E-pistle 2009/26 – Pairing Whisk(e)y with a Great Meal

By David Wankel, USA and Foreign Correspondent Adam Herz, USA

Over the last several years, a private club in Los Angeles has been quickly moving up the charts of amateur whisky ratings sites.  The Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society (LAWS for short) is currently, according to my research, the second largest database (Malt Maniacs being the first) with over 800 whiskies described and rated.  This small club of 21 members (including myself by the way) includes a number of serious whisky enthusiasts who travel to find rare and superb bottles of anything in the whisky world.  The Society Reserves are impressive but the main focus is on drinking the good stuff rather than collecting.  Some fabulous bottles are often ‘kicked’ at the end of a night’s meeting.

The Society meets on a regular basis and tastes six to eight bottles blind while taking tasting notes and providing ratings.  The members are also able to post ratings and tasting notes on the website for review.  The ratings are in the form of a letter grade which allows more …. erm …. general impressions rather than a number score out of 100.

This last May, LAWS planned a trip to Las Vegas, the adult playground of world-wide fame and only four hours by car from Los Angeles, for a meeting and a special whisky pairing dinner at one of Las Vegas’ amazing list of world-class restaurants.  The trip was dubbed LAWS V(E)GAS and the dinner was planned at Craftsteak.  Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, head judge of the television cooking competition show TOP CHEF, is the owner of Craftsteak and from the looks of things, he is also a whisky enthusiast.  The restaurant has a terrific line-up of rare and exquisite bottles and many celebrities are known to hang-out in the bar for a dram or two. Although I was personally unable to attend the event, a full report was provided by one of LAWS’ founding members and Keeper of the Reserves, Adam Herz.  His report follows:

Pairing whisky and food is a challenging idea — if not an entirely foreign one — to most people.
And it can be quite tricky.  But as a foodie, I (Adam) have been paying close attention to the relationship between whisky and food for a long time now, experimenting extensively, examining why some pairings work and others don’t.  I’m happy to report that I’ve nailed it down to a few basic guidelines. You’ll get a good idea of them within.

The meal was planned for ten LAWS members and each pairing is described in depth along with some comments on results – good or bad – so that the reader might understand why those combinations were chosen.  To note, for the sake of our livers/brains, each pour was 15ml (1/2 ounce) as we had 12 whiskies with the meal.  Of further note, given the amount of food to be consumed, the portions were sized accordingly.  Our final recommended menu is featured in the box below.  While this menu is specific to Craftsteak, we hope it will help the reader plan and try their own whisk(e)y pairings either at home or when dining at a restaurant with a solid whisk(e)y lineup.

To begin, we sat down to a decadent glass of Macallan 35 year 1966/2002 (55.5% OB Cask #7878).
At 35 years, this elegant but still powerful whisky epitomizes the classic Macallan style, and sherried whisky in general. As anyone who’s spent time in Spain will tell you, sherry makes a great apertif — so the choice of a highly-sherried whisky to whet your palate is a good one.  Plus, highly-sherried whiskies are difficult to pair with food in general, so this is a good place to put one (others may tell you differently, but that’s my experience).  As a basic guideline, try to reserve your rarest and/or most expensive whiskies for before or after a meal.  One reason for doing this is that very-aged whisky (generally over 20 years, and almost definitely 30) is often oaked to the point that the whisky will conflict with most foods. Super-aged whiskies on their own can be delicious; paired with many foods, they’ll usually taste “off” and bitter.  Without getting into detail, this has a lot to do with the comparative sweetness of older whiskies vs. the sweetness of most foods. And, another reason to start with an apertif is that there are just some whiskies so special that they shouldn’t be paired with food.  Treat yourself to a tasty stand-alone whisky before and after any such meal if you can… even if it’s just “special” to you and not the next guy.
You owe it to yourself to try something fancy.

First up were shellfish samplers for the table — succulent pieces of crab, lobster, oysters, clams, and shrimp, along with 4 different sauces.
If you’ve ever paired whisky with shellfish before, the first thing you learn is that the whisky virtually negates any sauce.  A juicy chunk of lobster eaten right before or after a sip of appropriately-paired whisky can be bliss. To that end, we paired the shellfish with Highland Park 30 year (48.1% OB +/- 2008) and an Old Pulteney 18 year 01.89/04.07 (58% Duncan & Taylor Cask #10260 198 Btls).

