Whisky, traditionally, is taken after the meal.
But recently there has been a surge of interest in food pairing with other types of alcohol, and having the right dram with your dinner can produce some rewarding results on the palate.
As a general rule, the qualities of an alcoholic drink that affect its interaction with food are the body – light, medium or full-bodied – and the alcohol content.
The key to creating pleasurable interactions on the tongue is getting the right combination and the right dish.
Martine Nouet, the Islay-based author of À Table, Whisky from Glass to Plate, is an expert on both pairing with food and using whisky as an ingredient.
For beginners Nouet recommends tasting a whisky alongside sweet dishes, rather than savoury.
She says: “If you think about how whisky is described, many of the words we use are sweet, such as honey or fruity so it is quite easy to make a rewarding pairing with a pudding.”
The other easy starting point is the combination of oysters with whisky in the simplest of recipes.
Nouet says: “Pouring one or two drops of a peaty whisky in an oyster like Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin, instead of Tabasco or lemon, is a revelation and packs a real punch.”
Whisky can also be used as an ingredient with seafood, Nouet recommends fried scallops deglazed with a medium peated whisky which will bring in a touch of smokiness.
Nouet has pioneered whisky dinners with a different malt paired with each course, and says: “It is always a question of balance, of flavours and strength, but you can serve a whole meal with individual whiskies.
“I also use whisky as a spice but with different techniques. I never flambé as I feel that it is just a show and doesn’t enhance the flavour. You lose the alcohol but the flavour as well. For cooking, whisky is much better used as a marinade – left on no longer than 15 minutes – or brushed on as a glaze.”
Asked if there is a natural pairing between traditional Scottish food and whisky, Nouet says that the idea is too restrictive, and whisky can be used with any type of cuisine as long as care is taken with the ingredients – with one big exception.
“Garlic is a strong flavour and if you eat it, it impairs your taste buds so whisky tasting when garlic is involved is not so sensitive.”
The other common misconception is that a smoky whisky should go with smoked food, but the combination can become overpowering.
Instead she recommends trying a lighter malt with dishes such as smoked salmon.
“There is a conversation between the whisky and the food, with both giving balance, harmony and taste to each other.”
Nouet encourages people to experiment with their favourite drams and note the difference not just between types of whisky with different food – a Speyside or an Islay malt for instance – but with the brands, the different malts within them, and even different ages and casks.
Alan Wood of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) agrees. The dining room at the SMWS headquarters at 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh offers a five-course taster menu with whisky pairings, but members will also look to the society for advice about which whisky to pair with a meal they are serving at home.
Wood says: “Peatier, smokier whiskies of Islay do run the risk of overpowering food so typically I would recommend very rich food to pair with them – steaks and venison or even biltong or beef jerky would create a very interesting dynamic.”
But he says that it is not always about creating harmony. “The other interesting idea that people might want to try is to pair the food and whisky to clash, so a peated whisky with a curry or fish and chips will change the taste of the food on the palate and the experience of the whisky.”
If you really want to send your taste buds into a spin, Wood says there is a trend for adding an extra dimension to a food pairing.
He explains: “You can bring in other alcoholic beverages as well. The traditional pairing of beer and whisky – a pint and a nip but in this case perhaps an artisan ale and a single malt – will add another layer of complexity if served with food.”
A dram fine diploma
For many of us, our knowledge and appreciation of Scotland’s national drink is gleaned from enjoyable home experimentation with perhaps a distillery tour and tasting to try to equip us with the correct language to describe the depths of flavour.
But for wanna-be true aficionados, there is training available.
Kirsty McKerrow runs the Edinburgh Whisky Academy which offers courses certified by the SQA. She says: “There is a two-day diploma on single malt whisky which is all about the history, the business, the production process, maturation, the sensory experience, and it takes a look at world whiskies.”
The course is geared toward sommeliers and brand ambassadors and McKerrow says it also attracts marketing managers, specialist spirit retailers as well as enthusiasts and those looking for a career in the sector.
A diploma in the art of tasting whisky is a one-day course. It is centred around the olfactory system and how you can build aroma memory with a scientific approach.
The courses are instructed by industry experts, such as Matthew Pauley, a professor at the Heriot-Watt Institute of Brewing and Distilling and Gordon Steele, former director of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute.
McKerrow says: “It is a scientific subject but it is made accessible. It is paramount for anyone who is really serious about whisky tasting or matching food with whisky that they fully understand the science behind it.”
The shorter course is more accessible to a keen amateur and can be given as a gift. The cost for this is £480 which includes the SQA registration fee, pre-course reading and the actual qualification.
Many attendees may be considering a career in the whisky business, but some will just appreciate the ability to reply with knowledge the next time someone asks their opinion of a dram.
Martine Nouet’s Shellfish and Tartuflo Risotto
The main ingredient you need with risotto is patience as you will be stirring your rice for 15 to 20 minutes. This is essential, but your efforts will be rewarded.
1ltr of shellfish stock (made with the langoustine heads, a carrot, onion, celery branch, spices)
300g Carnaroli rice (plain or with tartufo or wild mushrooms)
1 shallot chopped
1 tbsp good olive oil
100ml white wine or Noilly Prat (dry vermouth)
5 tbsp grated Parmesan
some greens (broccoli, asparagus) blanched
juice and zest of one lemon
1 tsp grated ginger
2 tbsp single malt
salt, ground black pepper
- Marinate the scallops with the lemon juice and zest and grated ginger. Place the mussels into a covered pan and cook over medium heat until all the mussels have opened. Drain them, adding the cooking juices to the shellfish stock. Remove the mussels from their shells and set aside, keeping a few in their shell for decoration. Warm the stock in a pan.
- In another pan, melt the butter with oil and add the chopped shallot. Cook it slowly until the shallot is soft without colouring. Add the rice and stir for one or two minutes. Add the wine, lower the heat.
- Add two ladles of stock. Stir continuously. When the rice has absorbed the liquid, add another ladle and carry on slowly, ladle by ladle, continuing stirring. Season.
- The rice starts becoming creamy. Add the blanched vegetables. Carry on stirring. Taste the rice. When it is creamy but a little al dente, add 3/4 of the Parmesan. Stir. Check the seasoning and keep warm over a low heat.
- In a pan, melt the butter, sauté langoustines and scallops, just for one minute on each side. Add the mussels. Take the shellfish out of the pan. Deglaze the pan with the single malt and add this to the risotto.
- Divide the risotto between six warm plates and add a knob of butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan. Serve the risotto topped with the langoustines, scallops and mussels, arrange the mussels in their shells among the other shellfish.
Whiskies to match
This very flavoursome dish needs to be paired with a complex whisky, marked by vanilla sweetness, hence matured in a first-fill bourbon cask. A medium peated whisky will be perfect.
Tomatin Cu Cù Bocan Virgin Oak
Port Askaig 12 Year Old
Bruichladdich – Islay Barley 2006
Auchentoshan Virgin Oak second release
This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Food and Drink 2019 supplement. A digital version can be found here.