I’ve never been super comfortable with the idea of whisky and food pairings. Not because I don’t believe you can find complimentary flavour profiles, but because I don’t think they make the best of bedfellows. Food fights the whisky. Whisky fights the food. And at the end of the day, you lose a little of the best of each.
Alcohol, by nature, is going to anesthetize the tastebuds. And, as any professional taster will tell you, food is going to taint the palate for maximizing how receptive you are to nuance and subtlety. Hence the reason most of them insist that ‘tasting’ should be done in the morning and on an empty stomach. Hmmm…perhaps they’re more inclined to maximize the effect of alcohol, too.
Notice that I have highlighted the word ‘tasting’ above. That’s the key here. And you had to know there was a catch to my disclaimer above. Otherwise, why would KWM propose a night of malts and chocolate, knowing each would be at odds with the other to some degree? It’s not much of a leap, actually.
The simple reality is that most people aren’t ‘tasting’. In other words, they’re not overly worried about cobbling together a notebook full of tasting notes or sussing out individual flavour notes when they sit down to a drink and a bit of something edible with their friends. Most just want a great experience. You know…a cigar and a dram; some peat and some sweet; a beer and a brat. Something along those lines. A smashing together of vices to compound the enjoyment of each. And that’s what this event was all about.
We decided it would be a treat to work our way through a baker’s half-dozen (is that a thing? (maybe if you round up… – Evan)) of malts – largely composed of our store exclusives and private casks – paired up against some of the best, award-winning confections in the country. We at KWM have always been vain enough to believe we pick the best single casks for our customers. Andrew set the bar on that vanity and the rest of us follow suit. While preparing for this tasting, we quickly learned that the philosophy at Cococo is very much in line with our own.
So, in one really tough day at the office, Shawn and I sat down with Kristi Mehr from Cococo Chocolaterie (Bernard Callebaut), several glasses of whisky and a heaping tray of chocolate. I know, I know…it’s a hard knock life, aye? We did our best to pair these treats together and, all modesty aside, think we did a pretty bang up job.
And what do I know about chocolate? To be honest…next to nothing. Except that I really like to eat it. But Kristi was kind enough to share the cocoa gospel, and I think we learned enough to get by. At least, in that ‘if you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bullsh*t’ kinda way. And those in attendance were either in agreement with our taste pairings or kind enough to humor us. Ultimately…I didn’t see too many disappointed faces at the end of the night.
Cococo Chocolatiers are beacons for what we look for in artisanal food – quality, locality, sustainability, reputation – and that is exactly what they consider their products. Food. Not just treats. Cococo is a young company with a passion for bringing their best to the table. Their products are made with an inordinately high percentage of cocoa butter (the most expensive ingredient in fine chocolate) and cocoa solids. The results of their dedication to quality are abundantly clear on first taste.
We partnered with these fine folks for a couple simple pairings at the MS Whisky Festival in January of 2019 and quickly jumped at the opportunity to double down and do something a little more intimate together.
And man, what a cool crowd we had for this one. A fine group of folks, all in the right headspace to enjoy an evening of great chocolate, whisky and company. Their enthusiasm made this somewhat experimental event one to remember.
We’re only two weeks out from this one and I’m already looking forward to doing it again at some point.
Here’s a rundown of what we tasted:
w/ Peanut Butter and Jelly
These two were a match made in heaven. The creamy nuttiness of the PB, with the deep fruit tones of the jam layer in the chocolate, partnered up beautifully with the gentle tides of jammy fruit on the Arran. It didn’t hurt that 22 years of maturation had knocked off all the rougher edges of the malt, leaving us something as soft as the buttery, cocoa-rich flavors of the milk chocolate.
w/ Dill Fusion Tablette
Bourbon almost always carries notes of dill, and Burning Chair – in spite of its rather complex wine-cask finish – is no exception. We found the softness of white chocolate – carrying hints of bleu cheese and sea salt – softened the over-the-top sweet and spicy nature of the bourbon beautifully.
w/ Honey Milk Chocolate
This pairing was an exercise in complimentary flavors and sensations. Rye, by nature, is a spicy grain. It can be brittle and sharp, redolent in rich notes of caraway and old school cereals. The immediate contrast of milk chocolate and honey served to both highlight the boldness of the grain and add context to the idea of what real rye is.
w/ Orange Peel and Dark Chocolate
Amrut has a very distinct DNA, even when they dig deep into their bag of tricks to stump us with a bit of cask trickery. You can usually pick up notes of exotic spice, sugar cookies, milk chocolate and orange zest in their mature spirit. As soon as we tasted it against this candied orange peel enrobed in dark chocolate we realized what a revelation we had. The orange oil/zest just served to amp up the rum and orange notes from whisky. One of my favorite matches of the night.
w/ Oregano Fusion Tablette
Take a dark chocolate tablette infused with oregano and sage, hand sprinkled with habanero sea salt, and slam it up against one of the most coastal of all Scottish distilleries and you end up with a match made in heaven. The heat and salt of the chocolate was a perfect accompaniment to the chili, black pepper and saline qualities of this dram from the Isle of Skye. The fact that the whisky is finished in Amaroso Oloroso adds another layer of sweetness to play against the dryness of the cocoa.
w/ Honey Anise
Heavy peat almost always brings a decent amount of anise to the table. Those deep dark licorice notes in young peated malt – typically both salt licorice and herbaceous fennel – work well with something that has softer edges. For obvious reasons, we played with both complimentary and contrasting flavours on this one. More anise and a deep-seated creaminess came through from the honey and chocolate. Being 100% Islay, this KWM exclusive Kilchoman has a lighter peat profile than most other expressions from our favourite little Islay farm distillery. It’s creamier. And that works beautifully in its favor.
w/ Rosemary Fusion Tablette
Why does this one work? To be honest…I have no clue. A monster of a malt paired with an absolutely enormous flavor spectrum on this milk chocolate tablette led to conflicting flavors and sensations all over the place. On the whole, however, wow. It all came together beautifully. The chocolate was infused with rosemary and thyme, and hand sprinkled with habanero sea salt. Neat, right? And the malt? Heavily peated fare, at least partially matured in ex-Bordeaux wine barrels. Not something I normally like. Here though…just wow.
Special thanks to Kristi Mehr, and the good folks at Cococo for their support and, more importantly, for their damn fine chocolate.