It’s summer and, for me, that means I’m entertaining more. With a background in professional kitchens, I strive to find that balance of flavours that excites those at my table. My discussions with friends always find their way back to the ingredients, the recipes, and how the dishes could be improved. Rather than following my usual pattern and relying solely on the food, I thought beyond the plate to what we were drinking. There are food and wine pairings so there must be whisky pairings, right?
Talking with chef friends and looking at summer menus gave me numerous ideas on how to include whisky as an ingredient but not how to pair whisky as a partner to the food. Because of this, I began cooking a few basic items and sipping a few drams in search of what works well together.
Breaking down the characteristics of different whiskies helped to define the direction I took. The sweet character typical of bourbon is a natural fit for desserts but going past that I thought of what works with the brown sugar, cinnamon and spice notes as well as some dried fruit and nuttiness. With fruit in mind, bourbon would work with pork or poultry. Think glazed ham or duck. But what to serve as a side? Again, playing off of the sweetness, roasted root vegetables such as carrots or turnips work and you could braise red cabbage to intermingle the sweet with some necessary funk.
I smoked some pork ribs with a basic rub over cherry wood and served that with red cabbage, carrot and onion slaw. The smoke does cut the sweetness, but I needed something else. Adding some sriracha to my slaw gave the whole dish some added oomph, rounding it out so it wasn’t sweet upon sweet – upon sweet. Alongside this, I drank Wild Turkey Longbranch and when I went back for round two, I tried it with Hibiki Harmony. The bourbon held its own and complimented everything whereas the Hibiki was a little too soft to cut through the fat of the pork and was overpowered by the heat of the slaw.
Speaking of cutting through the fat, I can’t resist a good steak and after picking up some great ribeyes one weekend, I wanted a whisky that was full enough to stand up to the richness of the beef. I grilled the steaks and served them with garlic mushrooms and sautéed asparagus, so I needed just as bold flavours from the whisky.
When it comes to pairing, what do you like with your steak? Consider the cut of beef itself and its fat content. For steaks, black pepper, and red wine are classic combinations and can easily be found in whisky. Luckily, I had Deanston 2008 Red Wine Cask Matured on hand, thanks to Whisky Quarterly Ontario, and there was a sweetness to balance the grill flavour and touches of red wine and chili to stand up to the richness of the meat. Any Islay would also do well with their briny notes and smoke or peppery rye whiskies if that’s more your speed. I’ve had steaks in the past with some Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Crown Royal Northern Harvest and have never come away disappointed.
Now it’s time to bring Japanese whisky into the mix. Since my ribs were too heavy for the Hibiki Harmony I needed to think lighter. With Japan as inspiration, I went to seafood. Scallops and lighter fish do well with the delicate flavours typically found in Japanese whisky. When I served scallops lightly marinated in soy, citrus and garlic, my guests were sipping on Toki, Hibiki Harmony and Tokinoka Black. I think of the floral, citrus and green apple notes in Japanese whisky and how that works so well with the shellfish or smoked salmon.
If you aren’t looking for a full meal but serve a platter with charcuterie and cheese, what whisky would you pour to find that balance? A variety of meats and cheese requires a variety of whisky. Smoky or spiced whiskies play well with strong cheeses while mild cheeses stand out when paired with floral or fruity notes. Since highland scotches can cover a lot of ground, I went with Aberfeldy 12. The honey with a fruit softness could accompany any cheese in my mind be it a strong aged cheddar or blue cheese to ricotta or brie.
Keep in mind that this is based on my preferences. Palates differ and there aren’t hard-set rules to follow. Before you dive in, remember to eat and drink what you like. In the end, it’s about what you enjoy, not conforming to something you read on the internet. Let me know which combinations you adore and if there are any unlikely pairings that we should try.