While pairing food with whisky may not be the most traditional choice, compared to choosing wines that famously complement certain meats and fish, those who know what goes well with whisky can really make the most of the great complexity of flavours this spirit offers. But as there is such a broad spectrum of types and tastes that fall under the term ‘whisky’, what to eat with this spirit can very much depend on the particular tipple in question. Let’s start with some quick whisky taxonomy to make what we’re talking about as clear as possible. To the US and Ireland, ‘whiskey’ is spelt with an ‘e’, but to everyone else it’s just ‘whisky’, and the five main types are Scotch (from Scotland), Irish whiskey, bourbon (from the US), Canadian whisky and Japanese whisky.
Whisky is distilled from grain mash that may be comprised of corn, rye, wheat, oats, or barley in varying proportions. As each grain has a different sugar content, the grains used will determine the sweetness of the whisky. Corn has a higher sugar content, so bourbon, which must be made from at least 51% corn, is generally sweeter compared to scotch, which is usually made from malted barley, and to some degree wheat and rye. These sweeter whiskies naturally suggest a sweeter accompaniment, so the best food with bourbon is often something along the lines of a pecan pie with a Booker’s Bourbon, while fruity and smoky whiskies lend themselves to a lighter cuisine of fish or mild cheeses. So if you’re wondering what to eat with scotch, then a full-flavoured Balvenie could be well matched with smoked salmon.
Other considerations that affect the exact flavours that each whisky presents are the cask the whisky is aged in, the type of oak used, the location used for aging (as the casks absorb some of the surrounding atmosphere), and whether the casks were previously used for aging another alcohol, such as the sherry casks used for aging many whiskies resulting in a sweeter taste. Other flavours that can be noticed in whisky are those of ‘coastal’ or ‘maritime’ whiskies, such as Caol Ila scotch or Mars Japanese whisky, that have been aged in places where the sea air leaves its traces. Whiskies including many types of scotch or particular bourbons, such as Woodford Reserve, are often referred to as ‘peaty’ or ‘smoky’ because during the malting process the barley is dried over smoking peat.
As the lighter, fruitier and more fragrant whiskies such as Glenfiddich, Dalwhinnie or Glenkinchie, are generally best enjoyed with subtler flavours, dishes of smoked fish, seafood, sushi, or goats cheese are often the best ones to go for as neither taste will be eclipsed by the other.
These whiskies may include a Macallan scotch or an Elijah Craig bourbon. The medium intensity of these whiskies means that they can be enjoyed with milder flavours such as those of venison, grilled chicken or lamb stew, as well as with roast potatoes and root vegetables.
Strong or Peaty Whisky
Whiskies that are stronger, more full-bodied or peatier include Islay malt whiskies such as Laphroig, Lagavulin or Talisker, and usually need to be matched with foods that are similar in their rich, full-bodied flavours. The best food to pair with whisky like this are often the rich and fatty dishes that absorb the high alcohol content and complement the strong flavours, such as bacon, roast chicken, gamey stew, or other meats cooked with spices and herbs, or a strong fruitcake will usually hit the spot.
The best whisky to drink with steak may depend on the kind of steak, so a fatty ribeye steak can go well with a smoky Ardbeg Uigeadail, while a leaner fillet steak could be nicely savoured with a bourbon or a Canadian whisky like Crown Royal Reserve, with more balanced flavours.
For the best snacks to eat with a glass of whisky, cheese would certainly be a good starting point. It’s usually best to pair the rich, peaty flavours of an Islay malt, such as Laphroig, with a strong blue cheese like Roquefort, while a sweeter scotch like Glenmorangie with a softer cheese, like brie. Other snacks you can enjoy with whisky are chocolate and nuts. Renowned chocolatiers advocate the pairing of chocolates and whiskies of similar intensity, so a fruity GlenDronach can work well with rich, spicy truffles, while the strong flavours of a peaty Islay malt can be enriched by a dark chocolate. With its notes of sherry, Macallan is often well matched with almonds, and the nutty tones of Tullibardine with hazelnuts.
You don’t only need to be a true Scot to knock back a wee dram with your haggis on Burns Night, the rest of us can learn how to pair food with whisky, and perhaps with a splash of water to lessen the intensity, a fine tipple can certainly enhance the flavours of excellent cuisine.