Bored of serving wine at dinner parties? Well, whisky may just be the answer to making your evening more flavourful. We ask the experts how to pair whisky with every course and set out a sample menu for you to try at home.
The pairing of food and drink isn’t as easy as it looks. There is a reason why the best sommeliers and bartenders in the world train their noses and palates in order to provide the rest of us with memorable, thoughtful and – most importantly – delicious combinations.
Sure, while it would be handy to have an in-house drinks expert on hand to help design a drinks programme at home, sadly, not all of us have that luxury. And when it comes to pairing whisky and food, its range of styles, origins and prices make that exercise even more difficult. What goes with a smoky Scotch, a sweet Bourbon, or a spicy rye? And what comes first: the food or your favourite whiskies?
“I don’t believe there is a no-go zone with pairings. The challenge is finding the right combination,” says Robert Wood, bar director at Birmingham’s The Wilderness. Wood has been particularly daring with pairing whisky and food at the ‘rock ‘n’ roll fine dining restaurant’ from chef-owner Alex Claridge.
So, what are the pros doing? In the past, Wood has matched wagyu beef with a cocktail called the Pampered Cow. “We used wagyu fat to fat wash through a blend of sherry cask whiskies (Nikka from the Barrel & Nikka Pure Malt), then we combined the ‘wagyu fat whisky’ with Kokuto, a savoury sugar and three-year-old soy sauce.” Perhaps not one to try and replicate at home, but certainly thought-provoking.
He’s not the only one having fun with whisky and food. Up in Cardiff and The Dead Canary bar is renowned for its whisky dinners, with general manager Mark Holmes and his team working with brands like Ardbeg, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Cardrona and Johnnie Walker to deliver four to six courses alongside their numerous expressions.
Recently, drinks journalist Becky Paskin caused a stir on TikTok with her combinations of whisky and sweets. Want to go old school with some After Eights? “I find high rye whiskies like Bulleit and Rebel Yell have a grassy, minty and chocolatey character which makes them a perfect partner for this classic after-dinner treat,” Paskin tells me, while suggesting something like Compass Box Hedonism grain whisky with chocolate truffles to “amplify the chocolate’s caramel and vanilla sweetness”.
Try this at home
There are, of course, some fool-proof combinations that are easy to replicate at home. Oysters and whisky is a fun way to start a meal – and Bowmore 12yo is a tried and tested winner with its fresh, smoky and slightly saline notes matching beautifully with oysters. Suggest to your guests to first sip the oyster brine, then take a sip of the Bowmore 12 Year Old, eat the oyster, fill the shell with the whisky; and drink the Bowmore from the shell.
Oily fish is another perfect bedfellow to whisky with its robustness able to match bold flavours. The Wilderness’ Wood has recently married a mackerel dish with Suntory Toki Japanese whisky made into a Highball with ponzu soda. However, we think the whisky’s fresh citrus and white pepper notes would also work wonders with an oily fish like mackerel made into a simple Highball with soda water or a yuzu soda for home cocktail makers. If you’re going for a lighter white fish, think about using a young single malt so as not to overpower the delicate flavour of the fish.
When it comes to the main event, your core ingredient will sway your choice. If it’s grilled or barbecued red meat, bourbons or peated Scotch will hold their own; while dishes full of spice lend themselves nicely to Highland whiskies like Glenmorangie, Dalmore and The Glenturret.
Perhaps the easiest course to pair with whisky is dessert. The options are endless with an array of whiskies combining notes like chocolate with dried fruits, nuts and spices. Masterchef judge and celebrity chef Monica Galetti has recently been on The Singleton’s Instagram channel pairing its 12 Year Old with pear and chocolate. Or try a new favourite whisky of mine, East London Liquor Company’s Single Malt 2021, with chocolate and peanut butter ice cream. If you’re finishing the meal with cheese, read Lucy Britner’s guide to matching it with whisky.
For after dinner, this one’s a bit of fun and courtesy of Paskin whose affection for whisky and sweets is no more obvious than in using cola cubes. “Drop one in a glass of Old Forester or a smoky Scotch like Lagavulin 16 and just let it dissolve slowly. The sugar and cola flavour will melt into the whisky, giving it a rich, candied and herbaceous edge.” A seriously fun end to any whisky dinner. Isn’t that what this is all about?
Tips and tricks to take away
Check your strength: For Holmes, putting anything cask strength (around the 60-65% ABV mark) at the beginning of your dinner is something to avoid as you could be in danger of going too big too soon.
Think about age: Instead, choosing one distillery and moving from young to old in age can often be a logical and easy way to pair your whiskies, he says.
Consider your flight: If you’re using a mix of styles and ages, take a look at what your whisky flight looks like. Is there a logical progression with your whiskies? Without the food, would it be a nice journey to go on?
Decide between neat and cocktails: do you want to serve cocktails, neat serves or a mixture of both. For Wood, cocktails are a safer option so as not to detract from the food.
Origin can play its part: As with other food and drink pairing principles, taking whisky and food from the same origins (Scotch with Scottish produce for example), says Holmes, can be a good place to start.
Casks play their part too: If something is aged in a PX sherry cask or something similar, chances are you’ll want it towards the end of your meal.
Don’t forget to have fun: Enough said.