Whisky Pairing: From Cold Dish to Dessert

Generally on dining tables, wines are served from the lightest to the strongest. ‘This is not only for food pairing, it’s because food is also served from the lightest to the strongest,’ Food writer Yeh Yi-Lan suggests, ‘If we taste strong wines before the light ones, the latter will have no taste. This is also the tasting order for food.’

From Light to Heavy, Mild to Strong

‘Ingredients and process of kilning, fermentation and distillation affect 40% of whisky flavour; aging from three years to decades affect 60%. So there’s a big difference between choosing bourbon or sherry casks,’ Master of the Quaich & Chairman of Taiwan Single Malt Whisky Tasting Association Yao He-Cheng suggests, the difference is the key factor to consider when choosing food to pair with. ‘Bourbon’s tone is more of vanilla, fresh fruits and citrus notes, sometimes with tropical fruit aroma; sherry’s is more of nuts, chocolate and dried fruits notes, sometimes with spices. According to these descriptions, you can clearly see that bourbon whisky is suitable for food with lighter taste.’

Yeh Ye-Lan also agrees a fresh and delicate bourbon whisky can pair with salad, boiled or steamed food, or fresh seafood; while a richer sherry whisky can pair nicely with braised, stewed or grilled food with heavy taste.

Umami for Highlighting, Starch for Embracing

If we pick alcoholic drinks based on the main ingredients of dishes, food rich in umami like seafood, offal or strong cheese can always balance well with whisky. Seasonings with umami such as soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, sour plums, dried shrimp, kombu and even cordia dichotoma, can easily create beautiful flavours with whisky.

Compared with sharp and vivid umami, mild starchy foods can also pair well with whisky. ‘Starch is magical; it can always save terrible combinations,’ Based on previous food pairing experiences, Yeh Ye-Lan suggests that starch can embrace all flavours, connecting wines and spirits with food that are not easy to match with. ‘Since starch is neutral, we can just consider the main ingredients of a starchy dish. Such as we won’t pair a light bourbon whisky with a rich spaghetti bolognese, but a fresh Spaghetti alle vongole.’

‘Strong with strong, mild with mild’ is a suggested direction for whisky and food pairing, but not for smoked food - it can’t pair well with smoky peaty whisky. ‘Pairing two different “smokiness” is like walking into the mist. You will get lost and unable to feel anything. What makes it worse is that it brings a muddy feeling.’ says Zheng Yu-Xuan, the chef of Yu Chocolatier. It is better to pair smoked food with a sweet and smooth sherry whisky, so as to taste its rough and bold characters.

Try Echoing with the Elements

It’s suggested that desserts should pair with sweeter wines and spirits. ‘It’s easy for whisky to become bitter when you eat sweet food, so it must be as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert. Avoid using a light and fresh whisky to pair with desserts,’ says Yeh Yi-Lan, who also points out that sherry whisky and dessert is always a good match, especially black forest cake with dark dried fruits and chocolate. ‘Some first fill bourbon whiskies have strong vanilla flavour, they are good to pair with vanilla desserts like ice-cream and cake.’ Besides, the smell of freshly-baked pastries such as apple pie can easily resonate with the malty sweetness of whisky.

Zheng Yu-Xuan reminds that bourbon and American bourbon whisky should not be paired with rich chocolate. ‘There’s a kind of hidden astringency in American bourbon casks, the newer the stronger. Even for whisky matured in an old and gentler bourbon cask. It’s fine to drink it solely. When you pair it with chocolate, the tannins in dark chocolate will arouse that astringency. Your mouth will thus feel numb.’ Zheng also suggests to start pairing peaty whisky with sweeter milk chocolate first, then stronger chocolate. ‘If you start by pairing with rich chocolate, you might not feel so good. Better follow step by step.’

Talking about the balanced and elegant whisky that has both characters from bourbon and sherry casks, it’s also suggested to pair by the rule of ‘from light to heavy, mild to strong’. Take The Singleton as an example, the order can be ‘The Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky’, ‘The Singleton of Glen Ord 15 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky’, ‘The Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky Sherry Cask Edition’. ‘While tasting Asian cuisines, “The Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky” is very likely to be compatible for the whole meal,’ Yeh Yi-Lan believes wine can’t pair nicely with the whole meal, so it’s impossible to only drink one single wine throughout the meal. ‘In Chinese banquets, meat and vegetables won’t be served in a row. To pair nicely, sometimes we drink red wine, sometimes white. But for whisky that balances between bourbon and sherry, it can easily pair with all food from cold dish to dessert. Wine can never do that.’

‘If you already know the style of the restaurant, you can choose the whisky based on the food you will eat; but if you know whisky better, you can order suitable food for pairing.’ Yao He-Cheng believes it’s fine to pick whisky based on food or vice versa. He also reminds that the alcohol content should also follow the rule of ‘from lightest to strongest’. At the beginning, you can enjoy whisky with ice, water or soda water as Highball; When it comes to the main course or dessert, you can try drinking it neat. Throughout the banquet you can satisfy both your stomach and taste buds. Experiencing how to pair different whiskies with food in person, and enjoy the fun of it, is the gist of whisky and food pairing.