SA Whisky Handbook

Matching it

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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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Let’s get personal

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Now whisky is being enjoyed by everyone, from the traditionalists to the cocktail drinkers, there is only one way to stand out from the crowd – seek out a personal whisky experience.

In the spirit of writing this piece I have just opened a bottle of Duncan Taylor 40 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt, which was distilled at Bunnabhain. Its presentation box is classy, the tears on the glass of my first pour impressive and the release of oils when I added water the most swirlingly exciting I have ever seen. Cask strength, don’t you just love the bite. This is a fine whisky, right from the packaging to its taste.

But what makes this bottle so special is that it arrived as a gift from a friend on my 40th birthday. It’s mine, this hand-numbered 120th bottled out of 193. Not mine like I picked it up off a supermarket shelf. It was in the cask the same amount of time I have been alive. That second sip just tasted better. Excuse me while I savour its taste and the 40 years.

Of course, every sip of whisky is personal. That goes for whether you are Jack and Coke drinker who dreams of cool rock’n’roll days with the band on the road or you prefer emotive thoughts of rugged windswept coasts while enjoying a peaty Islay alone by the fire.

But what some whisky drinkers are looking for these days, amid a flurry of choices, special editions and different barrel finishes, are real, good-to-brag-about personal experiences with their whisky. My 40 Year Old birthday bottle gives me just that. When my cousin returns from work I shall pour him a glass and bore him with tales of my life. And we will laugh at a particular moment we remember way back when. Can a whisky really do this? Well, it just has.

The whisky industry, to its credit, has not sat back in its worn leather chair in the last few years. It has reinvented itself in a flurry of cocktails, shooters, mixers and let’s be honest, anything else which keeps sales up. It’s not even been afraid to drop a few bits of the kilt and bagpipe stuff if it helps to persuade a new audience that whisky is a good drink. Heaven knows, we certainly don’t need anymore of this imagery rammed down our throats to enjoy a good drink anyway.

But credit where credit is due, taking whisky’s image into the modern age is largely down to Jack Daniel’s Whiskey (although their marketing people still cleverly mix Harley imagery with wizened old Tennessee men doing things the traditional way to project the brand).

Jack (who needs a surname?) led the way in dropping the pretence and letting people enjoy their drink just the way they wanted. And so they attracted the younger crowd.

I went into a London bar recently and asked for a whisky. It was packed with youngsters.

‘We don’t serve whisky sir,’ I was told. ‘Just bourbon.’

And not just bourbon. Just Jack actually. About 40 bottles of it lined up and changing colour in time with the lights behind it. Red, blue, green, yellow, just Jack. I thought it churlish to point out that Jack himself would probably prefer to hear, ‘We only serve Tennessee Whiskey’, so had a couple and raised a glass to his modern-day marketing people, who are probably less bothered, especially in bar which serves just Jack..

But even though Jack Daniel’s has attracted mass-market adoration, it’s not against adding a little personal-experience gloss to its image. For a reasonable sum, a Jack lover can travel to Lynchburg, meet the head distiller and choose his own personal barrel, then head home and wait till it’s ready. And let’s be honest, talking to your friends about your barrel in Tennessee for a few years has got to worth as much as when you finally get to taste the first drop.

Of course, there are many places where you can buy your own barrel and enjoy the years of its maturation and then finally its liquid. And that is the point. Why order a glass from a bar, when you can pour your own from your own barrel? Which is a convenient point at which the maybe redefine ‘personal’ experience. Because, as we all know, it’s not entirely ‘personal’ is it. It’s as much about one-upmanship as anything else.

A friend once attended a 21st birthday of another friend’s son. Centre of attraction was a barrel of Scotch which had been bought by the father on the birth of his son and stored. Just think of the wait. A full 21 years and here it was. Was the son excited? Er, no, he was drinking alcopops with his friends far from the barrel he had metaphorically had to drag through his life. It was left to the dad and his friend to enjoy the whisky. It always had been.

Earlier this year on a whisky tour a grabbed a slice of my own personal whisky experience. Arriving early in the morning at  Benromach, it was nice in these days of shiny Visitor Centres, it was nice to discover the guy who was rolling the barrels into the warehouse as we arrived, also doubled as the tour guide. And a fine guide he was too. But what really interested me was the personalised bottling.

At the end of the day I suppose all I walked out with was a bottle of Benromach. But to get it was a bit different to walking the supermarket aisles. Here, at the Forres distillery, the manager had to be called to remove the duty-paid lock. Then tests were carried out to measure the alcohol levels. A quick taste straight from the barrel. The first for three months I was told. Then I pour my whisky into my bottle, cork my own bottle and seal it. The manager hand writes all the details onto the label and finally asks me to enter my dteails into a leather-bound book. He was right, the last personalised bottle bought was three months earlier.

Just a bottle of whisky. Ok, if you insist.