Sometimes we have to think big. If food pairing is really going to be the key that opens the door to the whisky world for a new generation of drinkers – or indeed win over sceptical malt lovers and expose them to new frontiers of taste - then we need to ditch the detail.Rather than pinning down specific whisky expressions with complicated dishes, we need be broad and bold in suggesting foods that really work with whisky and giving simple pairing ideas with plenty of potential to encourage experimentation. Such ideas don’t come much bigger or better than whisky and cheese.
Inspired by Mr Broom’s campaign to ‘convert a friend to whisky’ in last issue’s column, it seemed appropriate to look at one of the most approachable ways we can use a food pairing to introduce malts to any whisky virgins we know. For starters, the concept comes with the benefit of not focusing solely on the whisky, so you’re half way there already to winning over reluctant malt imbibers. Cheese has such a huge variety of styles, textures and spectrums of flavour so when combined with the equally wonderful diversity of malt whisky, which gives us plenty of scope to find something to suit everyone’s individual palate.
Just like chocolate (my other contender for the best simple food match with whisky), cheese is a food that appeals to large number of enthusiastic, sometime fanatical, devotees who are passionate about consuming it – in the same way those of us who populate the whisky world are drawn to a dram. However, unlike chocolate and whisky, cheese and whisky is a much more unexpected partnership that most non-whisky drinkers will have never considered before so it’s a much bigger revelation when they do realise how well it works.That creates a real talking point and makes an ideal activity for a tasting evening at your local whisky club or an social gathering with friends. Furthermore, the ease of execution, with little preparation and no cooking required, means that whisky and cheese can be easily served at such events. Bringing the drinking time for whisky forward a little in the evening and out of its traditional after-dinner pigeon hole can also help shake up people’s preconceptions about the spirit. The concept can be equally easy to incorporate into a dinner party, by introducing whisky towards the end of the meal. At this stage of proceedings, the cheese board is always welcome but the idea of opening yet another bottle of wine is often not.
Speaking of wine, we can also help our cause by dispelling this age-old preconception that wine and cheese are the ideal bedfellows – in fact, they are a far from heavenly match. Cheese is actually a very difficult food to match with wine due to its pungency, intense flavour and natural ability to overpower almost everything it meets in the mouth. The fat from the cheese coats the palate and deadens a taster’s perception of the wine’s more subtle flavours. However, at the same time, the wine also tries to smother our taste buds with its own high levels of acidity and tannin, particularly in the big punchy wines we increasingly drink these days.
Whisky, on the other hand, is a drink in a much better position to cope. Due to its higher alcohol strength, the spirit can act like a solvent in the mouth to help cut through the cloying effect of the cheese, which combines with the flavours of the whisky rather than block them.This process that can also unexpectedly tease out hidden flavours in the cheese, as well as the inherent sweetness of a good malt.There’s also a more equal match in terms of levels of intensity, so even a lighter style dram can stand up this tricky food.
When you consider those items that you would naturally eat with cheese, such as dried fruit, nuts or savoury biscuits, it becomes clear that whisky can offer many complementary flavours. Similarly, whisky has plenty of texture and mouthfeel to match the cheese –think of that waxy texture that you get with a dram of Clynelish or the oiliness of an Islay malt like Caol Ila, for example.
The reasons for giving this pairing a go certainly stack up so how best to go and experiment for yourself?
Well, choosing good quality cheese is essential if you are sampling it with good quality whisky. I’d recommend buying from a specialist cheesemonger wherever possible, and make sure that it’s stored correctly and kept in optimum condition before you’re ready to taste. If tasting in a group, ask guests to each bring along a cheese, a whisky, or both for maximum fun! I’d say selecting between three to six cheeses for a session is a good number to experiment with, without becoming overwhelmed. As for the whiskies, I’m a big fan of those 20cl bottles, which are just the right size for a small gathering.
To structure your tasting, it is logical to start at the mildest end of the cheese spectrum with something delicate in flavour like a soft goat’s cheese before working your way up to brie and Gruyere before heading towards the harder cheeses and pungent mature cheddars, finishing with a blue cheese like Stilton or Roquefort.
If tasting with the occasional whisky-drinker or potential newbie convert, start by suggesting they add a few drops of water to the whisky as this opens up the aromas and breaks down those flavour-bearing compounds. However, even seasoned connoisseurs can benefit from a drop of water as this helps to bring out a sweetness that can enhance the taste of the cheese.To begin, prepare the palate by taking a small sip of the whisky first and keep it in the mouth before swallowing and savouring the finish. Upon a second sip, add in the cheese and let your taste buds revel in the results. Of course, not everything will work well together but the good news is that the strike rate for finding a great match is still high.
Now, this would usually be the point where I would talk through various specific pairings and explain exactly why they work. However, going back to my opening point of ditching the detail and encouraging experimentation, I’ve decided to leave things there. There are a few suggested pairings for inspiration below but now I’m handing over to you to come up with the big ideas.
Some suggested pairings to try
Balvenie 21 Years Old Port Wood or Longmorn 16 Years Old
Compass Box Asyla or Talisker 18 Years Old
Glenkinchie 10 Years Old
Redbreast Irish whiskey
Brie de Meaux
The Glenlivet 18 Years Old or Glenmorangie Original
Lagavulin 16 Years Old