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Forget the traditional Port and Stilton combo. Stop searching for that one red wine to match an entire cheeseboard. Instead, end your meal on a magical note by pairing fine single malts with distinctive cheeses. Jon Allen reports
Your starter went down a treat. That main course was a triumph. The glaze has been practically scraped off the dessert plates. It’s no wonder the guests don’t want to leave the table. ‘Cheese?’ you offer. Out comes a board with a nice selection and, in the blink of an eye, another bottle of red is opened.
Successfully pairing one wine with one cheese is difficult, let alone a selection as varied as chèvre and Stinking Bishop, where not only the wine but the cheeses can clash. So, forget the cheeseboard and choose just one lovely cheese. And instead of a still wine, or even a Port – the traditional partner to the single-cheese course of Stilton at Christmas – awaken your senses and pair it with a single malt.
Don’t fret if a guest says they don’t drink whisky, they probably aren’t familiar with fine single malts. But trying a few drams with cheese is the best kind of introduction.
Remember to buy a cheese in peak condition and a carefully selected malt to go with it. If your guests are interested, ask them to bring a specific bottle and cheese, too. Three pairings would be ideal.
Start with the mildest combination first: Lowlands, Speysiders and lighter Highland whiskies with mild cheeses before the pungent cheese and anything peaty from the islands or coastline.
Before adding water, take a sip of your dram and let it coat your tastebuds and inside of your mouth. Swallow and savour the finish. Then pop in a mouthful of cheese, chew and taste. Your perceived flavour of the cheese will be affected by what the spirit has done to your sense of taste. Then take another sip of the malt. It’s at this stage that you’ll discover whether you have a magical combination. If you have, a whole new taste will have been created. Discuss among yourselves whether it worked, or didn’t, and why.
We tried six cheeses, pairing them with what turned out to be seven malts. The initial combinations were based on quite a few years’ of experimentation.
The 10 Year Old from this Lowland distillery is brilliant with Parmesan. This new expression, with two extra years in US oak, beefs up its grassy sweetness. And it also works with the cheese, highlighting its nuttiness. The tasters mention tropical fruit, especially pineapple. It’s a great start – anyone trying this pair would understand why whisky and cheese matching can be so satisfying. And Glenkinchie is also highly accessible; the perfect introductory malt for non-believers.
There was an uncertainty in the room about this. Perhaps we were thinking supermarket chunks of feta, but this version was barrel-aged and in top condition. Soon the words ‘wow factor’ were being bandied about. The phenolic, peaty, smoky Islay malt was sensational with the Greek cheese. ‘It harmonises,’ said Joshi. ‘You don’t forget the cheese.’ Barstow felt the combination brought out the brineyness of the whisky – like ‘a salty martini’. Grimond simply added: ‘Excellent. Both are improved by getting together.’ Perfect harmony!
The whisky is a wonderful version from Skye’s only distillery, sitting comfortably between the distinctive 10 Year Old and the sublime 25 Year Old. Sadly there was a problem with the cheese. Not with the quality – the Reade family at Sgriob-ruadh Farm near Tobermory are Somerset exiles who know their stuff – but this chunk had been let down by the way it had been kept. The Talisker, however, got a thumbs-up all round. Try it with Montgomery’s or Keen’s Cheddar, or a well-kept Mull. (Getting to know a good cheesemonger is vital for these kinds of evenings. Or buy by mail order from a trustworthy cheese specialist such as Neal’s Yard Dairy.)
(Note: chill the whisky in the freezer to make it more viscous)
Tymsboro, from Sleight Farm at Timsbury near Bath, has a distinctive flat-topped pyramid shape and an ash covering. It’s salty and meltingly soft – ‘wonderful’ was the panel’s consensus. But paired with the Dalwhinnie, Joshi sensed camphor. ‘A new roll of bin liners,’ suggested Barstow. Not pleasant. We also tried it with an unchilled Dalwhinnie, which released the malt’s characteristic heather honey notes. The combination was more harmonious. Grimond said a sweeter cheese may also have helped.
The whisky tasted of fennel seed and cloves; Joshi confirmed a spicy sting. The lingering taste was long and complicated. Marcin started getting fruit… where on earth was the brininess typically associated with Clynelish, a Highland whisky from the Sutherland coast? We asked to see the bottle and discovered it wasn’t the 14 Year Old as we thought, but the Clynelish Distillers Edition, given a secondary finish in a cask conditioned with Oloroso sherry. The artisinal brie was well aged and well kept, and submitted to the will of the spirit. ‘Unripe fruit,’ said Grimond of the pairing. ‘Apple seeds,’ said Joshi. We tried reducing the whisky’s strength from 46% – some preferred it, some didn’t. (Adding water should be done in drops, and only after you have tried it at bottle strength.) At the end of the tasting, we tried the cheese with the 14 Year Old. It worked better.
This Roquefort-style cheese was set to make a wonderful finale to our tasting. Lagavulin and Roquefort is a genuine match and Humphrey Errington’s Lanark Blue – often dubbed Scotland’s Roquefort – works beautifully too, as does his Dunsyre Blue. Sadly, this cheese was another victim of dodgy affinage. So, when paired with the whisky, the effect was of artificial cream and fruit flavouring. Joshi got it in one: Tutti Frutti sweets. Grimond thought the combination worked if you only ate the blue veins in the cheese. It was a disappointing finish, but don’t let this put you off bringing out a Lagavulin with the Colston Bassett Stilton this Christmas – generally it’s a truly magical combination!
Our unanimous winner was the Caol Ila 18 Year Old with barrel-aged feta, but we then mixed and matched other combinations based on what we’d tasted so far – an ideal experiment if you have several different whiskies and cheeses. From this, a clear second favourite emerged: Clynelish Distillers Edition with Tymsboro goat’s cheese.
But this is just one tasting, and there are thousands of possible whisky and cheese pairings out there. Experiment for yourself and visit www.malts.com for advice.
Build up your confidence and start asking for whiskies to go with cheeses in restaurants. That’s when the real fun starts!