The Proof is in the Pudding

Once thought of as awkward mealtime partners, Scotch whisky and food can actually be ideal multicourse soulmates.

The international wine community has done many things well in marketing its wares to consumers. Chief among them has been promoting its still and sparkling products by matching them with specific edibles and regional cuisines. The media has been marrying wine to food in word and image since the 1970s.

Not so with the world's distilled spirits. How many times have you seen a waiter in a high-rent eatery leaning over his patron and, in sotto voce, recommending a peppery, elegant VSOP Cognac with the lobster tail in herb butter sauce? Or a sweet, spicy Kentucky straight rye whiskey to complement the house specialty, Chateaubriand? Never, I'll wager. But with good reason. Though the majority of unmixed distilled spirits of both grape and grain origins simply do not possess the qualities that embellish food, many do when mixed in cocktails to bring down the beverage's alcohol content.

That's the basis of much of the concern from a chef's point of view: the elevated levels of alcohol in brandies, whiskeys, liqueurs and white spirits can decimate many contemporary styles of food, which stress delicacy and flavor nuances.

But a coterie of qualified food authorities around the globe are finding that one spirit in particular, Scotch whisky, can buddy-up with food just fine—not merely as a shimmering amber companion to after-dinner cigars. They're talking first course to dessert course.

Scotch with Food: Easier than you might think
Food profile/course Whisky profile required Scotch recommendations
Before-dinner dram: mildly sweet, light, floral
dry, floral, malty
gently sweet, malty
biscuity, light, malty
Glenlivet 12 French Oak
William Grant Family Reserve
Auchentoshan Three Wood
Glenfiddich 12-year-old
First Course:
fish soup/stew
salty canapés or olives
light cheeses and crackers
broth/onion soup

honeyed, lightly salty
dry, salty, malty
floral, malty
lightly sweet, tangy

Bunnahabhain 12-year-old
Bruichladdich 15-year-old
Dalwhinnie 15-year-old
Deanston 12-year-old
Main Course:
smoked haddock
smoked salmon
roasted venison
Black Angus rib-eye steak
rack of lamb/mutton chop
roasted chicken
roasted pheasant
pork chops/ribs with sauce

peaty, smoky
lightly smoky, oily
medium-bodied, malty
malty, substantial, fruity
rich, sweet, malty
light, floral, mildly fruity
substantial, dry
spicy, piquant

Lagavulin 16-year-old
Bowmore 17-year-old
Highland Park 18-year-old
Aberlour 21-year-old
Glenrothes 1989
Dewar's 12-year-old
Springbank 15-year-old
Balvenie 12 Doublewood
Dessert Course:
strong cheeses or cheesecake
chocolate or cake
fresh fruit or fruit tart

sweet, malty, wine notes
substantial, caramel notes
gently sweet, toffee notes

Macallan 18 Gran Reserva
Glenmorangie 12 Port Wood
Johnnie Walker Gold 18-year-old

After-dinner dram:
candies and cigars

hearty, sweet, smoky
robust, sweet, malty

Dalmore Cigar Malt
Longmorn 15-year-old

In Asian cultures the spirits-with-food concept is hardly new. Featuring an expensive blended Scotch (Johnnie Walker Blue), single-malt Scotch whisky (Macallan 25) or a top-shelf Cognac (Martell Cordon Bleu, Hennessy Paradis, Remy Martin XO) instead of wine from the first course through dessert has been a widespread tradition of regional hospitality for decades. In China, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, it is a sign of respect to share the best Scotch whisky or Cognac with guests at dinner. Now, in North America and Europe, the reemergence of Scotch whisky over the past two decades as the planet's foremost "cachet" distilled spirit has generated a subtle attitude shift concerning the serving of whisky through an entire meal.

In the New York City area, food societies such as The James Beard House and renowned culinary schools like The Culinary Institute of America have begun hosting Scotch-with-food events. And chefs in Manhattan restaurants such as March and Keens Steakhouse have helped spearhead the Scotch-with-food movement. In San Francisco, Postrio, Wolfgang Puck's northern California outpost, has staged daytime Scotch-themed lunches and tastings.