The Old Pulteney was chosen for its maritime, briny notes, and the punch of spice it delivers (plus the characteristic fruit notes of the distillery) and it was a bulls-eye pairing. Just as you might add some horseradish or cocktail sauce to cold shellfish for some extra sweetness and “zing ,” the Pulteney both “synced” with the sweet seafood flavors and delivered that extra spice boost that we were looking for.  And the shellfish itself was amazing — just super-fresh and super-good — it really couldn’t have been any better. Highland Park 30 is an amazingly delicious, lightly peated treat that stands up incredibly well for its age. We hoped that with the lighter, salty flavors of the shellfish the whisky would shine all the more — but it sort of did and sort of didn’t.  Neither hurt the other, and neither helped.  Since HP 30 is so good on its own, most of the guys ended up enjoying it as an “aside.”  It’s worth noting that Clynelish 14 year (46% OB) pairs exceptionally well with shellfish, for an easy go-to (well, at least it’s more likely to be found than the Pulteney).

Crafsteak’s lobster bisque is one of their signature dishes — we found out why with our first spoonful.
It’s deliciously creamy, full-flavored without being overly-rich, and mmm-inducing.  The whisky accompanying the bisque was chosen to exemplify how an otherwise average-tasting single malt can blossom with the right pairing.  On its own, the Rosebank 11 year 1989/2001 (50 % Lombard – Jewels of Scotland) is rather “vanilla” and essentially unremarkable — but against the bisque, it becomes a winner.  The bisque made the whisky sweeter and more luscious — and, a sip of whisky before the bisque just made the bisque… indescribably good.  But it already was.  The key to this pairing is choosing a whisky that won’t overpower the bisque’s creaminess, and that won’t kill the subtler aspects that round out the dish.  A Lowland whisky like Rosebank is a “stage” for the bisque to present itself on.  And the cream in the bisque likewise readies the palate to appreciate the subtler flavors in the Rosebank — there’s something about milk/cream (probably the fat and proteins coating the mouth, plus the fact that it’s basic as opposed to acidic) that allows many “flat” whiskies to blossom, becoming bigger and sweeter.

We paired beautifully-shaved slices of Prosciutto di San Daniele with Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve 2007 (46% Irish Blend). Given the delicate, sweet, creamy flavors of prosciutto, Irish whisky tends to pair very well here due to… well, the delicate, sweet, creamy flavors that are characteristic of most Irish whiskeys.  Like the bisque, but to a greater extent here, the idea is to pair a delicate food with a delicate whisky — as long as the sweetness levels are compatible, almost any cleanly-fruity whisky can work well in this pairing.  Think of melon and prosciutto and you’ll get the idea.  (To note, the Jameson’s also went incredibly well with the bisque… and given the lighter but still flavorful nature of the whiskey, it probably goes pretty darn well with anything).

Time for some veggies — and Craftsteak’s roasted red peppers hit the spot.
Cooked to the point of tenderness without a hint of being mushy, these red slices of heaven both combined and contrasted with Longrow 10 year 1996 (49% OB +/-2006), resulting in another perfect pairing.  The smoke in the Longrow stood out nicely against the sweetness in the peppers, even bringing out smoky flavors in the peppers themselves.  And, given the sweetness of the peppers, we needed a younger, sweeter whisky to compete — it worked beautifully.  Try this one at home. To emphasize a point, the sweeter the food, the sweeter the whisky; likewise, the bigger the food, the bigger the whisky.  Easy, right?

Folks love Craftsteak’s Persian Cucumber Salad — the simple flavors of vinaigrette, cucumber, and arugula mesh well together.
But those same qualities — particularly vinaigrette combined with bitter greens — make a whisky accompaniment tricky.  We paired this with Glenfarclas 21 year (43% OB +/- 2007) — while some thought it worked okay, the consensus was that it wasn’t a good choice for pairing.  I’ll tell you later what we found goes best here.

