To say that whisky has been long overlooked as a fantastic food pairing drink would be the overstatement of the year, at the very least. As far as food and drink pairing goes, wine has been wearing the crown and hogging the limelight for all too long… and it’s high time us whisky fans gathered together, loaded our glasses, and started making the changes we want to see in the spirits world. After all, when done correctly and with a certain amount of know-how, whisky and food – brought together with aplomb and with some real forethought – is the stuff our dreams are made of.
All too often, whisky and food come together in one of two ways: the whisky is cooked into a sauce to be served with meat (and this can be utterly delicious, albeit not something you want to do with your top-notch single malt), or is poured over a pudding, and set alight. What a waste! However, many of us understandably feel a little hesitant about pouring a dram of whisky to be sipped alongside our dinner, simply due to the fact that it isn’t something we’re particularly used to doing. Rest assured – once you’ve gotten the hang of the basics of whisky and food pairing, you’ll be eager to explore the myriad possibilities of this fine and flavoursome art… and you’ll also be known as the person who takes their dinner parties to a whole new level of deliciousness!
In this blog, we’re going to be looking at five top tips for whisky and food pairing which are absolutely game-changers, especially for those of you who perhaps lack the confidence to strike out alone when it comes to bringing your favourite bottles to the dining table. Read on, and find out all you need to know!
This might sound like an obvious point, and in many ways, it is. However, it’s really important to understand that because different whiskies have often radically different flavour profiles and aromas, these are going to be key when it comes to pairing your food with your drink.
Food and whisky pairing is all about highlighting harmony and contrast, and in order to do this successfully, you’ll have to have a fairly well-rounded idea of the character of the whiskies you’ll be serving with your dinner. Get your glasses out, make some notes on the bottles in your collection, and start thinking about the dishes and ingredients which will best pair with those subtle flavour features and glorious aromas.
This relates primarily to Scotch more than to other whisky styles, as the Scotch Single Malt whisky regions have characteristics and typical features which have developed over the centuries, resulting in a set of flavours and aromas which are as beloved as they are instantly recognisable. When you’re looking for whiskies to pair with your food, using regional characteristics as a starting point is a great way to cut a few corners, and give yourself some easy options for kicking off your journey into food pairing perfection.
For example, Speyside whiskies typically have a fruity and toasty character, and burst with notes of burnt sugar and honey. As such, they work really well with desserts, and with dishes which require a balance of sweetness. Islay whiskies, on the other hand, tend to be smokier, saltier, and have that lovely wind-battered island character about them. As such, they’re a dream with shellfish dishes and smoked salmon!
It’s tempting (and often sensible) to stick to those primary flavour profiles when it comes to pairing whisky and food, and it generally leads to winning combinations which are sure to satisfy – the aforementioned smoked fish and Islay Single Malt, for example. However, every whisky has a multitude of stories to tell on the palate, and once you start exploring secondary and tertiary flavours and aromas, the range of ingredients you can successfully pair with starts to become ever wider and more enticing.
Smoky, salty Islay whiskies, for example, often have a subtle fruitiness to them, or even notes of tropical fruits such as pineapple. Why not go off piste with your pairing and match with those fruity notes instead? The results could be absolutely stunning, and taking this approach is guaranteed to make your pairing stand out from the crowd.
Fortune favours the bold, they say, and whisky loves bold flavours and interesting cooking techniques. Pickling, fermenting, smoking, and curing are all food preparation approaches which have a natural affinity with most whiskies, so don’t be afraid to get busy in your kitchen and work with some strong and lasting flavours in your food. The same goes for spices, too – whisky and spices like cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice are rarely anything short of pairing perfection!
Texture is essential when it comes to food. Take the classic tuna mayo sandwich, for example. When made with white supermarket bread, it’s a soggy mess, and ends up tasting good, but being all cloying and too soft in the mouth. Make the same sandwich with a quality piece of ciabatta, however, and you introduce some texture, some crunch… and the result is 100x more satisfying!
Whiskies have textural differences, too, and keeping these in mind for your pairings can make a considerable difference to your overall pairing experience. Some whiskies are creamy, others are silky. Some have a bite, some are watery and thin, others sharp and acidic. Remembering your textures will allow you to bring more contrast and harmony into your pairings, leading to even more delicious and satisfactory combinations!
There you have it – five top tips for food and whisky pairing that no dinner party host should be without. So, armed with this knowledge, the next step is to go forth and start experimenting… and seeing what amazing combos you can come up with!