Whiskey and food:pairing the ingredients for a great meal
Choosing the right whiskey to compliment a meal is all about understanding how flavours work
Pairing whiskey and food might sound a strange concept, but it shouldn’t be. Whiskey has been used as an ingredient in various dishes for centuries, so much so that once, for tax/duty reasons, it was requested that salt be added to cooking whiskey so that people couldn’t just buy this whiskey for drinking to avoid the normal duty or tax.
I learned this through a personal need to make heavily-peated whiskey such as the Irish Connemara or Scottish Ardbeg more palatable as a drink and not just an ingredient in a marinade like some Americans use cheaper bourbon in BBQ. When looking at what made Connemara, for example, unpalatable for me was the abundance of peat and smoke which I felt was so overpowering to the taste.
When it comes to food, that avoidance wasn’t there as the hint of smoke and char is suited to red meat, smoked or oily fish. We have all seen Jack Daniels marinade on chicken wings or ribs in certain American-themed restaurants.
The principal is the same when looking for a meal that will balance the abundance of peat in whiskey. I found enjoying an aged steak, a piece of venison, lamb or game with a rich sauce worked well because it balanced out the peat of the whiskey but added that BBQ char feel which would be missing if I simply roasted a nice piece of meat in the oven.
The other thing I noticed was that the peated whiskey acted like a digestif after a rich meal or when having oily fish like mackerel, kipper or sardine which have a habit of repeating.
Spicy foods have now also been catered for with whiskey from India becoming popular due to the spice and curry notes, with Amrut Fusion and Naarangi being of note.
To enjoy whiskey with more delicate seafood was a revelation because it is naturally assumed the more aggressive alcohol feel at the back of the throat (compared to a nice white wine) would kill the fish rather than compliment it. However, when introduced as an ingredient, it has been used to flambé with some recipes for Dublin Lawyer, a lobster dish with cream and butter – whiskey is added at the end and set alight. Or, in a recent award-winning chowder recipe, added like you would white wine.
If you look at the characteristics of fish you naturally think of the salt or delicate sweetness of shellfish and as such you don’t want an aggressive peat or bourbon.
What does work surprisingly well though are whiskeys matured in a coastal region because they take on the salty notes from the sea air in their aging. This, combined with the sweetness from certain kinds of cask, compliment fish beautifully.
Silkie from Donegal, Dingle from Kerry, Springbank from Scotland and the Japanese styles come to mind as they are not aggressive on the palate or back of the throat. This means that the delicate taste and flavour of fish like scallop, lobster or crab will not be killed but be equally sufficient in strength to be enjoyed with more meaty fish.
The third element to a meal is dessert, which in most cases comprises a sweet element and has often incorporated whiskey or another spirit as an ingredient. But why should this be the convention? Why can’t we enjoy a nice whiskey with a dessert, instead of in a dessert or after a dessert or meal.
This is because many desserts can be over-sweet or rich so a whiskey will balance that out. There are many whiskeys which now share finishes with what were traditional post-meal drinks. Cognac, port, sherry or marsala can be enjoyed as a dessert in their own right.
Penderyn which is like traditional toffee sweet, Writers Tears Masala or Tipperary Red Wine finish have the feel of dessert wines. You now have the option of Writers Tears Cognac, Liberator Tawny Port, Redbreast Lustau, Killowen Rum finish to name just four which would be the ideal finish to a meal.
This has now gone two steps further to include Aqua Vitae, an Irish Whiskey equivalent of a continental Europe post-meal herbal digestif and your Midleton Very Rare, Barry Crockett Legacy, Redbreast 27-year-old Ruby Port or Method and Madness 28-year-old Ruby Port which is so good it could almost be used instead of Champagne for a celebration.
We are so blessed to have many fine whiskeys which deserve to be enjoyed not just as a shot or stiff upper-class image of a man with a cigar in one hand and whiskey in the other, so maybe it’s time we start to look at them differently and enjoy them as a beautiful drink in their own right.