How to pair whisky with holiday meals like a pro

Most people start with entry level blended brands mixed with soda, and then move on to mixing with water or on ice. PHOTO | FILE
Most people start with entry level blended brands mixed with soda, and then move on to mixing with water or on ice. PHOTO | FILE 

BD Life reporter talks to three experts on understanding whisky, most impressive.

NELSON ASEKA, Prestige/luxury brands, PR/brand education manager at Pernod Ricard

How many whiskies have you tasted so far?

I have lost count, they are so many. I have done over 300.

What made you pick whisky as a choice drink?

Initially, I loved beer until I got some side effects including bloating which was uncomfortable so I decided to find something that sits better with me and that’s how I found whisky.

What is the difference between a Scotch whisky and an Irish whisky?

The main difference is the country of origin. No whisky can be a Scotch whisky unless it’s from Scotland and no whisky can be Irish unless it is from Ireland. Scotch whiskies must be matured for a minimum three years, same to Irish whiskies but American whiskeys can even start from two months.

What is the maximum you can mature a whisky?

The maximum that you can mature a whisky is 60 years, after that it becomes something else. It loses the taste elements.

Are those the only whiskies available?

There are three main types in the world. Scotch, Irish and American. But we have Japanese, Australian and even now South African whiskies which are a smaller category.

What is the base crop for whisky?

Whiskey is from barley and (or) corn. Irish and Scotch they use barley, American use corn.

How do I know what whisky pairs well with my food?

The fruitier the whisky, the better it is for a starter, like Glenlivet 12 or Glenlivet Founders Reserve or Chivas 25 would be perfect for this course.

Heavy bodied whisky for main courses and for meats go the likes of Glenlivet 15 or Chivas 12. The sweet, like those with hints of toffee would be good for dessert. Glenlivet 18 for dark chocolate desserts or a Chivas 18.

What is a good whisky?

Good whisky is dependent on your palate. There are some who love it smoky, sweet or full-bodied. There is no bad whisky, it is just what your preference or taste is.

How should I take my whisky?

The best way if you want to know its taste elements and what it is made of is with a dash of water, which opens up the whisky’s different flavour elements.

You can also take it neat if you just want the kick and are not really into tasting the different notes.

You can also as well have it with a soda or in a cocktail. Whisky is best taken with friends, you can take it how you want, it is the company that is important.

Top or most interesting whisky you have tried..

My best whisky is the Aberlour 18. The body, the nose, the taste and the finish, it really appeals to me. The ageing comes through and from the taste you can feel the wood, the flavour has a lot of chocolaty creamy flavours and a pleasant after taste.

Where does whisky get its colour and flavour from?

Colour basically comes from the wood because the barrels are usually used to mature other spirits or wines before. For example, our barrels have been used to mature port which is basically wine or American whiskey.

For some of the whisky barrels, you have to flavour the inside of the barrel to get the taste in the whisky. Some are toasted in an oven to char the wood which adds to the flavour of the whiskey.

That does not interfere with the flavour profile?

The whisky borrows from the content that was previously in it.

Does that mean you use the same cask for a particular whisky?

Yes for consistency it has to be the same. We have a master cooper who is charged with ensuring that the casks are up to standard and consistent.

The most important part of whisky tasting is the nosing so you will find a master blender can nose over 2,000 whiskies, but only taste 16 or 15. You even find the master blenders insuring their noses for up to half a billion dollars.

To impress this holidays?

You should have two types of whisky, an Irish and a Scotch, you can throw in a third like a Japanese one, which is quite rare.

Irish, I would go for a Powers John’s Lane or a Midleton Barry Crockett. Scotch whisky, I would go for a Scapa or the Aberlour.

CHARLES WERU, Reserve brand commercial manager, EABL

Is it whiskey or whisky?

There is a difference in whiskey with an “e” and whisky without an “e” — main difference being geographic, but also ingredients and spellings.

Scotch (for example Johnnie Walker), is whisky made in Scotland, while Bourbon is whiskey made in the USA, generally Kentucky. For example, Bulleit Bourbon. Scotch is made mostly from malted barley, while Bourbon is distilled from corn.

What is your top whisky (personal favourite)?

It depends on when, where and how I want to enjoy my whisk(e)y. For example, on get-togethers or party, night out with friends, the first choice would be a bottle of Singleton or JW Gold Reserve  shared over ice and a choice of mixers.

On special occasions or quiet nightouts, a cocktail from the establishment’s signature drinks menu or the bar man’s recommendation will suffice. I tend to explore on new flavour and taste experiences.

On a night in alone or when socialising with close friends at home,  a bottle of JW Platinum or a fine bottle of any of the classic single malts will do.

What five whiskeys should I have to impress?

Simple answer, it depends on your palate or how deep your pockets go! Realistically and depending on who you are impressing , it can vary from the tag price of the bottle, age statement on the face of the label / bottle, flavour of the liquid , the craftsmanship of the bottle, presentation of the brand while being served / serving, type of occasion etc.

What are your personal favourites?

That’s an impossible question to answer! It very much depends on my mood, the weather and the occasion. For example, last night I really enjoyed a glass of Lagavulin. Big on peat and smoke but nicely rounded—a work of art.

What foods pair best with whiskey?

For me, whisk(e)y works for planned and unplanned occasions including meal times. All you need is a nose and palate for adventure. According to food and whisky experts, dilution is key. Have a small glass of water on the side.

Diluted, it goes down well with sea food. The dilution brings out some of vanilla and smoky notes. For undiluted, Indian food is best or hot and spicy food.

