My forthcoming book–The Deep Tasting Guide To Pairing Chocolate and Spirits (Ritual Communications, Spring/Summer 2017) is about savoring, not overindulging in chocolate, and not drinking to the point of intoxication. I will present a way of thinking about matching chocolate with Scotch whisky and other whiskeys, including American bourbon, rye, and craft whiskeys. While I promise to provide many superb matches of fine chocolates and whiskies, or whiskeys, my ultimate goal is to give you the tools to go about discovering good matches for yourself...without going broke in the process. As in the first Deep Tasting Guide™ (Deep Tasting: A Chocolate Lover's Guide to Meditation), the object is to empower you in fine-tuning your ability to perceive and appreciate flavor. In a moment, I'll discuss how to get started finding whiskies, or whiskeys, that may appeal to you. But first, let me define some terms.
You may have noticed that I spell "whisky" and "whiskey" two different ways. In Scotland and Canada, "whisky" is the preferred spelling. You may find a preference for that same orthography in Japan and other nations, for historical reasons. In the United States and Ireland "whiskey" has been the customary spelling (with some exceptions). The term "scotch" can only be used legally to describe whisky made in Scotland. The term "bourbon" can only be used legally to describe a whiskey that is made in the United States; it must be at least 51% corn-based and aged in new, charred, oak barrels. If the label says "Kentucky Straight," that means it must be entirely made in Kentucky. A "Tennessee Straight" whiskey means it was made entirely in Tennessee and put through a unique charcoal-filtered process. The term "rye" is not restricted to country of origin, but is assumed to be at least 51% rye-based. The term "expression" is applied to the various products made by the same label; for example, Macallan 12 year, Macallan 18 year, or Jura Superstition, Jura Brooklyn, Johnny Walker Black, Johnny Walker Blue. A whisky is "expressed" through all the complex ways it is crafted, including its ingredients, strength, and the critical aging and finishing processes. Once the whiskey or whisky has been distilled, it must be aged (unless marketed as legal "moonshine" or "white dog.") Aging, typically, takes place for a minimally required number of years, or longer, in American or European or Japanese oak, American ex-bourbon barrels or sherry, rum or cognac casks, or any combination of casks. "Finishing" is a short-term process, often six months, in a cask with residual fortified wine, or other flavorings remaining in the emptied casks.
I hinted that whisky can be expensive. For example, if you look at a shelf of fine scotch at a good liquor store, you may find items produced by the same distiller ranging from approximately $60 dollars to, perhaps, $1200 or much more per bottle. We can exclude, for our purposes, the extremely rare, auction-worthy expressions that have gone for tens of thousands, and occasionally into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It is worth noting that scotch is appreciating faster than investment-quality wine.) But even the popular-selling, non-investment varieties of scotch can be so theft-worthy that many stores keep the bottles behind locked glass panels. This is true whether we are talking about single malts or blended scotch. And limited or rare editions push up the price still more. In terms of American whiskey, bourbon and rye may start as low as $20, but the higher-end products (longer-aged, "finished," and the craft whiskeys) can go for significantly more. Although they are rapidly appreciating in price, seldom, with rare exceptions, are they as expensive as scotch or Japanese whisky. If you were to go into a liquor store and blindly select a whisk(e)y, only to go home and discover that you didn't like it, that would be a waste of your hard-earned money. So what's a sensible way to go about this process?
If you are not an experienced whiskey-drinker (and I wasn't, either!) you will need a roadmap to navigate the thousands of whisk(e)ys in the marketplace today. When I first thought about my new book, I wanted to write about chocolate and "spirits," including rum, which is so compatible with chocolate, and other spirits. But I soon realized that topic is so vast that I had to limit the scope of this second book in the Deep Tasting Guide™ series to just scotch, whisky, whiskey, bourbon, and rye. Then, too, there are thousands of chocolates out there. How do you discover ones that are pleasing to you? How do you find spirits-compatible chocolate? It involves a similar process through understanding and being able to fully experience flavor. (You may find it helpful to read the first book in the Deep Tasting Guide ™ series: Deep Tasting: A Chocolate Lover's Guide to Meditation.) But for now, let's focus on how to begin searching for broad types or "styles" of whisk(e)ys that you may prefer, ones you may wish to enjoy by themselves or match to chocolates later on. And how can you research spirits without needing to take out a second mortgage?
