cheap port, madeira, brandy or whisky specially bottled for cooking. Personally, I would not even use these alcoholic solutions to clean my windows.
Whisky, from the glass to the plate
Single malt whisky is my companion in the kitchen - though don't come to the conclusion that I drink whisky when I cook! It's not about adding any malt whisky to any dish, cooking is a complex chemistry in which aromas and tastes interlace for the best. Or the worst. Before creating a recipe, I start by evaluating the single malt I want to use in the meal. Can there be a better warm-up exercise for the palate? Using my tasting notes as a guideline, I imagine the recipe - selecting ingredients and seasonings in order to achieve the perfect match.
The choice of the single malt will also depend upon the season. Rich, creamy, heavily aromatic malts will be outstanding in autumnal recipes with ingredients such as duck, beef, foie gras, Jerusalem artichoke, parsnips, leeks, raisins, apple, figs, ginger and cinnamon. Highland Park, The Macallan, Glenfarclas, Aberlour, Lagavulin (especially the Distiller's Edition) fit this cooking profile perfectly. Heavily sherried, older malts are more suitable for generous meat or poultry oriented dishes with tasty and thick sauces. I would also recommend such single malts with fruity and creamy sweets like French toast, apple-crumble or blancmange. Among my numerous experiments as an amateur ice-cream maker (my partner and my neighbours are the most willing guinea pigs in the world), The Macallan 18 years old ice-cream is the best I have ever tried.
Bourbon cask and shellfish
Younger, lighter-bodied single malts will marry with springtime and summertime products such as shellfish, fish (salmon and red mullet), herbs (basil and coriander), broad beans, artichoke, spinach, fennel, rhubarb, red and black berries. Cooked with light dressings and sauces, they deserve a single malt matured in ex-bourbon or refill casks rather than sherry casks.
In the Speyside family, the fruity and slightly honeyed malts like Glenfiddich Reserve, Glenlivet 12 years old or Glen Moray 16 years old (Chenin Blanc finish) express their daintiness and their elegancy in a Granny Smith, lime and parsley iced soup or a strawberry and lemon curd charlotte. Young, pungent and fresh Islay malts bring a puff of freshness to seafood spaghetti with lemongrass and coriander or to a citrus fruit salad. Try a lobster or gambas sautéed in a pan and laced with Caol Ila 1989 (from Signatory), it is a blissful treat. The smokiness is enhanced by the heat and mingles delightfully with the sweet taste of the shellfish.
Many malt enthusiasts tend to associate smoked food with peaty single malts. If asked which single malt they would add to a broccoli and smoked salmon quiche, many would go for a Laphroaig or an Ardbeg. I wouldn't play the smoky flavours against each other because they would conflict and dominate the other flavours. I would use a very malty single malt like Royal Lochnagar, with its additional freshness brought by a liquouriced finish, or a farm-like malt with rustic aromas like Old Pulteney. Flambé or not flambé?
One of the questions I am often asked in my 'cooking with malt whisky' classes is, 'when and how much?' When is the whisky to be added in the preparation? It's a tough question. When heated the alcohol fumes evaporate, which is good, but they take away a lot of aromas - which is bad. For example, when preparing a sauce, if the whisky is poured at the beginning of the reduction it will vanish. I add the whisky when the reduction is almost complete and let it simmer softly, then I taste it. It may need a further addition of a few drops of whisky before serving, just to reawaken the flavours. Another way of bringing out the whisky flavours, without getting the rawness of alcohol, is to marinate the fish or meat in whisky before cooking or to brush a cake with whisky just as it is taken out of the oven. Traditional French cookery books often feature flambé recipes with Cognac or Grand Marnier, such as the famous Crepes Suzette. Much of this type of cookery is generally performed in front of restaurant guests who give the master chef a big hand. This is simply a show - I would be a detractor of cooking with malt whisky if this was the only way to use it in cooking. It's a real waste most of the time. As for how much malt whisky should be used in a recipe, it depends upon its aromatic profile. A light and delicate malt can be used more liberally than a heavily peated or sherried one, which requires a lighter touch. Chemistry becomes alchemy! Sampling is required to achieve the correct taste - the real fun part of cooking with malt whisky!