What and how does ageing impact flavour of the drink?

Age is not the key distinguishing factor when it comes to whisk(e)y, it’s maturation. Whiskies that carry no age statement contain a combination of different aged liquids, all perfectly matured and blended together. While some whiskies are perfect at 10 years old, others reach their peak at seven to eight years.

In the world of art, Picasso could do wonders with only blue paint, but when he had access to a full palette the result was spectacular.

Similarly, in the whisky world, a 21-year-old whisky contains only liquids of that age or older, so the distiller is limited by the small number of whiskies available.

Conversely, the wealth of flavour -led whiskies available give the distillers the freedom to create masterpieces. Additionally, age doesn’t necessarily equate to great flavour. Leaving the whisky in the cask for too long can be incredibly detrimental as it can take on too much flavour from the wood, overpowering the distillery character.

How does one distinguish a good whiskey?

There is a saying…”there is no bad whisk(e)y there are only whiskies that aren’t as good as others”—whisk(e)y is drunk with the senses and provides different sensations.

For those who don’t like whisky, these sensations are seen as too aggressive for their taste. Taste and the possibility of mixability are reasons to adore whisky.

It’s for this reason that you can drink whisky any way you like because you paid for it. Don’t be fooled by the pre-conceived idea that there is no mixing allowed.

Those in the know will tell you that it is true that mixing a whisky with something like ginger ale or lemonade will mask some of the flavours, however they will also tell you that younger and more vibrant whiskies tend to hold their own and enhance a drink when mixed.

The young and trendy are becoming discerning whisky drinkers and are trying it a couple of ways and experiencing the flavour variations for themselves.

Flavours need to be chosen carefully. Magic can happen when the whisky and mixers combine. It is really about experimenting.

For example, if you like lemony flavours, you’d be categorised as “Fresh” and might savour a J&B and lemonade.

Coffee drinkers (that’s a “Bold” flavour profile) would enjoy a Johnnie Walker Black and water , and a “vibrant” person (one who goes for dried fruit and peppery flavours) might quite enjoy a Johnnie Walker Red and ginger ale.

What is the best/ most interesting tasting whiskey you have had?

Dalwhinnie 15-year-old Single Malt bottled in 1937. It is a wonderfully full-bodied, smooth and warming malt whisky.

We were hosted by Diageo at the prestigious Drummuir castle in Scotland. I will never forget that tasting experience until my dying day!

How does one make the transition from one level of whiskey to the next?

There is no common transition from one brand to another. Whisk(e)y has personality, and that’s why it has to be tasted, felt. It is a drink that usually requires some reasons: prize, personality, knowledge and occasion.

For any occasion, you can find a way to drink whisk(e)y that you will love ; be it in a vibrant setting, prestigious occasion or easy and relaxed moments with friends and family.

EDDIE WACHIURI, Field marketing executive responsible for Edrington single malts and blended whisky brands

What is your top whisky? 

I  have many favourite brands depending on the occasion, but one that never disappoint my taste buds is Highland Park 18-year-old, on the palate it’s very smooth, rich, full flavour and has a light smoky after taste. 

What five whiskeys should I have to impress? 

Well, you need something that’s rare and of exceptional quality. There are many top whiskies out there but just to name a few, The Macallan Rare Cask, Laphroaig Triple Wood, Green Spot (Irish Single Pot), Hibiki 17-year-old (Japanese whisky) and  Yamazaki 18-year-old (Japanese whisky). 

What are your personal favourites?

If it’s a hot afternoon you will find me drinking The Famous Grouse Smoky Black mixed with coke and plenty of ice, or if I feel like a neat whisky then a Macallan Amber.

How many whiskeys have you tasted over the span of your career?

I don’t really keep count but I have attended many whisky events where many different brands are present.

In one occasion you can taste up to five varieties, so in my estimation not less than a 100 whiskies.

What foods pair best with whisky?

That’s a difficult question to answer comprehensively but to give an example, medium bodied whiskies with some peat influence such as Highland Park 12-year-old goes well with sea food, for instance, smoked mussels, smoked mackerel, smoked oysters and similar others.

On the other hand, full rich bodied whisky matured in sherry casks such as The Macallan Sienna pairs well with deserts, for example, sticky toffee pudding, dark chocolate or mature cheddar.

What and how does ageing impact flavour of the drink?

Maturation is the most important stage in defining a whisky, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of whisky character comes from the wood.

While aging in oak wooden casks (American or European oak), whisky undergoes six processes that contribute to its final flavour: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration and colouration.  

How does one distinguish a good whiskey? 

Generally, most people look at the age statement, that’s because in the past, age has been seen as the only indicator of guaranteed quality.

But this simply isn’t correct, you’ll find a young whisky which is better than older ones. We all have different tastes so the secret is to sample as many whiskies as possible and identify which one suits your palate and pocket.

What is the best/most interesting tasting whiskey you have had?

During a visit to the Highland Park distillery, I was offered a rare opportunity to taste a 50-year-old bottle of which only 275 bottles were produced. Palate: at full strength, it is rich and spicy with excellent tannins. Finish: Long and very spicy, slightly smoky remnants.

How does one make the transition from one level of whisky to the next?

It’s pretty simple, the transition happens as your palate begins to appreciate finer whisky and your ability to fund it.

Conventionally, most people start with entry level blended brands mixed with soda, and then move on to mixing with water or on ice.

They will then transition to Single Malt Whiskies when they can afford it. But we have some people who transition because finer whisky is a status symbol.