The Intriguing Art of Pairing Food and Whisky

22 January 2015

As appreciation of single malt Scotch whisky continues to grow around the globe, people are starting to enjoy it in more exciting and diverse ways. As Brand Ambassador for Southeast Asia, I’ve discovered one particular format that’s particularly popular across this region - pairing whisky with food.

In western cultures, wine has long been the preferred drink with a meal. In Asia, however, ardent spirits have long been consumed with an evening dish and, though the types of alcohol consumed in Asia are changing, the practice of consuming them with a meal has not.

Of course there’s no one correct way to consume single malt Scotch whisky - it all depends on personal preference - but consuming it with food opens up a world of aroma and flavour opportunities.

It’s important to note that pairing whisky with food is not quite as easy as pairing wine with food. It’s true that making a great match between a wine and food takes a lot of knowledge and experience, but there are some simple rules that everyone knows, for example: red wine goes well with red meat whilst white wine works best with fish or chicken.

Not so for single malt whisky! Firstly, our drams don’t really fit into two neat categories that we can pair with our protein, and secondly, the much higher alcohol percentage makes it a little more difficult. Difficult, but potentially very rewarding.

Here are my top 7 tips for pairing food and single malt whiskies:

1. The goal is not just to find things that go well together, the goal is to create a match where the food brings out something new in the whisky, or the whisky brings out something new in the food. In other words, we want to create gastronomic synergy, where 1+1 = 3.

2. Anything very spicy, bitter or laden with garlic should be avoided as it will kill some of the flavours in the whisky. These flavours can stick to the tongue and reduce your ability to appreciate the subtleties in your dram.

3. Food cooked with fat generally pairs quite well with any spirit, including whisky. Be it butter or a fatty piece of meat, the fat will coat your mouth. Then, when you take a sip of whisky, the flavours that have dissolved in that fat will be rapidly released into your mouth.

4. Don’t always try to match flavours. Matching a smoky whisky with a smoked salmon might sound intuitive, but the whisky smoke will kill the delicate salmon smokiness. Try a pairing where a component of the dish complements a note in the whisky. For example, a whisky with a note of apple will go very well with pork or strawberries, not with apples.

5. Do try to match weights. As with wine, a lighter and more delicate bourbon cask whisky will tend to work well with a lighter flavoured dish, like fresh fish, sashimi or other seafood, whereas a heavier sherry cask whisky will work with a more heavily flavoured dish like braised lamb shanks or seared beef. This matching ensures that one does not drown out the other.

6. A lot of herbs and spices will release their flavours into oil, so a little bit of chilli in a dish with some olive oil will dissolve into the oil. Once in the mouth, a sip of whisky will release this flavour into your mouth leading to an explosion of flavour. Remember that alcohol will amplify the chilli, so be judicious.

7. Think about pairing based on aromas and mouthfeels, as well just matching the core flavours of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Our experience of food and drink is far more than just the flavours that we experience on our tongue.

Now that we know the rules, here are some of my top matches with the much awarded core range from Glenfiddich. Not only do these follow the rules, they are matches I have tried at many different whisky tasting events and I can assure you they work beautifully together.

Appetiser
Scampi sashimi, garnished with extra virgin olive oil, coriander and a small shaving of red chilli
with

Glenfiddich 12 Year Old

 

Why it works: The pear and oak notes of the whisky complement the scampi sashimi, while both are similarly delicate. The flavours of the coriander and chilli will coat the mouth and then be released by a sip of the spirit. The olive oil introduces that fattiness that never fails to help a pairing.

Main
Duck with seasonal vegetables in consommé
with

Glenfiddich Solera 15 Year Old

 

Why it works: The food and the whisky are more medium bodied, ensuring one does not dominate the other. The dried fruit notes work exceptionally well with the duck meat, while the mouthfeel of the rich salty broth is perfect for the full bodied honey sweetness of the whisky.

Dessert
Strawberry tart and vanilla icecream
with

Glenfiddich 18 Year Old

 

As with our appetiser, we have a lighter whisky with a lighter dish. It is important not to make the tart too sweet as this would leave the whisky tasting flat and bitter, whereas a little tartness from the strawberries will enhance the sweetness of the whisky. Meanwhile, the cooked apple note of the whisky is brilliant with strawberries, and the delicate cinnamon spice note is perfect with the vanilla ice cream. The buttery pastry seals the deal.

If you’re still feeling sociable after dinner, our Glenfiddich 21 Year Old goes extremely well with cigars and long conversation. What are your favourite Glenfiddich food pairings? Drop me a line on Twitter or share some pictures with me on Instagram.

Matthew Fergusson-Stewart
Glenfiddich Regional Brand Ambassador Southeast Asia