The spice route

Kate Ennis discovers that whisky can be the spice of life
By Kate Portman (nee Ennis)
The Indian restaurant can be a jungle out there for the discerning drinker to navigate. As the pungent spiciness and heat of Indian cuisine sends most wines running for cover, Cobras and Tigers reign as kings of the drinks accompaniment of choice. However, with its formidable character and own spicy notes, whisky is well placed to negotiate the spice route.

India represents the biggest whisky market in the world so it’s logical that the spirit which appeals to the country’s palates would match the complex layers of flavour and texture in their native food. But even the concept of Indian food is difficult to define considering this vast country’s enormous variations in climate, religion, and tradition. As a cultural crossroads on the Asian trading routes, with Arabic, Mongolian and Persian influences, Indian cuisine is a melting pot of ingredients and cooking methods.

Outside India itself, Britain now has some of the best examples of Indian food – a legacy from the colonial days of the Raj. Although once known for un-authentic, watered down dishes such chicken korma and tikka masala, the down-to-earth curry houses of Birmingham, Leicester or East London’s Brick Lane and London’s high-end Indian eateries, such as The Cinnamon Club, Veeraswamy and Tamarind, now tell a very different story.

It was the respected Benares restaurant in London’s Mayfair directed by Michelin starred chef-patron Atul Kochhar that Diageo chose to work with for matching the Classic Malts Selection with range of snack foods from the northern region of India. The tasting is one of Diageo’s ongoing series of whisky and food pairings, which has also looked at Spanish and Greek cuisine, as well as Scottish seafood. These tastings are aimed at changing wider perceptions of whisky drinking and encourage moving the malt moment forward to earlier in the evening by showing how whisky can be enjoyed with snack food.

As a big malt whisky fan, the executive chef at Benares, Jitin Joshi, was keen to get involved. It was a visit to Scotland a few years back that first got Jitin enchanted by whisky and encouraged him to start reading about it and tasting more. Now he experiments frequently with whisky and food combinations. “I taste four or six whiskies in one go but stick to one dish at a time to avoid confusing the palate with too many flavours,” explains Jitin.

“I taste the food first and then see how each of the different whiskies bring out the spices and whether they harmonise or clash.”

Jitin believes the spice element is what works so well in bringing the food and whisky together.

“The organic compounds present in the spices are either alcohol soluble or fat soluble so whisky accentuates spices and makes your palate more open to the flavours,”he says, suggesting that soft spices like cumin work better with a more balanced and subtle malt like classic Speysider Glen Elgin. However the cooking style from Northern India also had a particular affinity with the whisky. “I would say there are more whisky drinkers in Northern India, from regions like Punjab, as it’s cooler there so people drink spirits to warm themselves up,”says Jitin. Dishes from the north are generally cooked in the tandoor oven, a cooking method which originated on the north-west frontier of India on the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.Traditionally charcoal fired, these clay ovens are sealed to infuse the food inside with smoky flavours that draw a parallel with the peaty malts.

That explains why the pairing of the gelewati clove smoked lamb kebab with Lagavulin 16 Years Old with was so successful.“We smoke with charcoal, putting clarified butter and cloves on top of the burning embers and sealing the pot so the smoke is absorbed by the meat and that gets accentuated by the whisky,”says Jitin.

Texture was also a major element at play here with this tasting. ‘Gelewati’ means something that melts in the mouth and here the lamb meat is ground to a very fine paste. Jitin tells the story of how this dish was originally made for an Indian king who lost his teeth as he grew old but loved to eat meat, so his chefs came up with this idea of grinding the meat so fine that he could still enjoy it. “You have to have a contrast for some yin and yang to accentuate that texture so we encased the soft pattie in a crisp shell of filo pastry.” Although Lagavulin 16 is one of Jitin’s favoured drams he insists the success of the pairing wasn’t totally subjective. “Even our sommeliers, who take more convincing with spirit and food pairings, were floored by how well the Lagavulin and smoked lamb combination worked,” he says. “We were all spellbound with how harmonious the peat of the Islay combines with this smoked lamb, especially the long finish of the whisky and the smoky cloves.”

The smoky, tandoori style cooking is also the defining style of Moti Mahal, another smart Indian eaterie in London’s Covent Garden, where Roger Mallindine, master of whisky for Diageo’s Reserve Brands, recently devised and hosted a whisky and Indian food pairing dinner. Founded in India almost half a century ago, Moti Mahal was a pioneer as the first to introduce the charcoal-fired tandoor oven into commercial restaurant cooking in the 1950s. The London outpost is lead by head chef Anirudh Arora who personal chef to the prime minister of India. Successful pairings here included the salty sea-like taste of the Clynelish with the tandoori prawns and the lamb chops with needed the boldness of the Glen Ord to match southern Indian influenced dish with the bigger flavours of the curry leaf and mango.

However, again the smoke was a winner but this time played out in a very unusual way with a smoked lime sorbet served between courses as a palate cleanser.

The sorbet combines lime juice, sugar syrup and cumin, pepper and salt, and is drizzled with drops of frozen Caol Ila just before serving. It gives the Caol Ila more sweetness and its characteristic smoky flavour becomes more intense yet mellow at the same time.

The sorbet also offers a welcome cooling sensation for the palate some respite from the spices but happily, not from the whisky. Just the kind of refresher needed to banish the heat of the Indian jungle, in fact.

Malts go to India

Classic Malts Selection whiskies paired with the snack food of Northern India created by Benares Restaurant.

Aloo Chaat on Pappadom (potato crostini with ginger and mint chutney) and Macchi Chaat (tandoor-smoked organic salmon with lime leaf and coriander)
Cardhu 12 Years Old

Onion Bhaji (onion fritters with roasted cumin) and Aloo Tikki (potato and pea cakes)
Glen Elgin 12 Years Old

Gelawati Kebab Samosa (smoked ground spiced lamb encased in crisp filo pasta)
Lagavulin 16 Years Old

Chilled Pistachio Mousse with raisins Frozen
Dalwhinnie 15 Years Old

Gorkha Chutney (smoked tomato and garlic salsa) and Chicken Tikka
Talisker 10 Years Old

Moti Mahal whisky tasting

Green Pea and Cumin Tikki with Tandoori spiced baby potatoes, lentil dumplings with whole wheat crisp, yoghurt and sweet green chutney
Glenkinchie 10 Year Old

Homemade Milk Chocolate and Pistachio Kulfi
Frozen Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old

Tandoori jumbo prawns with pickling spices
Clynelish 14 Year Old

Smoked lime sorbet
Caol Ila 12 Year Old, frozen

Stir fried Lamb Chops with Curry Leaf,Coconut and Raw Mango with carrot and pea pulao, date and mint raita, and olive and coriander naan
Glen Ord 12 Year Old

Steamed Wild Mushroom and Guinea Fowl Momos with stir fried broccoli, chillies and ginger
Royal Lochnegar 12 Year Old

Smoke lime sorbet recipe

By Anirudh Arora of Moti Mahal


  • 20 limes, for freshly squeezed juice

  • 150ml water

  • 100g sugar

  • 100ml sugar syrup

  • 1tsp crushed peppercorn

  • 1tsp roasted cumin powder

  • 2 pinches salt

  • Caol Ila 12 year old, frozen to drizzle

1. Mix together all the ingredients (except the Caol Ila).
2. Freeze and then churn and freeze again for two hours.
3. Drizzle with a few drops of frozen Caol Ila