Here's a simple and economical way to begin. Start with "airplane" cart- sized, 50ml bottles. They can be found in most liquor stores. These are usually priced under $6. plus tax. (The taxes on alcohol purchases always give me sticker-shock!) Or you can order a "neat" drink (straight up, no ice) at a good local bar, although ordering a drink in a bar will cost you significantly more. While you will find a greater range of labels and expressions in an upscale bar, it's easier to take a 50ml bottle home, unless you're like me and have the audacity to carry a flask into the bar, take a few sips of a fine whisky, and pour the rest into the flask as take-out. But back to the 50ml bottles. You can find a surprising variety types of scotch and whiskey of styles in those tiny bottles, if you're willing to search for them
Because blended scotch is about 90% of the market, you will find those mostly readily, rather than single malts. (Although, I have seen some Macallan 12 year recently.) However, blended scotches can be sufficient to give you a hint in the right direction of your taste inclination. Let me say one thing before we go any further: There's no reason to be a single malt scotch snob.What's the difference between a single malt and a blended scotch anyway? A single malt means it is produced by single distillery. The bottled result may come from as little as one single cask and vintage or be "married"(notice, I don't use the word "blended" here to avoid confusion) from barrels of whisky of various ages. The key point is the bottled whisky all comes from the same distiller. A blended scotch, however, means that whiskies may come from several distilleries, be blended, then bottled by the non-distilling company whose name is on the label. Great writers on scotch advise us to respect blends. Master blenders are great artists that create complex and subtle whiskies with harmony and balance, aroma and flavor notes, and textures that can stand up well in a variety of uses, including in cocktails. In fact, blends are becoming trendy again as craft brands. The company Compass Box produces pricey, boutique blends. But let's discuss how you can use the more widely available, popular blends to find your whisky style.
I'm going to paint with broad strokes here, because in the last twenty years, aging and finishing has become increasingly complicated. But generally, whether single malts or blends, scotches exhibit aroma and flavor profiles along a continuum, from peaty or smokey to more sherried or fruity. Single malts from the islands off the coast of Scotland; for example, Lagavulan from Islay, tend to be peaty or smokey and pick up notes from the sea, while Speyside or Highland single malts, such as Macallan, tend to reflect their aging in sherry or other types of used fortified wine casks. Blended scotch, from Johnny Walker Black Label to Chivas Regal 12 year, whose master blenders source from dozens of distillieries, also produce scotches on a continuum of smokey to sherried. So if you prefer a Johnny Walker Black Label over a Chivas Regal 12 year, you might prefer a peated whisky. Pick up group of these 50ml bottles of blended scotch, go to the company website or to review sites for more information, and begin to define what your whisky preferences might be. If you prefer the Johnny Walker Black label, then go to your local bar or pub and try various peated whiskies. Similarly, if you prefer the more predominant sherry notes of Chivas, you can try scotches aged in sherry casks.
Brand-name bourbon is also easy to obtain in 50ml bottles. Bourbon tends to be sweet due to corn being the dominant ingredient, with vanilla and other notes from those charred American oak barrels. While a bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, any number of grain combinations can make up the remaining 49%. Some, using wheat may be creamier or smoother (for example: Maker's Mark); others, with higher percentages of rye, may be more spicy. Preferring a spicier bourbon may lead you to experiment with rye whiskeys too. Due to the craft distilling movement, bourbons and ryes are becoming sophisticated and more nuanced. Some are now being finished in sherry and other type casks. In fact, there's an ironic, trans-Atlantic twist going on, because distillers of Scotland and Ireland have been using American ex-bourbon barrels for aging for several generations now.
The first step, then, is to discover what you like. You may find that what you favor will change over time... or not. Scotch or other whisky. Irish or North American. Some people just like bourbon. Some, rye. There's no right or wrong here. Respect your preferences. Learn to be fully present with your whisk(e)y experiences. Drink moderately and responsibly. Savor... and enjoy!
Coming soon!: To Pair or Not to Pair, Part Three