How versatile is Scotch whisky?

Yes, you've seen them before, whisky cocktails, whisky pairings and whisky dinners. Talk to anyone who has tried a whisky cocktail or a whisky/food pairing and you will get many opinions like: 'whisky and x food work great' or 'not at all, whisky is not meant to be paired with anything but on its own'. Who is right?

In this article we will be talking about Scotch whisky (single malt, blended and grain whisky). To answer the question: Can whisky really be paired and enjoyed with food or other drinks? We will try to avoid the easy answer: yes, depending on what you are pairing.

True, try to pair a heavily peated, cask strength single malt from Islay with a delicate, steamed fillet of fish and you will struggle to enjoy the pairing. As more restaurants up and down the country embrace whisky as a fine drink worthy of fine dining menus. More and more people are becoming increasingly exasperated by the constant presence of pairings that are often a huge success and more often than not a massive failure. 

Read any recipe book that includes whisky among the ingredients recommended for a dish and you will notice something: the choice of whisky is not clear. The problem with poor pairings starts there. Similarly, when it comes to pairing, say, blue Stilton cheese with whisky, the choice is left open for the restaurant manager or waiter. Very often the pairing will be fine but sometimes the choice of whisky will completely ruin the experience. 

How to get it right? Our recommendation is: trial and error. As a general rule, dry, salty and savoury notes in whisky are better suited for food pairings. You wouldn't want to pair a Mannochmore 11 year old single malt, bottled at cask strength (60% ABV or more) with white chocolate notes, sugary sweetness, green apples and honey with a gamey Grouse leg served with a rich, thick salty sauce. 

When we were looking for the perfect choice between whisky and different chocolates for our popular 'Whisky & Chocolate' tasting, we sought advice from the connoisseurs. Expert chocolatier Olivier Nicod from Nicod Consulting spent a whole day with us sampling whisky and chocolates. We tried some 60 different whisky-chocolate combinations and we went for what we thought were the best ones: heavily sherried whiskies and very rich, dark chocolates. Afraid that our offering would be a bit monotone or bland we explored further and came up with three different combinations that work just great.

'Spirits and seafood are never a good match'

When spirit brands of any sort throw a fancy dinner with the entire range on offer and different foods. More often than not, the pairing fails when a spirit is matched with fish or shellfish. A friend of ours once suggested a radical pairing: Ledaig single cask whisky and a fillet of fish. We would've dismissed his proposal if he wasn't a chef who worked at some high end eateries in  Europe. While his suggestion isn't really a pairing it goes like this: 

-Pick a medium sized fillet of whitefish and spray it with Ledaig 6 year old (46%ABV)

-Keep the fish in the freezer for a couple of hours and then defrost slowly. 

-Season it and lightly pan fry it. 

-Serve with steamed seagrass, boiled baby potatoes and a creamy sauce.

When we tried it, the salty, seaweedy and smokey palate of the whisky really worked wonderfully with the fish. We wondered what other whiskies we could try to use as single cask releases are so limited. Well, we found that maritime whiskies work really well, you need a savoury and salty palate for this pairing to work. 

Conclusion

The vast universe of flavours and aromas in whisky offers an infinite number of pairing options. The best way to discover what works well and what doesn't is to try variations of classic pairings and work our way from there. Loved a sherry bomb with a cinnamon-sprinkled chocolate bar? Try a salted caramel praline with a sherry finished malt from the Isles. Liked the combination of flinty, peaty whisky with a super dark, rich and bitter South American chocolate? Try a peppery, earthy malt with an off-sweet chocolate. The same goes for whisky and food, cigars and cheese. Enjoy yourself. 

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