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Photo: iStockPhoto
Photo: iStockPhoto

Whisky’s many expressions

Pairing whisky with food is always going to be a challenge; not because it's difficult, but because there are almost unlimited options

We all love whisky, don’t we? In the general rankings of status, whisky sits happily in a Champions League position, vying for the top spot with cognac and champagne. There are, however, plenty of different styles of whisky and those of you who have grown up drinking liquor in India will understand that the term whisky extends beyond water, barley and yeast distilled, and also includes spirit made from a sugar or molasses base.

Here, however, we will be focusing on whisky that is made elsewhere in the world; traditionally produced in the old way that the Scottish, Irish and Americans have made their own. Therefore, it gives us a wide spectrum of flavours: from the rich vanillas found in American bourbon whiskey, through to the delicate smoothness of Irish whiskey, and the smoky flavours often found in a good Scotch.

As a result, pairing whisky with food is always going to be a challenge; not because it is difficult, but because there are almost unlimited options. American whiskey can be brilliant with heavy barbecue (BBQ) meats such as pulled pork. Irish whiskey works well with lighter meats and hard cheese. Scotch... well, scotch is the most varied of all, due to its extreme flavour profiles.

When it comes to blends, a Scotch can vary from the light, easy-to-mix varieties, such as Cutty Sark and J&B, which are awesome as mixers (try them with sparkling water and a dash of apple juice), and make a wonderful pre-dinner drink in place of a gin and tonic. Or you can simply pair them with a fruity dessert such as a pear tart or a Crêpe Suzette. Richer blends such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label or Royal Salute can even be paired with main dishes of venison, pork loin or chicken curry. Of course, these top-end blends are just perfect served over ice or neat.

When it comes to single-malt Scotch, there are again wide flavour profiles—with a single malt such as the Glenlivet 12 years old a lighter option and The Macallan 18 years old a richer, deeper expression. But there is another style of single-malt Scotch that appears only as an additional flavour in most blends (Johnnie Walker Black Label is famed for this particular note) and that is smoky.

The peated malts, mainly from the Scottish island of Islay, give a wonderful smoky flavour. And it is here where I should warn you, dear readers: whisky with a smoky profile is not for everyone! It is a very divisive flavour and the split is almost 50:50 of those who love it and those who really dislike it.

But the wonderful thing about smoky whisky (and the smoky flavour comes from peat, an organic matter that naturally occurs in certain parts of the world and passes the strong flavour to the barley grown in the region) is that the flavours tend to be very pronounced, which makes it ideal for pairing with other big flavours, especially cheese.

Joel Harrison is a drinks writer and consultant. He also runs the website WorldsBestSpirits. com and tweets on @joeldram

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