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After many years, have whisky and food pairings finally come of age?

Let’s just say I was sceptical. When food and whisky pairings first hit popular street, I probably wasn’t alone in thinking it was just a marketing gimmick. There was just a little bit of ‘wine can do it so why not us?’ This goes with this, this goes with that and we sell more whisky. And, why not? Then a few years ago in Cape Town, whisky writer Dave Broom introduced me to the whisky and oyster combination, one of the more famous of the pairings. The iodine sea taste of the oyster really does go well with whisky. And damn good fun it was as well, as we downed the mollusc and dram as shots, one after another.

Whisky and food pairings have been around for a number of years although it is, of course, impossible to pinpoint exactly when it became ‘popular’. Craig Paterson , chef and owner of Cape Town’s Beluga Restaurant, says in South Africa it’s been in the last five years as drinkers have sought to find out more about whisky. American whiskies, it must be said, seem to have embraced whiskey-food combinations a lot more wholeheartedly than others and Jim Beam’s Scott ? boldly says, “Jim Beam has been an ingredient in both food and drink recipes for centuries.”

But it is Wendy Neave, the restaurant and events manager at the Amber restaurant in the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in Edinburgh, who perceptively links the rise in pairings to the change in how people have approached their choice of ingredients that end up on their plate. “Whisky and food pairings seem to have come onto the scene within the past few years, perhaps at a time when there has been a renaissance is the appreciation of local seasonal cuisine,” she says. Sparked by environmental concerns about flying out-of-season produce around the world, and egged on by celebrity chefs promoting the idea, it is now de rigeur at dinner parties to present what’s fresh and available from where you live, not what’s being grown 24/7 in a greenhouse in New Zealand.

Which is the perfect boost for whisky and pairings. Whether your thing is fresh Scottish salmon with a 12 Year Old Speyside malt or hickory ribs with your bourbon, something feels inherently right about combinations that have obvious regional connections.

But there is still a long way to go before every Tom, Dick and Whisky Harry can reel off the names of their chosen dram and dish in the same way they do with “white wine with fish and red wine with meat.” Wine after all has got such a headstart in the game. As Neave says, “Wine has been the traditional accompaniment to food for a long time and changing attitudes is not easy. I would not say that matching whisky to food is widely accepted. Within the realms of enthusiasts and the industry it has now become the norm, but go into a restaurant on a Friday evening and everyone is still drinking wine with their meal. At Amber restaurant we have more success than most in encouraging people to try a whisky with their meal, but this tend to be with cheese or dessert following wine with the main course.”

But there are enough signs that this is no longer a novelty. Beluga is one of many restaurants that hold regular whisky dinners, mainly in association with the whisky companies granted. And in the UK, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) pairing evenings have become famous for innovation, with evenings that have matched game, curry and even chocolate at not only their venues in Edinburgh and London, but many other cities including Durham, Liverpool, Manchester, Derby, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea and Belfast. With branches worldwide, you can also take your pick from sushi in Osaka, Christmas dinner in Melbourne, a grill party in Zurich and tapas in Stockholm.

And the Americans, oh the Americans, we can always rely on them to change things at pace. Their style could be described more as whisky-food integration than pairings. Of course it’s not uncommon to use Scotch in recipes but it’s the American distillers who have gone a step further. Visit the popular restaurant chain TGI Fridays and you’ll find a range of Jack meals in the section called Jack’s Grill (JD’s Chicken, JD’s Ribs and Shrimp and so on) as well as a JD’s barbeque sauce among others. And it all makes sense really, after all, who doesn’t think of barbeques and Jack when they think of the US?

And it’s the American industry’s enthusiasm that probably gives whisky pairings its greatest boost. Scott ? says “We [at Jim Beam] always encourage experimentation with food, just like with our bourbons. Fred Noe, seventh generation Beam family distiller, would say that if you make a face when you drink it, you should try cutting it with a bit of fresh water or a mixer. I haven’t seen many bourbon recipes for delicate [white] fish, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t been done or at least attempted. I can envision some spicy prawn or scallop recipes though… might have to try that tonight!”

It is attitudes like that which open up markets; and Jim Beam have backed their words. In 2004 Thanasi Foods announced the release of Jim Beam Soaked Sunflower Seeds, a snack product soaked in the whiskey and available in three flavours; Original, Barbeque, and Jalapeño. Later that year the company added Jim Beam Soaked Beef Jerky to the range. Jim Beam also has a licensing agreement with Vita Food Products to manufacture and sell Jim Beam barbeque sauces, marinades, mustards, steak sauces, hot sauce, wing sauce, pancake syrup and glazes. Vita also produces a range of Jim Beam hot smoked and fresh, marinated salmon. Another company, Top Shelf Gourmet, specialises in Jim Beam bourbon-infused fresh pork and poultry products, including Jim Beam Bourbon Barrel Ham, Pulled Pork, and Pulled Chicken. And Bradley Smoker produces a line of smoking briquettes made from actual Jim Beam Barrels, and Jim Beam branded smokers. Whisky now officially embracing foods anyone?

One man with a challenge on his hands when it comes to whisky and food is Mandeep Grewal. He is brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker with a role to nurture the portfolio within the British Asian market, which inevitably will include some tie ups with the nation’s favourite food, ‘curry’ (the all encompassing, if inaccurate, term for south Asian food). He has conducted a few whisky-food matching evenings and is looking to develop more on regular basis in the future. It’s not an obvious tie up, but then the spiciness of both is an obvious door opener. Originally from the Punjab region of India, Grewal also identifies the following flavours: “I work with creamy vanilla (mostly found in the Lowland Malts or Grains), fresh fruits (from the Speyside malts), rich fruits (from the Highlands) and the earthy smokiness (from the Islands or Islay Malts). You can have two views about matching food with whisky. One is to match the closest flavours in both (food and whisky) to complement each other and the other is to bring out the two extreme flavours.

Knowing the strengths in flavour of different whiskies when it comes to food can only help choices and the whole experience.. It’s the variations between the types of whiskies – Irish, Scotch and American – as well as the many differences within the sectors which can make pairings such an exciting part of drinking whisky.

For Paterson, in Scotch it is the dryness with fresh fruit aromas, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon; in Irish the lightness, so it’s the aromas of fresh cut grass, floral, honey and citrus; and for American it’s the toasted oak, vanilla and caramel flavors.

Scott ? says, “While Jim Beam shares similar characteristics with Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y – namely in sweetness and possibly wood – it contains noticeably less earth in both nose and mouth. Bourbon as an ingredient in food and cocktail recipes has a tendency to draw out or amplify flavors, especially in hearty meats and sauces.”

And if you are still struggling to pick up the tastes in whisky and food, Paterson offers the following advice: “To many people, when they have their first sip [and mouthful of food], I’d be honest and say their palate is not mature enough so they are really not sure what they just had and rather go for something that has a sweeter taste or a cocktail.

“I say have another sip, savour the whisky and then, once you discover the underlying flavors and you actually start to understand what and how pure whisky is your palate becomes mature and actually starts to develop. That’s when you will start to understand [what is happening between the whisky and the food].”

Sounds good to me. So what are we waiting for…

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