Dining at Cask Strength: The Subtle Art of the Unexpected Pairing
Society members all around the globe have been celebrating single casks and food together this month, exploring what dishes highlight the subtleties of each whisky. When the professional chef isn’t around, how do we bring this exploration of pairing home?
A simple Google search will yield food pairing suggestions to go with just about any drink: generic meat dishes with bourbon, chocolate and red wines, cheese and, well, just about anything. But when your whisky is unique, bold, and dynamic, such as a SMWS cask, how do you go about finding its perfect pairing? Each dram is like a fingerprint, and finding a pairing to bring out its nuances, its brightness, its depth, its texture - while not masking it or fighting with it - is an art. However, you don’t have to be a great artist to produce great art! With my passion for food – and some of the world’s finest drams at my fingertips – I am lucky to experiment constantly with flavor and here is a peek into my process of finding that perfect, unexpected pairing.
The first thing I consider when pairing my whisky is surprisingly not the whisky itself, but rather the circumstances. Who am I going to be serving? What time of day? What season? Barbecuing with friends for the 4th of July, I know I am going to be reaching for USA Exclusive Cask 93.114 Barbecue in fish nets – the savory, sweet bacon notes go perfectly with barbecue ribs and adding some nectarines or peaches onto the grill will highlight the fruit notes from the port cask finish.
Once I have narrowed down my audience and timeframe, I get to know my whisky. I tend to go with my gut – sometimes the first sip I take gives me the most interesting pairing idea. If a striking scent or flavor jumps out, I consider what compliments that: for example, the saltiness of a Heavily Peated cask, such as Cask 16.34 Thunderbirds are go! pairs beautifully with shellfish, but on the palate I get a pronounced savory truffle note. Bringing all of this together, I am pairing this sultry, salty dram with Ricotta and Crab Tortellini in a Truffle Cream Sauce.
Beyond situation and specific flavors, I also want to consider each dram’s weight and texture. Does it have a mouth-coating texture that I’d like to enliven with some acid, like an Oily & Coastal whisky with a lime and halibut ceviche? Or do I want the weight to linger and expand by adding fat, like the Old & Dignified nuance of Cask 35.228 Cigar Juice. The sophisticated and refined palate, with integrated wood and low leather notes, calls for something that builds velvet richness, such as a classic cheesecake with graham cracker crust.
Sometimes a pairing starts with an inspiring dish or ingredient, and sometimes with the whisky itself. Either way, I recommend asking yourself these simple questions: Who am I serving? What taste or texture do I want to highlight? And what flavors do I enjoy? Trust your mouth, and if it all goes wrong at least you’ll still have a great glass of whisky to wash it down.
Looking for some resources to get started exploring pairing? Here are two of my favorites to get your mouth watering and your inspiration flowing:
- The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat and Wendy MacNaughton