Food stuff: A Beginner's Guide to Matching Whiskey and Food
While matching wine with food has long been recognised as something of a fine art, there is a growing recognition that the complexity of whisky can similarly be complemented by the right food. “The taste of whisky can vary depending on what time of day it is and what you have eaten” explains Jane Overeem of Tasmania’s famed Lark Distillery. “People are really starting to notice this – and beginning to use food to bring out the best in whiskies”.
David Vitale, the founder of Melbourne’s Starward Whisky, recently named the World’s best craft whisky, suggests new world whiskies are particularly amenable to pairing with food. “We’re so far away from the tweed jacket and fireplace” he says of the new breed “and that’s exciting!”. Here’s our guide to getting started:
Start by identifying the key flavours in your whisky: Most distilleries provide tasting notes, but the best approach to try it yourself. Ask yourself: is it spicy? smoky? Are there notes of vanilla, or is it more citrus? Also consider whether it is a light or heavy style. Inhale it deeply, keep it in your mouth for a few seconds and note the aftertaste. Once you’ve identified the key flavours, you’re on your way.
Aim for flavours which are complementary: There are few hard and fast rules in pairing food and whisky, but the general idea is to find foods which complement, rather than exactly match the character of the spirit. Ideally, you’re looking for a pairing that brings out the best in both.
A good example of this is that whiskies with briny notes can often be paired well with seafood; think a dram of Bowmore with freshly shucked oysters or the maritime offerings of Talisker and Ardbeg with sushi. Overeem suggests crispy-skinned salmon can be paired with Lark’s maritime influenced Classic Cask.
Match weights: Another good rule of thumb is that a lighter whisky goes well with lighter food (try the likes of Jura and Glenkinchie with some goat’s cheese), while a heavier whisky is best complemented by heartier fare. Overeem recommends a steak with Lark’s heavier cask strength single malt. You also can’t go wrong with a Lagavulin here.
Try whisky and chocolate: Vitale points out that the two have more in common than you would initially think, noting they “have a few core similarities; origin, flavour, complexity, process, importance of base ingredients”. Dark chocolate and a smoky whisky work particularly well together.
Starward have recently collaborated with artisanal chocolatiers Mork, creating a series of whisky-infused pralines. In July, the two like-minded companies are holding a night of experimental whisky and chocolate matching, which also incorporates some amazing sounding whisky gums.
Bear in mind you don’t want to overwhelm the flavours of the whisky: “I would recommend avoiding food with very strong flavours” Overeem says, nominating Indian cuisine as particularly difficult to match. Similarly, very sweet or very bitter foods are challenging to pair with whisky.
Have fun with it: A little experimentation is a good thing. Using your instincts, as you would when cooking, is also a sound approach. “I’m always trying to challenge myself by finding an unlikely pair that just works” says Vitale. “Trial and error is the best way to discover one thing that brings out the most in another”. He recalls being particularly surprised by how well some marinated ribs worked with Starward’s Solera whisky, which is aged in fortified wine casks. “There’s a sweet stickiness to glazed ribs that just really ties in with the subtle spiciness”.