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Things That Make You Go Hmmm:

A Spirits Tasting Menu from The Brandy Library

by Erin Hollingsworth
June 2007

Words like inspired, interesting, and harmonious are common ones used to describe food and wine pairings. Phrases like tripped out, Oh my God – what the hell is that?, and It burns, but I like it are more apropos of the boozy pairings The Brandy Library's spirits sommelier Ethan Kelley imagines.

A good pairing works; a great one elevates the food and beverage, each to a higher place, greater than the sum of its parts. While Chardonnay and lobster work, lobster and mezcal combine to form an almost ineffably funky mouthful of flavor, texture and contrasting temperature. In addition to indulging his customers’ often expensive amber-hughed spirits proclivities, Kelley is an unabashed evangelist and enthusiast for the highly esoteric and unusual — he loves mezcal. To pair with a Mezcal and Lemon Ceviche Lobster Roll, Kelley chooses a chilled joven mezcal: clean, smoky and oh–so–, well, weird. It’s weird because it’s unfamiliar; it doesn’t fit into our well-known liquor schemas. It’s smoky like Scotch, with a depth of flavor like good tequila and a refreshing lightness more often attributed to beer. It functions as a quirky aperitif — a more exciting glass of bubbly, sans bubbles.

One of Kelley’s consistent successes is pairing the simple with the complex, the expected with the unexpected, the pedestrian with the truly special. Filet mignon: it is what it is – very tender, pretty pricey and lacking in the highly-marbleized composition that is the hallmark of a great cut of steak. But marinated in bourbon, served with a bourbon mushroom cream sauce, then paired with single barrel bourbon, you forgive the cut for its lack of fat and praise its alcoholic fortification. The filet is the canvas to bourbon’s paint. The Four Roses Single Barrel quaffed here is aged 8-10 years in new American white oak. Its high-ish alcohol content (100 proof) accentuates the floral flavors and aromas of the whiskey while cutting the fruity body. The result is a balanced and memorable bourbon whose light, floral and sweet character waltz atop the earthy, tender filet.

If bourbon waltzes on filet, and it does, Kelley’s foie gras and Cognac can be thought of as an ice skating pairs team, the Cognac (Will Ferrell) lofting the decadent terrine (that guy from Napoleon Dynamite) up high, and having a little fun with it. Sommeliers often pair Sauternes with foie gras, which works in an obvious sort of way (sweet viscosity with fatty game), and those that know often pair Armagnac with foie gras, following the if it grows together it goes together credo. Kelley’s choice of a 25-year-old Cognac with notes of rancio is the perfect companion to The Brandy Library’s Cognac-Cured Foie Gras Terrine with Pear and Shallot Relish. The Cognac’s buttery aspects mimic those in the foie gras, each aggrandizing this buttery effect in the other. Meanwhile, its slight notes of cocoa and mushroom add depth to the foie; the cocoa flavors combine especially nicely with the baked pear. Finally it is the fact that this Cognac is so unbelievably complex and smooth with a notable lingering finish that makes the match so memorable.

Equally memorable is the marriage of smoked salmon and single malt Islay Scotch. A classic spread of lox, red onion, caper and crème fraîche meet an all-day chilled Scotch that tastes of the sea: brine, salt, iodine. The effect is to almost undo some of the salmon’s smoking, bringing it a little bit back to the water. But, the lox has, of course, already been smoked. So, in essence, the salmon fortifies this salty Scotch with the smoke so often attributed to other Scotches. Finally, the pairing plays with both salmon’s and Scotch’s flexibility in taking on these flavors of smoke and salt, here allowing them to simultaneously tame and unleash each other.

Kelley’s fifth course is where the fourth course goes to die. Salty and smoky become sweet and sweet; but, this isn’t a bad thing. Éclairs are generously glazed with dulce de leche and served with sweetened condensed milk for dipping. The palette is cleansed with a sip of this pure sugar cane rum, which has a clean, fresh mouth feel and creamy, sweet taste. The two become a kind-of viscous orange-honey essence in your mouth, and you feel ok. Kelley suggests, “If you want to find a flavor in rum, you can.” He loves good rum and éclairs do too, figuratively speaking.

And the culinary world should love and welcome the great possibilities of spirit pairings programs, not as replacements for, but as additions to wine programs. As Kelley says, “Spirits are digestifs. Drinking them with food makes you digest better — it makes you feel good”. The great thing about Ethan Kelley’s pairings is the spirits are spectacular in their own right and they work with the food without trying to. With the lobster, the mezcal says, Here I am. Take it or leave it. The bourbon slaps the filet around a little saying, I came to play. The Cognac laughs at foie gras’ seriousness, telling it to Lighten up. The Scotch tells the lox to chill out, enjoy the moment, quit trying so hard. And the rum says to the éclairs, It takes two to tango, man. Kelley’s spirits have an irreverent yet complementary relationship to the food they accompany — they make both better. But, this being Father’s Day and all, don’t let a lack of foie gras lobes keep you from treating Dad (or yourself) to any of these unafraid bottles – they pair well with cigars or with nothing at all.

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