Detective work: Finding the perfect whisky and cheese pairing

Detective work: Finding the perfect whisky and cheese pairing

WORDS BY JAMES BUNTIN, WHISKY AMBASSADOR

As I emerge from the warm brightness of the London Underground into the cold misty evening air of Marylebone, I begin my short walk down Baker Street. Passing by 221B I find myself reminiscing about the exploits of Sherlock Homes and Dr Watson and how they would also relish the experience that I am about to have!

In my hand is a rather heavy leather case, not unlike the one dear old Dr Watson would have had.  However, mine contains several expressions of single malt whiskies, tasting glasses and water pipettes for two.

You see I’m on my way to one of the best, if not the best, cheese shops in the world - La Fromagerie, Marylebone. I have arranged to meet with my good friend Bruno D’Abo, who is not only the manager of this fine establishment but also a renowned cheese ambassador and expert.

Our mission this evening is to find the perfect match of whisky and cheese, and we don’t care how long it takes. “This is going to be awesome!” Bruno promises as he opens the door and invites me in from the chilling London fog.

Admittedly, when thinking of pairing food with drink, one doesn’t spontaneously think of single malt whisky and fine cheese. They are not traditionally associated with one another, yet when you think about it, they both enjoy a similar rich heritage and tradition. They can both possess similar attributes also, whether it’s distinctly smoky, nutty, spicy or yes, even creamy sweetness.

So off we go. I have the whisky, and Bruno has the keys to the cheese room – a massive glass cold room storing literally hundreds of cheeses from around the world.

As the key turns in the door of the cheese room my excitement builds, then as the door slides open I am suddenly hit with one of the greatest food experiences I have ever had as hundreds of different cheeses combined to create a wave, no strike that, a tsunami of aroma that almost takes my breath away. The first thing that pops in to my mind is, “I love cheese!”

My love of cheese and whisky pairing started quite a few years earlier in Melbourne, Australia. I was the Whisky Ambassador for William Grant & Sons, and my good friend Richard Blanchard and I opened a week-long pop-up bar to celebrate all things craft. The Balvenie, being the most handcrafted whisky, in the world was the obvious choice and we invited craftspeople from around Australia to exhibit and tell their stories over some single malts and cheese boards.

One of these craftsmen was Nick Haddow from Bruny Island Cheese Co. in Tasmania. I had the opportunity to sit down with Nick and try his fantastic selection of cheeses with some of the finest Balvenie whiskies. That was it; I was hooked. Over 2000 tastings later and I am still finding wonderful and surprising matches. (Thanks Nick!)

Back at La Fromagerie, Bruno has selected around twenty cheeses of varying styles, textures and ages, from the soft, mild creaminess of a brie or camembert, to the hard and crumbly texture of a young Cheshire or Caerphilly. The whiskies are a selection from The Balvenie distillery in Dufftown, Scotland.

We begin by trying each of the whiskies at strength so that we can fully understand the profile of each one and its attributes, such as flavour, aroma and texture. Then we move on to the cheese, doing the same thing and taking notes along the way (best done this way when cheese is involved, if you know what I mean…). When we selected a cheese we thought may match with the chosen whisky, we then tried them together.

Now there is a way to do this: you don’t just shove the whisky and cheese into your mouth all at once and hope for the best. There is a slightly more complex, near scientific, approach to matching these to their best. It’s imperative to get a good understanding of both the whisky and cheese separately before you bring them together or ‘introduce them’, as I like to say.

Basically, you want to taste the whisky through the memory of the cheese. First, put a piece of cheese in your mouth and chew it while moving it around your mouth so that the flavour of the cheese and its texture coat your palette. A soon as that’s done, try a sip of the whisky at bottle strength.

You may find that as good as that experience was the whisky, being high in alcohol, stripped the flavour of the cheese and cleansed your palate far too quickly, not allowing you time to see the connections between their flavours and textures or mouthfeel.

This is because alcohol cleanses…Think of how mouthwash works. We don’t want that right now!

So, have another go. This time, add two drops of room temperature water to the whisky and mix well by swirling the glass slightly tilted. Using a pipette is best, as this allows you to be more accurate. You won’t believe how just one drop of water will change the connection between the cheese and the whisky. Try a piece of the same cheese again, coating your mouth with it, and then try sipping the whisky again through the memory of the cheese.

Hopefully you will see the difference as the flavour and texture of both the whisky and cheese start to come together. If you get a perfect match, you will know it, believe me. If not, go up in increments of one drop of water at a time until you do.

Move on to the next whisky and cheese selection and remember, just like creating the uniqueness of whisky and cheese, this is not an exact science, just good fun!

After a few memorable hours these are the matches we settled on:

  • Balvenie 12 DoubleWood and Ticklemore from Totnes in Devon, England.

This cheese is a semi-soft natural grey/white moulded, wrinkled crust made from unpasteurised goats milk using vegetable rennet.

  • Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 and Coolea from Macroom, County Cork, Ireland.

Made with cow’s milk from the Meuse Rhine Issel herd, a well-known breed from Germany and Holland, this is a traditional rennet Gouda style cheese.

  • Balvenie 17 DoubleWood and Idiazabal from Navarre, Spain.

Ewes milk cheese from the Latxa breed indigenous to the mountain area around Navarre. Slightly smoky with intense flavours and aromas.

  • Balvenie 21 PortWood and Shropshire Blue from Nottingham, England

Bold blue cheese, similar in style to Stilton but with an incredible butter-like texture.

Warning: You could be here all night, especially if you are sharing the experience with friends who also bring their favourite whiskies and cheese.

It’s elementary, my dear reader.

Remember to eat cheese and drink whisky responsibly.

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