Whisky has long been overlooked as a food beverage, but Ghillie Başan is on a mission to change that with her latest cookbook, Spirit & Spice. Here, the Cordon Bleu-trained chef shares five tips for pairing Scottish single malts and blends with your favourite meals…
Typically, when you encounter whisky with food it’s either within a dish – added to a sauce, for instance, or in a pudding – or as part of a distillery tasting, which “tends to be a very easy style of pairing,” Ghillie Başan observes. “People go, ‘there are nutty flavours in there, so we’ll put a walnut out’ – it isn’t really about the depth of flavour and how you can enhance it so that the food and whisky are working together”.
There’s also the M factor. Marketing. Historically, whisky was positioned as an after-dinner drink, she adds, and for a very long time a drink solely for men. “It’s quite a recent thing, this idea of whisky being a drink of conviviality, a drink to enjoy your meal or put into cocktails, a drink for both men and women and a drink to market to young people.”
Still, the concept of drinking a dram with food remains a little bit ‘out there’ for whisky purists. So what makes the spirit a worthy mealtime pairing? As well as its flavour pairing potential, whisky is exceptionally robust – which means its a great match for dishes from North and West Africa, the Middle East, India, South-east Asia and the Caribbean, where spice is used in abundance.
“Think about when you have a glass of red wine,” says Başan, “it fills your mouth with a kind of full-bodiedness and fruitiness that looking for. But the minute you have spicy food with that, it’s killed, and you’re left with something that ends up a bit more watery in your mouth, all of that full-bodiedness is gone, all of the fruit flavours have gone, because it’s a much more fragile product, it hasn’t had the same type of treatment that whisky’s had.”
In Spirit & Spice (Kitchen Press, £25), Başan unites exotic flavours from around the world with liquid from her own backyard in the Highlands of Scotland. The end goal is to prepare a dish that “does something very similar in your mouth to the whisky, so the two of them are enhancing one another and you end up with this incredible experience within your mouth,” Başan explains. “You’ve got all these flavours either contrasting or complementing one another – it’s a little journey you go on.”
5 tips for pairing whisky with food
- Get to know your dram
You can’t match the dish without a flavour reference, so pour yourself a finger and get acquainted. The first step is to nose and taste to identify the key aromas, tastes and textures in the glass. Jot your musings down on paper so you can reference them later – the more detailed, the better.
- Consider the key whisky regions
You don’t have to start from scratch each time, suggests Başan – use regional similarities to your advantage. “One could say that there is in Speyside whiskies a general sense of fruitiness and toasted notes, perhaps burnt sugar and honey in some of these whiskies depending on the distillery and maturation,” she says. “You can compare that to something like Islay whiskies, which again are all different but often have a smokiness and saltiness running through – so there are a few things that you can generalise about.”
- Highlight background flavours
Don’t just plum for the obvious flavours. Sure, you might think about pairing an Islay dram with something smoked – aubergine, perhaps, or halibut – but by highlighting background flavours you could elevate both the dish and the dram. For example a smoky whisky might also have a hint of pineapple in it, Başan points out. You could combine that with the smoky element of the dish, or take the ingredient in a different direction entirely. The bottom line? Use whisky’s more subtle notes to complement and contrast.
- Experiment with cooking techniques
Smoking, curing, pickling, infusing, caramelising, conserving, smoking, barbequing, marinating and fermenting are just some of the ways you can take a specific ingredients and transform the flavour into something unique. Don’t be shy about playing with spices, too, whether roasting, grinding or creating a paste.
- Don’t forget texture
You always appreciate food more if it has texture, Başan explains. Take the humble smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich. “Made with ordinary bread, it’s all soft and ends up cloying in your mouth, so you don’t get a real sense of appreciation,” she says. Add texture – switch the bread for toasted thin focaccia, or add a few slices of cucumber to give it a crunch – and you’ll enjoy it far more. The same applies to your dram. Is the whisky creamy or silky? Or is it perhaps watery or chewy? Bear that in mind when designing your dish.