From rich crumbly blues with peated Islays to Parmigiano-Reggiano with a cask strength Highlander, the world of Scotch whisky and cheese pairing is rich and (ful)filling. Lucy Britner talks match pointers and favourite combinations with a handful of whisky experts
A great whisky and cheese pairing is one of life’s little pleasures. And let’s face it, we could all do with a few of those at the moment.
The rules of cheese and whisky pairing
Like many food and drink pairings, there are a few basic rules to observe when it comes to getting your dram and your dairy to dance. Of course, once you have observed them, you can enjoy breaking those rules or making up new ones of your own.
Gordon Dundas, international brand ambassador at Ian Macleod Distillers, says the old adage of looking for a complement or a contrast is the first port of call. Matthew Cordiner, global brand ambassador for Bacardi’s single malts concurs and demonstrates both a complement and a contrast in his pairings (below).
Beyond that, Dundas says “peat level, cask maturation and alcohol strength are the three things you should be looking out for” when choosing a cheese.
He says stronger whiskies generally have a more robust mouthfeel, meaning hard cheeses are usually a good match, whereas peated whiskies need big flavours, such as blue cheeses.
In Islay, Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Distillery visitor centre manager, says pairing cheese and whisky is a “win-win challenge, as the fat of the cheese balances the strength of the alcohol”.
Thomson says there are a few other things that can cement a match: “It is important to find a ‘bridge’ – a fruit, a spice, a nut, a type of bread or biscuit – which will facilitate the marriage between the solid and the liquid.”
Cheese dreams: Top picks from our experts
Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Distillery visitor centre manager
Ardbeg Uigeadail, 54,2% ABV, with blue Stilton
Thomson suggests serving the two with a salad of green leaves, chopped walnuts, dressing with orange juice and zest and olive oil.
“The tanginess of the blue cheese meets the smoky profile of the whisky. The walnut and orange are an echo to the sherried maturation of Uigeadail – this is a truly flavoursome matching.”
Ardbeg Wee Beastie 5 year old, 47.4% ABV, with a Taleggio
To be enjoyed with an olive or bacon focaccia.
“Taleggio is a smear-ripened Italian cheese with a strong flavour and a creamy texture. The rind is washed during the ageing process and is edible,” Thomson explains. “It reveals some fruity and buttery notes and a slight acidity in the finish. There is an interesting combination of flavours with the meaty character of the whisky and the soft texture of the cheese tames the whisky’s spicy outburst at mid-palate.”
Matthew Cordiner, global brand ambassador for Bacardi’s single malts
Cordiner keeps things local with his selection of cheeses from Edinburgh’s I.J. Mellis.
Aberfeldy 12 year old, 40% ABV, with Hebridean Blue
“The sharp, salty notes of the Hebridean Blue worked well with the honeyed sweet notes of the Aberfeldy giving a rich, rounded and creamy mouthfeel overall.”
Craigellachie 13 year old, 46% ABV, with Auld Reekie – a smoked cows’ cheese from Aberdeenshire
“Unlike the Aberfeldy which was more of a reverse pairing, the Craigellachie and Auld Reekie was a perfectly complementary pairing, with the creamy tropical fruit notes and wisp of bonfire smoke from the whisky working beautifully alongside the creamy and smoky taste of the cheese, which is itself smoked in Aberdeenshire over old whisky barrels.”
Gordon Dundas, international brand ambassador at Ian Macleod Distillers
Glengoyne Cask Strength Batch 8, 59.2% ABV, with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano
“A harder, flavoursome cheese, like an aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, will really cut through that high strength. The whisky is matured in both sherry and bourbon casks, so it’s not overtly rich, more fruity although strong and intense. As a result, it contrasts the strong crystal style of the cheese but balances out flavour-wise, giving a long combined finish.”
Glengoyne 12 year old, 43% ABV, with Brie
“For a lighter, bourbon-influenced whisky, such as Glengoyne 12 year old, you want something that complements. Brie is light and creamy and will appear sweeter with the vanilla and calm the zestiness of the whisky.”
Ian Logan, international brand ambassador, Chivas Brothers
Glenlivet XXV, 43% ABV, with Camembert and chutney
“This was a creation of John Williams at The Ritz. With the XXV being finished in first-fill Oloroso casks for a couple of years, we managed to get a cheese that complemented perfectly. The chutney was made up of raisins, almonds, spices, apricots, dates and with the sweetness of the coconut, it couldn’t be a better match for those sherry casks. It was served with rye bread on the side for a little extra spice. A wonderful memory of a wonderful evening at The Ritz.”
Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve, 40% ABV, with Parmigiano-Reggiano
“Those new French oak casks are bringing heaps of sweetness and spice to the game, lots of lactones and vanilla from the Tronçais oak. Often as Parmigiano gets older, there is more spice to be found and that was the perfect foil for the sweetness of the casks and a complement to the spice from the wood. This match was proposed by Martine Nouet.”
And here’s one of my own
GlenDronach 15 year old Revival, 46% ABV, with vintage cheddar
“It is customary in my house to enjoy Christmas cake with a slice of mature cheddar. For this reason, I’d go for something like GlenDronach 15 year old Revival, which is matured in Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez casks, paired with a crumbly mature cheddar cheese. The tang of the cheddar is the perfect match for rich, dried-fruity whiskies and the GlenDronach also has some great caramelised walnut flavours that work well with the rich and bold flavour of the cheese. Extra points for older cheddars with crystals, for extra mouthfeel.”
The beauty of whisky and cheese pairing is that you can go totally bonkers and spend a fortune on artisan cheeses and rare whiskies – or you can go totally Tesco and do it all on a more modest budget. There are perfect partners for every dram and no doubt there’s even a match for the DairyLea Dunker.