By custom, the most popular date for Scotch-with-food dinners is January 25, the birthday of Robert Burns, the author of Auld Lang Syne and Scotland's most beloved poet. Commemorating his birthday usually means teaming traditional Scottish fare like haggis, tatties 'n' neeps, smoked salmon, roast venison and Scotch eggs with blended and single-malt whiskies. But increasingly, for some American chefs, the chance to experiment with the wide spectrum of aromas and flavors in Scotch is more than just a midwinter activity for developing appropriate fare. It's been transformed into a year-round passion.

Sugriv Grover, a manager at Keens, prefers to keep the matching of Scotch and food simple and straightforward. He doesn't hold with the belief that choosing a Scotch, or a wine for that matter, requires endless hand-wringing.

"Pairing wine with food is not a science," says Grover. "Nor is pairing Scotch with steakhouse fare. There are several Scotch-and-food marriages that have become popular here. House-smoked filet mignon goes especially well with the peaty complexity of a hearty malt, such as Laphroaig 30-year-old. The savory taste of steak tartare is complemented beautifully by the mellow fruitiness of Balvenie 12-year-old Doublewood. Oysters Rockefeller in hollandaise is ideally suited to the salty, honey-sweet taste of Bunnahabhain 12-year-old. And mutton chop, our signature dish, comes alive when placed alongside a glass of intense, smoky 16-year-old Lagavulin."

Keens offers menus of suggested Scotch flights, a quartet of dram-sized servings of single-malt Scotch best suited to a particular course. The "dinner flight," for instance, includes Glen Garioch 29-year-old, Tomintoul 30-year-old Stillman's Dram, Oban 14-year-old and Tobermory 10-year-old.

Although home chefs will splash ordinary table wine into a stew or sauce, the same principle does not apply to cooking with Scotch. Age and quality matter. A favorite recipe of Wayne Nish, chef and co-owner of March in New York, is his Slow-Cooked Canadian Salmon with 30-year-old Bowmore Single Malt Whisky Cream. "When I first tried cooking with Scotch, I used inexpensive blends and 10- and 12-year-old single-malts," says Nish. "Despite costing less, their dominant alcohol requires longer cooking time, thus destroying their subtle flavors. By using a 25- or 30-year-old single malt whose alcohol content has already been mellowed by barrel aging, less needs to be added to make the sauce with no loss of the Scotch's distinctive flavor."

In France, obviously one of Europe's staunchest and oldest wine strongholds, Martine Nouet, a writer on food and spirits based in Paris, is on a quest to explore the heretofore uncharted territory of Scotch with food. Ms. Nouet, nicknamed "La reine de l'alambic" ("The Queen of the Still") by her peers because of her unbridled zest for Scotch, has for the past four years taught a class called "Cooking with Malt Whisky." Nouet has also created and hosted dinners at single-malt distilleries in Scotland's Speyside and Islay whisky districts. She insists that the key to successful Scotch-and-food pairing depends on several variables: What is the season? What are the primary foods and how have they been prepared?

"Rich, creamy, heavily aromatic malts will be outstanding in autumn recipes with duck, beef, foie gras, raisins, apples, figs, ginger and cinnamon," says Nouet. "[Whiskies such as] Highland Park, Macallan, Glenfarclas, Aberlour and Lagavulin fit perfectly into this cooking profile.

"The more Sherried and the older the malts are," Nouet summarizes, "the more adequate they will be for generous meat- or poultry-oriented dishes with tasty and thick sauces."

But the intrepid Nouet doesn't stop there. Her kitchen adventures with Scotch whisky and food have taken her all the way to the dessert course. "I also recommend [sweeter, Sherry wood-influenced] single malts with fruity and creamy sweets like French toast, apple crumble or blancmange," she says.

What time do we eat?

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