Cigar Aficionado

Pairing Scotch With Dinner

A seven-course meal is elegant. A different wine with every course would be a luxury. But pairing each dish with a single-malt Scotch, well that’s downright decadent.

Maybe so, but that was the plan Thursday night when I and about a dozen others were hosted by Evan Cattanach, master distiller emeritus of the Classic Malts Selection, at the New York Palace Hotel. Instead of matching wines with the meal, Evan took it upon himself to pair each exquisite course with a different new release from the whisky collection.

And I have to say that what may sound like a daunting night of drinking was actually an unqualified culinary success.

Pairing spirits with food is not a new concept. I’ve experienced it done quite well on a few occasions (particularly once at a lavish lunch thrown by Remy Martin with its range of excellent Cognacs and at meals planned by Chef Jim Gerhardt, of Louisville’s Limestone Restaurant, who has long championed Kentucky cuisine by pairing its produce, fish and game with local Bourbon). Moreover, Evan remembers that he would have seen whisky, not wine, as a matter course at his father’s table when he grew up in Scotland. He laid part of that to the shortage of wine during the Second World War when he was a lad.

Formerly a distillery manager and now a whisky ambassador, Evan knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the Classic Malts Selection—he managed four of the distilleries that make up the collection as part of his 33-year hands-on career in whisky-making and has been representing all of the whiskeys for many years.

We met in the Chairman’s Office at the New York Palace, a wood-appointed room, lined with bookcases and centered with a huge banquet table, all of which made it perfect for this event. We were welcomed with hors d’oeuvres and the light whisky of Dalwhinnie, the winter-snow-buffeted distillery of the Highlands that, at 1,073 feet, is the greatest elevation at which the Scots make whisky.

Once at our seats, we were treated to a butternut squash puree with curried apples that was mated with Brora 25-year-old. Brora is a long shuttered distillery on Scotland’s east coast from which Classic Malts is releasing some of its vanishing supply. Among the country’s older distilleries, it mainly produced malt for blending and was a victim of the over-production of whisky that occurred in the 1980s. I’d never had it and a whisky of that age seemed at first a poor choice for such an early course, but I was dead wrong. The soup laid down a cream structure for the spiciness of the whisky to explode on…and we were off.

The salad (baby lettuce with Valencia oranges, toasted pine nuts, dried cranberries and sweet potato threads) arrived with a dram of Oban 18-year-old numbered 1,430. Evan noted that was out of 1,487 bottles “so we haven’t far to go until we get to the end of it.” The toffee notes of the whisky perfectly complemented the sweetish salad, much in the same way that this west coast distillery marries the salty, medicinal taste of the sea with its sweet water source that comes from 15 miles inland. Evan revealed a little secret as well—we were having a “double whammy of Oban” as the vinaigrette was made with the standard 14-year-old Oban.

The seafood course, truffle-crusted scallops served with a Cabernet reduction, was served logically enough with a whisky from Islay, the west coast island home to several distilleries that is known for being buffeted with sea spray. And, oh what a whisky it was: Port Ellen 29-year-old. Port Ellen is also silent, but it continues to do floor malting of barley with heavy peat to serve a number of other stills. You may know Port Ellen as Johnnie Walker (owned by Diageo, which owns the Classic Malts Selection) recently put out the Blue Label King George V edition, using a component of that malt to create an outstanding blend.

The red-meat portion of the evening came in two stages: game and farm meat. The first was venison with berry sauce paired with Talisker The Distillers Edition. It’s a whisky with a Sherry finish (meaning it was transferred from the traditional Bourbon barrels at the end of aging process into Olorosso Sherry casks) and that was what had prompted Evan to use it. As he said, the Sherry finish softens the peat in the whisky, turning it sweet “and you need the sweet with game.”

Evan introduced a course of sirloin by saying, “No whisky dinner would be right without beef on the menu.” This beef was certainly specially smoked for the evening’s event and served with wild mushroom bread pudding and a Talisker whisky sauce. Evan paired Talisker 175th Anniversary Edition, which was an inspired choice. The Anniversary Edition is aged strictly in Bourbon barrels and utilizes a selection of malts aged from 10 to 30 years. Not only peaty and peppery, but candied and savory, it mirrored most of the flavors in the smoked meat.

Technically, there were two desserts as an almond plum tart was served alongside a milk chocolate caramel mousse and a raspberry coulis. It came with Oban The Distillers Edition, which Evan described as a “dessert whisky, owing to its Sherry finish.” I thought it was fine with the tart, but it clashed with the mousse and coulis. But that’s not much of knock as everything else paired so beautifully and Evan was essentially trying to match two desserts with one whisky. Besides, the exception proves the rule: for whiskeys to pair well with certain, there must be cases in which they don’t pair well.

The evening ended with a course of goat cheese mousse and dried fig compote matched with what Evan called “one of the love’s of my life,” Lagavulin The Distiller’s Edition. Lagavulin is famously full of peat and iodine, and this edition is finished in Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks that softens those qualities just enough to make it, as Evan noted, “one of the great cheese whiskeys.”

It was also a great way to end a great evening. It would have been even better had we been able to add what I think is the best pairing for a whisky: a cigar.

"Hmmmm, perhaps we need to do a rum version of this." —October 25, 2008 18:14 PM