Wednesday 1 September 2010

Whiskey & Cheese?

I was talking to the Master Blender of Glenmorangie Distillery, Rachel Barrie, last year at an event in Dublin. I mentioned the Irish Whiskey Society and our monthly themed tastings. She raved about a whiskey and cheese evening in Scotland she had recently enjoyed and strongly recommended we give it a go here.

My curiosity was piqued but I didn't know much about cheese so I went along to a Slow Food tasting of raw milk (ie unpasteurised) Irish cheeses a few months later. Now I've always liked cheese, but this was something else entirely. The textures and flavours were stunning, the skill and passion for quality of the artisans even more so. I was reminded of the years I spent drinking basic Jameson (a fine drink, don't get me wrong) without realising there was a whole world to discover behind the few bottles of whiskey on the pub shelf.

At this point, these two great Irish products were becoming associated in my mind. Cheese and whiskey may be made in other countries but the Irish versions can match the best anywhere. Both promise an endless journey of exploration and exciting tastes to be experienced. Both, if they are to be done well, depend on the accumulated experience of decades, and perhaps generations.

But do they work well together? I mentioned the idea of pairing the two to many people and the usual reaction was scepticism. You mean wine and cheese, right?

The Slow Food folk say that the food and drink that develop together in the same region tend to go well together, like German bratwurst and beer, for example. It's a very plausible theory, since the raw ingredients may well be the same, and they have both been shaped by the preferences of the same local population. They are probably consumed as part of the same meal too.

I would have to admit, however, that we have no tradition in Ireland of consuming any kind of food alongside our whiskey, never mind cheese. There is the added inconvenient fact that cheesemaking really disappeared as an art in Ireland in the twentieth century, despite the continued strength of dairy farming. It has revived over the last few decades, often thanks to immigrants from Germany and elsewhere, but we just haven't had the chance to develop a culture of enjoying whiskey and cheese together.

Well, traditions have to start somewhere, and I think it's about time we started a new one. So, last Thursday, with the help of cheese experts from Fallon & Byrne, I gave my first presentation to the Irish Whiskey Society. I framed the evening as an experiment, with six Irish whiskeys paired with six Irish cheeses for the consideration of about 45 members and guests of the Irish Whiskey Society. I'll describe the pairings in the next article, but I think I can announce the experiment was a success. From this moment on, Irish whiskey and Irish cheese are officially a match!