With a gamut of regional styles and flavour characteristics, whisky presents a myriad of culinary possibilities. From decadent dessert pairings to the briny blend of oysters and Islay malts, here are some recommendations for traversing the world of food and whisky pairing.
Salt and smoke
Barman Christian Blair, known for his work at Eau de Vie, Rockpool Bar & Grill and the new Crows Nest venture Annatta, is no stranger to pairing whisky with food. Blair speaks of the wonders of whisky and oysters. "When pairing with oysters, look for smokier whiskies with a maritime influence," Blair explains, recommending the fierce, peated offerings of Islay.
Experience this classic pairing side-by-side, or live dangerously and combine the two. Start with something young from Lagavulin or Caol Ila, then drizzle modestly over your mollusc of choice. We recommend a rich, creamy little number from the Hastings River, or a meaty behemoth – the Angassi from Coffin Bay. It's a fiery union of salt and smoke, and guaranteed to set the evening off to a strong start.
Grass and game
When pairing with the light, gamey flavours of roasted wild poultry, Blair leans towards the lighter Lowland styles - whiskies deemed more floral and grassy than their northern counterparts, and without the peat-heavy personalities of island malts. Try Glenkinchie 12 Years; with delicate aromas of cut-hay and honeysuckle, and a light palate of fruit and grist, this dram reflects the distinguishing elegance of a classic Lowland malt. Perfect with roast pheasant and bread sauce.
National Johnnie Walker brand ambassador and former Master Chef contestant Sean Baxter also applauds the harmonious union of whisky and game, suggesting a more assertive accompaniment for robust, fatty meats such as duck or goose. He recommends Johnnie Walker Platinum Label as an ideal choice. "The salty, crisp skin and blushing flesh of roast duck is perfectly complimented by its sherry-licked notes," he says.
Heather and honey
Whisky with dessert? Most definitely. The rich honey and vanilla characteristics of Highland malts form a natural affinity with sweeter food pairings. Blair recommends Royal Lochnagar, or, if price is no object, Brora, a top-echelon cult malt from a distillery that has been out of operation since 1983.
If a blend is more your style, Blair suggests Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, with its lavish palate of creamed honey, vanilla and oats pairing effortlessly with a range of desserts. In the case of this delightful dram, the master blender has been privileged to work with selections from whisky reserves containing the prestigious Clynelish malt, renowned for its generous honey and beeswax character. With layers of dried fruit, heather and sweet smoke building into a long, complex finish, this is the perfect way to end a meal.
Think vanilla poached pears with crème anglaise; or keep things simple with honeyed figs and vanilla ice cream.
Dairy with a dram
Both defined by sweet/savoury complexity and lingering decadence, cheese and whisky share a natural affinity. Baxter believes whisky is often a far better match with dairy than most dry wines, as cheese tends to accentuate the tannin in wine or simply steal the show by overwhelming the palate. "Whisky has a powerful mouth-feel that works hand-in-hand with the rich, oily texture of strong cheeses," he says.
Baxter divulges his favourite combination: Johnnie Walker Blue Label paired with Saint Agur, a rich, triple cream cow's milk cheese, lightly flecked with blue mould, from the village of Beauzac in the Monts du Velay. The opulent Blue Label blend forms perfect synergy, with a luxurious palate of sweet oak, dried fruits, cereal and spice, opening up to reveal a rich, long finish of honey and smoke that compliments the savoury qualities of the cheese. Serve with buttery oat cakes to complete the experience.
Rich, nutty cheeses like an aged Gouda, cheddar or a Comte are also ideal accompaniments. Baxter suggests pairing with Singleton of Dufftown Spey Cascade. With its clean palate of fresh apples and pear, coupled with the sweet complexity of bourbon and sherry cask finishing, this Speyside malt sits perfectly with a sharp and crumbly cheddar.
Depth and decadence
Baxter describes his first whisky and chocolate experience as a mischievous youngster, cunningly acquiring one of the forbidden 'adult' chocolates under a blind eye, innocently naïve to its fiery, whisky liqueur centre. A memorable introduction to a classic pairing, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Years on, Baxter praises the affinity of this timeless combination, recommending a small dose of salt be included for good measure: "Chocolate and whisky work well together because the finish of long-aged whisky is often associated with dessert characters. When paired with salted dark chocolate you get a subtle harmony between sweetness, salt and bitterness. Whisky tends to fill in the gaps – sweet, but savoury at the same time."
Baxter recommends Dalwhinnie 15 years, a balanced dram with soft floral aromas of light toffee and honeyed pear, and a generous malty palate of spiced nuts and vanilla cream. Pair with a dark, salted truffle as a decadent alternative to the after-dinner demitasse.
This article is sponsored by Johnnie Walker.