The history of whisky and food pairing

Tracking the history of whisky and food pairing, with some contemporary recommendations
By Hans Offringa
One of the dishes ('Gentle Explosion') prepared by Jonnie Boer
One of the dishes ('Gentle Explosion') prepared by Jonnie Boer
Drinking whisky during a meal is not new. Hundreds of years ago, the Scottish Highlanders seized every occasion to savour a dram: a funeral, a wedding or a birthday. A true Scot wouldn’t ignore an opportunity presented. In that respect, nothing much has changed over the years. However, the perception of whisky did change. In former days, it was common to drink straight from the still. It must not have tasted very nice in its pure form, because herbs and honey were added to flavour the raw spirit. Then, in the 19th century, stories emerge about the positive influence of maturation in wooden casks. In those days, Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus wrote in her Journal of a Highland Lady: “…whisky mild as milk... long in the wood.” Slowly but surely, attention focused on the diversity of flavour and aromas.

Drinking well-matured whisky during dinner and using whisky to prepare food as a replacement for the ubiquitous wines are relatively new developments. One of the first, if not the first, modern-day whisky dinner was held in the late 1980s at Pennsylvania State University. The participants were mainly interested in the combination of different flavour congeners. In other words, it was primarily a scientific exercise. The late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson selected the whiskies for that particular event.

The American experiment rested in obscurity. When Lady Claire MacDonald’s informative and lavishly illustrated The Best of Scottish Food and Drink appeared in 1990, a chapter titled ‘The Grain and the Grape’ mentions single malts only as an after-dinner drink. The author heartily marinates game in red wine, but does no cooking with whisky. In the same year, Rosalie Gow published a recipe book with the promising title Cooking with Scotch Whisky. Although it contains more than 100 recipes, Gow limited herself to instructions such as “use two spoons of whisky” and “add whisky to taste”. According to her, single malt should be used sparingly in food. It would take a decade to change that attitude. In 1999, the well-known French whisky expert, cook and culinary journalist Martine Nouet chose a gastronomic approach to the subject in her book Les Routes du Malt – alas, it was only published in French. She also contributed for years to the (now-discontinued) cooking section of Whisky Magazine, both in the UK and the French editions.

The dining room at De Librije

However, Nouet wasn’t the first writer with such an approach. In 1968, Emanuel and Madeline Greenberg published a 316-page, humorously written book titled Whisky in the Kitchen: The Lively Art of Cooking with Bourbon, Scotch, Rum, Brandy, Gin, Liqueurs… and Kindred Spirits. After 50 years, it still is a very enjoyable read. The book holds many recipes organised around spirit type. In Chapter 3 – ‘How to Mate Food and Spirits for Fun and Compliments’ – the authors write: “Scotch is not nearly so gregarious as rum, but its smoky tones add vigour to fish sauces and fumés, and, unexpectedly, to English trifle. The Scots stir it into marmalade. And Scotch whisky basted over a roasting loin of pork comes highly recommended.”

However, only 28 out of the book’s 445 recipes contain Scotch whisky. Courses are dubbed with fancy names like Blue Cheese Devils (appetiser), Lomond Steak (main course) and Paleface Indian Pudding (dessert). Drinking whisky alongside the dinner is not mentioned. There isn’t even a reference to the obligatory splash of whisky on the haggis.

Hans writes notes as the next dish arrives

In 2003, Belgian whisky buff Bob Minnekeer further expanded writing about whisky and food. Together with a couple of chefs, among whom was Stef Roesbeke, he published the tasty Whisky à la Carte. In this book, Minnekeer includes a spreadsheet with tastes belonging to specific whiskies using a method somewhat similar to the flavour profiles in the late David Wishart’s seminal book Whisky Classified (2002).

In Michael Jackson’s WHISKY (2005), Martine Nouet adds a couple of pages about cooking with whisky and some generic tips and tricks. Appropriately nicknamed La Reine d’Alambique, Nouet hosted many whisky dinners over the years, most notably during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. In 2007, inspired by Martine, Hans and Becky Offringa followed suit with the book A Taste of Whisky, for which they challenged four chefs, among whom were Nouet and Dutch chef Jonnie Boer, who holds three Michelin stars, to concoct a 10-course dinner using 10 different single malts. Along with David Graham and Stef Roesbeke, all four chose their own path and, in doing so, illustrated the beautiful diversity of single malt Scotch whisky and how it can be utilised in cooking.

Also worth mentioning is Graham Harvey and Sheila McConachie’s book The Whisky Kitchen (2008), which contains many recipes and a register with whisky brands combined with pairing suggestions. During the last 10 to 15 years, whisky dinners have become a solid ingredient of most whisky festivals. Today, game is not marinated in red wine, but injected with Talisker or Glenfarclas. Sushi bars present an impressive number of single malts with a preference for the smoky expressions. Whisky isn’t solely regarded as a spice in cooking, but also as a good companion to a meal.

The next course arrives

Nouet returned to form in 2016 with her excellent book À Table: Whisky From Glass to Plate, which inspired the Offringas to renew their partnership with Jonnie Boer, resulting in De Keuken in met Whisky (2017), loosely translated as ‘Take Your Whisky to the Kitchen’. Together with Jonnie and his wife, Thérèse, a sommelier and viticulturist in her own right, they combined over 20 single malts with 20 different dishes from the award-winning kitchen of De Librije. Situated in the medieval city centre of Zwolle, in a former women’s prison, Hotel & Restaurant De Librije has been awarded three Michelin stars for 10 years in a row. Every other year, De Librije organises and hosts the event ChefsRevolution, where top chefs from everywhere in the world execute cooking demonstrations in the adjacent theatre, surrounded by a park where local food producers, mainly suppliers of De Librije, display their wares.

“Cooking with whisky is complex, especially in a dish. Next to it works better for me, especially with desserts, like cheese and chocolate,” says Boer, who loves the smoky Islay single malts. Thérèse, on the other hand, prefers the fruity and spicy Highland malts. “Whisky is a challenge when paired with food, especially because of the high alcohol percentage,” she concludes. “The beauty in whisky is, like with wines, that there are so many characters at play. It can be done, but with great care.”