We had to try Craftsteak’s two signature meats: the Kobe Skirt Steak and the Short Ribs.
For good measure, we also had the New York Strip (domestic prime) and the Australian Wagyu Ribeye.  Not to mention the Mushroom Mix, Cipollini Onions, Risotto, Asparagus, and Potato Puree. The steaks were, honestly, as good as they can get.  By preparing and presenting them simply — with no complicated rubs (just salt and pepper), and no fancy sauces slathered on — the rich, full flavors of the beef burst with every juicy bite.  Steak simply doesn’t get better than this.  Different, maybe, but not better.
And the short ribs… ridiculous.

Pairing whisky with steak is actually quite tricky — you’ll hear many experts tell you that the big flavors of steak should go with a big peated whisky, like an Ardbeg or Laphroaig. But I’ve found that advice more academic than practical — the peat often just doesn’t work.  In fact, many such whiskies don’t pair well at all with juicy steaks — and though we had Ardbeg 16 year 1990 ‘Airigh Nam Beist’ (46% OB) here, it was more of a whisky that we drank “aside” the meal rather than one that actually meshed well with it (though some of the guys thought it made a good contrasting pairing with the short ribs).  To note, we’d kept that Persian Cucumber Salad hanging around, just to see if we could find something that went well with it — and surprisingly, the Beast was the winner here.  The smoky notes played well off the bitter greens and tangy, vinaigrette-covered cucumbers.

What did pair excellently with the steaks was Bowmore 25 year (43% OB +/- 2007).
Now, this is already an excellent whisky to begin with — a Bowmore that’s full of rich flavors, but with a smooth elegance to it.
It’s that not-a-monster quality that made the steaks and whisky blend together effortlessly.  The juicy, savory steak flavors swirled perfectly with Bow 25’s spice, salt, and pepper, all carried by the whisky’s light sherry sweetness, and wrapped up in wisps of light smoke.  Yeah, it was really good, and another super pairing. As an example of a more economical pairing, we also had Glenmorangie NAS ‘Nectar d’ Or’ (46% OB 2008 Sauternes Finish).  The high level of honey-sweetness in the ‘Morangie lends it to pairing decently with almost anything, and these delicious steaks were no exception.  This is another easy one to try at home.

Opps, almost forgot – the sides.  They were all good, but the onions deserve special mention.  We’d never had onions quite like these before, they were truly surprising, bursting with rich flavors, and tender while still having good texture.

With the main meal concluded, it was again time to sample some super-rare, unique whiskies on their own (same rationale as the apertif).  Sitting in Craftsteak’s locked glass cabinet were two Celtic-looking MacPhail’s decanters, one distilled in 1937, MacPhail’s 50 year 1937 (40% Gordon & MacPhail +/-1987), the other in 1938, MacPhail’s 50 year 1938 (40% Gordon & MacPhail +/-1987) and each 50 years old.  Since MacPhail’s is a bottler and not a distiller, the source of the actual whisky in the bottles will likely always remain a mystery — but as we’ve learned, it’s not where it’s from, it’s how it tastes.  And, wow, were these tasty.  And unique!  Though our guess is that they’re both from the same distillery, the whisky in each was quite different.  We spent a lot of time discussing the two, comparing and contrasting the flavors, and arguing over which was better.  I was the only one at the table who preferred the ’38 to the ’37, but we’re talking about the difference between A and A- at the very worst.

The meal was capped off with Craftsteak’s own version of chocolate lava cake and sticky buns, plus assorted berries (a classic pairing choice).  It’s my feeling that sugary-sweet desserts don’t go well with whisky — the excessive sweetness, which is great on its own, tends to make almost all whisky taste bitter in comparison.  Thus, we went with a separate digestif, followed by sweet dessert. Regarding the desserts themselves, I’m predictable, so I’ll spare you the superlative adjectives.  I want more sticky buns.

Let’s just say that we’re already thinking of planning a return for more decadence…

If you’re thinking of trying something like this yourself, I’d suggest that you take an “experimental” approach. With each course, order smaller pours of two different whiskies.  It’s more fun to see what pairs best, and play around with your own pairings a little.  Or the next time you are in Las Vegas, you can just take our advice, go to Craftsteak, and order the final menu in the box above.  In our opinion, you will not be disappointed.