The following originally appeared on Food Digital on January 12, 2012:
Pairing wine with food is a commonplace. Pairing whisky with food is a little more exciting. Done well, it can elevate an everyday foodstuff to new, unforeseen heights, and give one a new perspective on a favorite whisky. And so it was that I found myself in Moscow, Idaho last Friday evening emceeing a whisky dinner to raise funds for the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation.
The host of the dinner, Jim Heidelberger, invites fourteen of his closest whisky friends to partake in this now annual whisky dinner. He supplies the whisky and the hors d’oeuvres while one guest brings an appetizer, another the main, and yet another the dessert. There’s a strong community feeling at these dinners and strangers (if there is such a thing in Moscow) quickly become friends.
Here are some highlights of the evening (from six courses enjoyed with seven whiskies):
I paired a wonderfully strong, blue veined Stilton with an equally powerful Caol Ila bottling from 2007 that’s only available at the distillery on Islay. This was pungency squared! The cask strength Caol Ila and all its chipotle smoke brought out the rich creaminess of the cheese, while the Stilton’s blue mold brought out the earthiness of the Caol Ila. Each of them brought something unique to the pairing and, like a good marriage, elevated the partnership.
While I was a little worried I might have blown out everyone’s tastebuds after such a monstrous opening my concerns were quickly assuaged once the appetizer was served. Lovina Roselle prepared a polenta cracker on which rested Gouda, caramelized onions and roasted pears, all drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I paired this with Talisker Distiller’s Edition, a ten year old Talisker finished in Amoroso sherry butts. The onions, pears, and sherry component married beautifully creating a depth of flavor that was sublime. The peppery Talisker and the creamy Gouda complimented one another perfectly. For some in attendance, this was the pairing of the night.
The main course was a lamb biryani that the chef, Sandra (Sandy) Russell, learned to make in India. I paired it with GlenDronach 12 year old hoping that the spices in each would dance in an embrace rather than fight mercilessly. All reports suggest that the cloves in each provided the dancing beat. I took care to avoid pairing a high alcohol dram with a potentially spicy main course. At that point the alcohol overwhelms the palate and one would be better off drinking milk rather than whisky!
One of our two desserts was a white chocolate cheesecake prepared by Cindee Carlson. Upon hearing white chocolate my mind immediately went to Ardbeg Uigeadail: a high octane, sweet, peaty treat from the Islay distillery. As I’d hoped, the Ardbeg cut right through the heavy, rich cheesecake while leaving a sweet, pleasantly smoky finish on the palate – another crowd pleaser that really wowed some of the guests.
Sincere thanks to Jim for flying me in to emcee and to the guests who’s good humor and willingness to experiment made for a memorable beginning to 2012.