It is no surprise to many people that whisky is a versatile drink. It can be enjoyed neat, with water, mixed with a soft drink or in classic cocktails. Some top chefs have paired whisky with food at fine dining restaurants; cheese and whisky is a popular combination at festivals and whisky events. But what about desserts?
A couple of years ago we sought assistance from the experts. We sat down with Olivier Nicod from Cocoa Ecosse and sampled many different whiskies and chocolates. We discovered some winning combinations and were so pleased with our findings that we even included a tasting with matching chocolates in our whisky tasting menu.
People often ask us, what should we look for when pairing whisky and chocolate? Well, the answer is simple: you should find proper chocolate first. Look for high quality, rich in cocoa, bars or buttons. It is easier to pair chocolate with a 65% (or more) cocoa than it is to pair a milk chocolate with lots of sugar and vegetable fat. Remember, it is the cocoa solids what give flavour to the chocolate and not vegetable fat.
Once you found good chocolates here is what to look for:
Sweetness: must of us will expect chocolate to have some degree of sweetness. But what sweet notes to look for? Well, some chocolates have flavours of brown cane sugar, sweetened coffee, rich caramel and dark honey. Match these notes with sherry aged whiskies with a dry, nutty palate. The tannic notes of the whisky and the sweet notes of the chocolate will flood your palate with a pecan pie-like palate.
Acidity: sometimes you will find slightly acidic notes. Think about green apple skins, grape seeds or tart red berries. Such chocolates call for sweeter whiskies. The whisky sweetness will enhance or complement the acidity in the chocolate; try some older single grain whiskies and delight your palate with a dance of creme brulee and red berries on your tongue. Try a single malt aged in both bourbon and sherry cask and marvel at the flavours.
Nutty, spicy flavours: If you detect nutty undertones like walnut, hazelnut and peanut or spicy notes like cinnamon, cardamon or tobacco, then you can always opt for a spicy, rich and complex whisky. Look for something robust with slight sulphur notes like Mortlach or a sherry aged Craigellachie. The combination will reward your taste buds with a rich Sachertorte or chocolate Gateaux sensation on your palate.
To me, the most versatile of flavours in chocolate is its bitterness.
Bitterness shows as intense coffee, cocoa powder, ash, mineral and tannin notes. As a rule of thumb, the higher the cocoa content, the more bitter notes you'll find. Bitterness can be contrasted, enhanced or subdued by some whiskies. If you have a single malt finished in tawny port or rum barrels you will find that the sweetness of the whisky will combine with the bitter notes of the chocolate and create a salted caramel-like flavour.
If the chocolate is high in mineral tastes (for example: it has flinty, chalky notes) a maritime whisky can combine with those undertones and create a meaty, leathery flavour. That same mineral flavours can be enhanced with a peaty and smokey whisky to create a flavour like smoked Salami or smoked sausage. If you are organising a whisky and chocolate tasting for friends, leave the chocolates with the higher cocoa content and the peaty whiskies until the very end.