The Spice of Life

Kate Portman takes her seat at the table for a bit of Eastern delight
By Kate Portman (nee Ennis)
As whisky lovers, we already know that variety is indeed the spice of life – whisky’s greatest appeal lies in its sheer diversity of styles and flavours, keeping our taste buds thirsty and keen to explore more. Combine whisky with food and those potential taste experiences multiply many times, of course, and expand our flavour frontiers further outwards.

Frontiers can be geographical as well as metaphorical, of course. Boasting so many distilleries and whisky styles, Scotland leaves us spoilt for choice when it comes to whisky to pair with food that we needn’t venture beyond its borders to keep our tastebuds entertained. However, there’s good reason to look further afield as I discovered at a recent Bushmills whiskey dinner.

Ireland may only have a handful of working distilleries compared to its Gaelic neighbour but the Emerald Isle still produces an impressively diverse range of whiskeys with many characteristics that can really compliment a range of foods.

To emphatically prove that Irish whiskey has plenty to bring to the dining table, Bushmills chose a bold food style to showcase the pairing potential of its whiskey range by matching the various expressions with spicy Indian food.

The pairing menu was devised in collaboration with innovative Indian restaurant, Moti Mahal, in London’s Covent Garden, which was as keen as Bushmills to push the boundaries and give diners a new experience with the first ever Irish whiskey and Indian food menu. Moti Mahal’s head chef, Ani Arora, is a big whisky fan and has already hosted events to pair his spice laden dishes with the extensive range of Scotch whiskies available at the restaurant bar, as I reported in Issue 70.This time, Ani teamed up with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, Bushmills’ brand ambassador Duncan McRae, plus expert pairing consultant and sommelier Richard Weiss to devise the five-course menu.

Richard’s first venture into food and whisky pairing was formulate a tasting at another London based Indian restaurant, La Porte des Indes, matching malts from Bowmore and Auchentoshan with smoky Tandoori food (covered by Martine Nouet in Issue 56) and its success made Richard keen to experiment again.

“Whisky is a complex and very interesting drink to match with food as you have such an enormous range of nuances to work with,”Richard explains.“I like the challenge of managing the alcohol of the spirit and combining it with the texture of the dish.”

So how did the tasting team approach the challenge? Well, the concept of texture was a key consideration as the foursome sat down to discuss the whisky and food combinations.“We matched sensations and mouthfeel, as well as taste and flavour profile, holding two long tasting sessions to make sure we got it right,”says Colin.

Simplicity was another major theme to highlight, proving that Irish whiskey, and Bushmills, has plenty of appeal for newcomers matching food with spirits.“Irish whiskeys tend to share a simplicity in how they’ve been put together and the flavour compounds give a deft light touch and silky texture to prepare the palate. Like a Sauvignon Blanc grape, they are clean, fresh and with defined character,”says Colin.

“We were conscious to avoid over complicating the links between the dishes and the whiskies, so people could just enjoy the taste and flavour sensations without having to interrogate their palates too much,”adds Duncan McRae.“I feel another strength of the Bushmills menu was that in featuring expressions from one distillery, the whiskies were all variations on the same theme.There’s enough variety and contrast within the Bushmills family to keep everyone interested, but you’re not jumping around the full whisky flavour spectrum from course to course, which can be more challenging on the taste buds.”

This lightness and simplicity was clearly demonstrated with the starter dish of Dublin Bay Prawns paired with Bushmills Original.The notes of seaweed, nuts and honey in the whisky chimed with the delicate sweetness of the Dublin Bay Prawns, which had been steamed to keep their original and pure taste.The accompanying rice cake and the chutney added texture and a light fragrance to the dish without overpowering the prawns or the whisky.This was Richard’s favourite pairing:“You get the fresh sea flavour from both the whisky and the prawns and it makes a light, fragrant and refreshing match.”

Next up, for the second course, was a venison kebab with asparagus and fig, paired with Black Bush.

The food extracted the depth of flavours from the sherry seasoned Black Bush while the enhanced the richness and textures of the whiskey culminated in a long finish.The grilled figs acted as the major flavour bridge, teasing out the smokiness and figgy, dried fruit notes found in the Black Bush. Colin felt the rich texture of the venison also worked superbly with the whiskey on the palate.

For the third dish, that textural element came into play once more, in the palak paneer filo parcel served with Bushmills 16 Years Old malt. For Duncan, this course successfully highlighted how mirroring the mouthfeel and flavour sensations can act as a bridge between the food and the whiskey.“With this dish, you’ve got a creaminess from the spinach and sweetness from the peas, with a touch of savoury from the pastry. Then, as your mouth is flooded by a new flavour from the raisin chutney, you get a winey finish,”explains Duncan.“For me, that’s a similar experience to tasting the 16 Years Old, where you get the creamy sweetness, a touch of nutty maltiness then an explosion of wine like favours from the port finish.”

Moving onto the main course, we were served an Irish classic with an Indian twist, Irish lamb stew with Goan sausages, with Bushmills 1608 Anniversary edition. Here, the whiskey cut through the rich texture of the lamb, picking up sweetness from the carrots. Although it was the least successful of the five courses for me, I liked how the alcohol and nuttiness of the whiskey stood up nicely to the spicy sausage.

However, if that was my least favourite match, then the dessert course more than made up for it. Here a fruit salad and mascarpone sorbet was accompanied by Bushmills 10 Years Old malt. Combining fresh fruit with the 10 was an idea first stumbled upon by Duncan when he was eating grapes and apples from the cheeseboard.The citrus and vanilla of the whiskey matches nicely with the vibrant fruits and helps to cut through the slight bitterness from the mascarpone sorbet leaves in your mouth.

Although perhaps not the most obvious match on paper, the combination gave a refreshing flourish to the end of the menu.

This unexpected appeal sums up the feeling I was left with from this pairing menu as a whole.

Irish whiskey may not be the first choice when it comes to serving a dram with food but it has plenty to offer so why not spice things up a little?

Tasting menu

Moti Mahal and Bushmills tasting menu

Steamed Dublin Bay Prawns, rice cakes and coconut herb chutney

Bushmills Original

Venison Seekh Kebab served with asparagus tiki and grilled fig

Black Bush

‘Palak Paneer’– a baked filo parcel of paneer and garden peas with creamed spinach and raisin chutney

Bushmills Malt 16 Years Old

Irish lamb stew with Goan sausages, potatoes, carrots and crusty bread

Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition

Fruit salad of blood oranges, strawberry, star fruit and rhubarb confit, served with Mascarpone sorbet

Bushmills Malt 10 Years Old