On initial consideration, pairing sushi with whisky might seem akin to coupling a geisha with a sumo wrestler. Sushi is largely viewed as delicate and subtle, so the natural conclusion is that a powerful drink like whisky would stomp all over it.
Yet for Dave Broom, editor of Whisky Magazine (Japan), the notion that ‘sushi equals light’ is a complete misnomer. ‘Each type of sashimi will have its own subtle flavour and taste, from intense saltiness, to buttery, to earthy depth,’ explains Broom.
Also consider the sweet-and-sour element of the vinegary rice, the malty depth and ‘umami’ (a Japanese ‘fifth taste’, sometimes translated as ‘savoury’) of soy sauce, the salty notes of nori seaweed and earthy heat from wasabi, and sushi becomes a much more complex food package to contend with.
Whisky can stand up to the complexity of Japanese food such as sushi because it is equally complex and has the nuances to combine well with these peripheral elements, which actually serve as the key flavour bridges between the food and the whisky. The salinity of fish and seaweed works particularly with briny and peaty malts, while any savoury maltiness chimes well with miso or soy sauce, for example.
There are also umami and textural qualities at play, and this sensory element is one of the reasons why sushi and whisky works – it really stimulates all our senses. From extensive tastings, Broom has found that fish with a buttery texture (and flavour) goes well with whiskies that have American oak character, such as BenRiach, bringing a new caramel-like sweetness to the pairing. Rigid, meatier fish such as squid and octopus are softened by an oily whisky like Caol Ila, while fattier fishes are great with richer, more sherried whiskies (as long as the dram isn’t too tannic) such as Japan’s own sherry-matured malts from Karuizawa, making the match truly Japanese.
Japan’s whiskies are well respected for their balance and finesse, meaning they can harmonise with a dish yet still provide a steady foundation of flavour. The high quality of Japan’s malts means they are also attracting rave reviews from around the globe, including the coveted title of ‘Best Single Malt’ at this year’s World Whisky Awards. It seems that now is the time for turning Japanese. Kampai!