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    Scotch Steps Forward at the Table

    by Jim Clarke
    January 2005

    Single malt Scotch: a delight usually refrained from until after dinner. Most popular pairing: the cigar. But pairing Scotch with food? General opinion has always held that it’s too strong, in flavor and in alcohol. Even in Scotland there isn’t much of a tradition of drinking a dram with dinner. But if you’re a Scotch fan, why reserve your favorite whiskey for the end of the meal when you could drink it the whole evening?

    I took two iconic distilleries to the table with me and drummed up a meal's worth of recipes for each of them: soup, appetizer, fish, meat, and dessert. Macallan is a classic Speyside Scotch–it’s big and rich, but remains elegant despite its weight: the full Scottish-ness of a bagpipe marching band. For contrast I also picked out an island malt. I turned not to Islay, home of some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries, but to Orkney, that small cluster of islands at the very north of Scotland. Less than a handful of distilleries still operate there, but Highland Park continues to make wonderful Scotch with a toned-down peaty quality and floral, heathery notes that make it particularly food-friendly.

    If you don’t want–or can’t afford–to serve a vertical of Macallan or Highland Park with your Scotch dinner, don’t sweat it too much. The recipes below were chosen to match the house style of the distilleries, not individual bottlings. So while I do recommend specific ages of Scotch for each recipe, don’t be afraid to buy a single bottle of your favorite and enjoy it throughout the course of your meal. I recommend serving your single malt neat, with the lightest splash of spring water–toning down the alcohol this way allows the Scotch’s aromatic complexities to shine through and makes it easier to achieve a food-Scotch balance.

    Soup

    Scotch and a cappucino might come together at the end of a meal, so why not reverse things by serving Michelle Bernstein’s Lobster Cappucino with a Macallan as your first course. Macallan’s flagship line is aged exclusively in used Sherry casks–the flavors this imparts will blend well with the Sherry and Sherry vinegar in the recipe. The lobster and cream are rich enough to balance the Scotch more generally. The Sherry connection becomes most explicit with the Macallan 25 Years Old.

    Creamy, mature cheeses go well with Island malts. Try Rozanne Gold’s Brie and Pear Soup with a Highland Park–the 12 Years Old is optimal. The Scotch’s touches of smoke and peat round out the savory notes of the Brie while heather and honey emphasize the sweetness of the pear. The complexity of the combination is startling given the simplicity of the dish.

    Appetizer

    Whiskey is very popular in Japan, and, lacking any contrary tradition, they have had no reservations about serving it with their native cuisine. The resulting discovery: sushi and whiskey get along like a house on fire. To complicate things further, add a Scandinavian element and serve Marcus Samuelsson’s Herring Sushi Roll with Black Mustard together with a Highland Park, preferably the 12 Years Old again. The Scotch’s sweetness will temper the wasabi and mustard while the smokiness adds depth to the herring itself.

    For Macallan, Koji Terrano’s Tuna Tartare makes a great variation on the whiskey and raw fish theme. It’s a head-to-head encounter between two rich products. What ties the two together is the nutty notes in the Scotch–the 18 Years Old may be the best match in this respect – and the sesame seeds, soy sauce, and honey.

    With mixed sushi I generally prefer blended whiskies, whether Scotch, Irish, Canadian, or American; while each has its own character, they’re generally more versatile in this respect. For single malts, sushi pairings are often all-or-nothing affairs, so half of a mixed sushi plate taste great and the other half suffers.

    Fish

    Speyside takes its name from the Spey River, Scotland’s second longest and fastest flowing river–it happens to be a great place for salmon as well. Borrow a rule from wine: serve a whiskey with food native to the region where it is made. Alfred Portale’s recipe for Salmon with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Brussel Sprout Leaves, and Fingerling Potatoes works well with the Macallan, particularly the 25 Years Old. Once again, a rich fish meets a rich Scotch. In addition, smoky flavors in the Scotch add another dimension to the salmon itself, while the darker flavors in the Scotch emphasize the earthiness of the aromatic mushrooms and the brussel sprouts.

    For Highland Park, I like a steaky fish like mahi mahi or swordfish. Island malts get along well with Indian dishes as long as the heat isn’t through the roof–Raji Jallepalli’s Swordfish Rubbed with Tamarind-Ginger Chutney makes a great example of this pairing–try the 18 Years Old. The heather of the Scotch lightens the dish: smoke, honey, and peat counterpoint the chutney. Ginger, whether in sweet or savory dishes, is great with many younger Island malts.

    Meat

    Red meats–especially the gamey ones–make excellent partners with Scotch. Put Joachim Splichal’s Venison Medallions with Persimmons and Celery Root Mousse with Black Pepper Sauce on the table with a glass of Highland Park. The smoky flavors round out the game, and the Scotch’s malt complements the celery root. At the same time the fruity persimmons lighten the Scotch by bringing out the heather and floral aromas. The 12 Years Old will lighten the dish as a whole, whereas the 18 Years Old makes for a more of a cool weather combination.

    Along with meat, Speyside and Highland malts often pair well with chocolate. Put this to good use with Guy Martin’s recipe for Lamb Chops with Coffee-Chocolate Sauce and Garlic Purée with Aromatic Vegetables. The dark, rich espresso and chocolate flavors will match with similar flavors in the Scotch, just as the blueberry preserves bring some life to the Scotch’s dried fruit flavors. The Macallan Cask Strength makes the best pairing in these regards. The Scotch, in turn, also has some spice to offer up alongside the aromatic accompaniments in the dish.

    Be careful putting garlic and Scotch together, they tend to fight each other. It only works here because the powerful flavors of coffee, chocolate, and lamb keep the garlic in check.

    Dessert

    Continue with the Macallan Cask Strength whiskey-and-chocolate combination and finish your meal with Jan Purdy’s Chocolate Brownie and Brioche Bread Pudding. But with this pairing the hazelnut streusel, together with vanilla and caramel sauces, emphasize a different side of the Scotch, pulling forth latent Sherry, nutmeg, and spice aromas.

    As I touched on during the fish course, Highland Park would go well with ginger-based sweets–I remember escaping the rain in Glasgow to enjoy a warming snack of Highland Park 12 Years Old with a packet of Walkers Stem Ginger Shortbread cookies. But Highland Park also goes well with citrus fruits–Joy Jessup’s White Chocolate Terrine with Confetti of Citrus on Ruby Red Grapefruit Sauce pairs well on several points. The 25 Years Old in particular creates a big orchestral chord of flavors: floating citrus notes on top, the Scotch’s rich fudge and honey in the bass, and the white chocolate mousse fleshing out the middle register and binding it all together. There’s a touch of gin in the grapefruit sauce–it’s a subtle difference, but I prefer one with a less herbal profile with this pairing–think Bombay Sapphire or Damrak.

    Post-Dessert

    More Scotch, of course.