Monday 5 March 2012

Whiskey & Chocolate

A pro tip for shoppers in Dublin is to bypass the crowds and mobile phone stores of Grafton Street and saunter up one of the smaller, parallel streets to the west. I plugged South William Street a few weeks ago for its independent café and boutique vibe. Another is Drury Street which, after darkness falls, one night each month, is where the Irish Whiskey Society gathers to perform its ritual imbibing.

One of our neighbours on Drury Street is the very elegant chocolate shop, Cocoa Atelier. I have often crossed the street just to sneak a look at the neatly arranged rows of macaroons and chocolates. The society discovered last year that whiskey and chocolate hit it off so it was inevitable that some day we would get together with Cocoa Atelier. Thus our Whiskey & Chocolate evening last week.

Cocoa Atelier sounds French, is owned by a French guy and has a French master chocolatier. Nevertheless, it is an Irish company, albeit with beaucoup de Gallic flair. All of its chocolates are made in Dublin and it has two outlets - in Drury Street and within House of Fraser, in Dundrum.

The flavours they use are inspired by nature and the seasons, and are incorporated into a ganache (a mix of chocolate and Irish cream). The ganache is molded into uniform squares and it gets a thin coating of chocolate (milk or dark) and a unique decoration for that particular flavour.

I admit that my notion of flavoured chocolates up to this point was the over-sweet, soft-centred type where the "strawberry" or "coffee" is from some parallel universe of flavour. Nice but not much like their real-world counterparts. Cocoa Atelier has enlightened me. Only natural (and sometimes surprising) ingredients are used in restrained proportions and the result tastes unmistakably real and balanced. And fresh.

We were honoured to have both Kate Saul, Cocoa Atelier's manager, and Mathieu Barriquault, their chocolatier, to acquaint us with the basics of chocolate and divulge some of the secrets behind their creations. IWS committee member Stephen Young presented the whiskeys.

Redbreast 12 year old + Pot Still Whiskey Chocolate

Cocoa Atelier won over a roomful of whiskey freaks when they revealed that they spike one of their chocolates with single pot still Redbreast 12yo. What could we do except pair the whiskey and the chocolate?

The ganache contains 8-10% whiskey. Mathieu told us it is not intended to have a strong whiskey kick, rather that the whiskey should add notes of flavour. It was difficult to pick out the whiskey, let alone the brand of whiskey. I think this demonstrates how well chocolate and whiskey integrate when combined. This chocolate snagged a 2-star gold at the UK Great Taste Awards in 2011.

We did not expect this to be an exciting match, since we were kind of overwhelming the subtle flavour of pot still whiskey in the chocolate with more pot still whiskey. So it proved, but it was interesting to compare the two side-by-side.

Maker's Mark + Ginger

I'm not overly fond of the taste of fresh ginger but the grated whole and ground ginger added to the ganache here added just the right amount of heat and spice. The secret, apparently, is to include milk chocolate in the ganache, to tone down the ginger.

Maker's Mark is a bourbon (from Cooley's new owner, Beam). I find it quite easy to drink, though it still tastes a little unfamiliar on the palate.

The marks of a great match are when something new is created in the mouth and neither the chocolate nor the whiskey gains the upper hand nor outlasts the other. This combo sings. Loud but in perfect harmony.

Glenrothes Robur Reserve + Venezuela

This is one of Cocoa Atelier's single origin chocolates (others include Dominican Republic, Ivory Coast, and Papua New Guinea). It's interesting to read the tasting notes for the various origins. They use the same descriptors as whiskey: floral, pepper, spice, liquorice, smoke, peat, etc.

You can find, by the way, tasting notes for all the night's whiskeys and chocolates in the slide presentation on the society's event page.

I'd need to spend more time with the Glenrothes to decide if I like it or not on its own but with the chocolate it made for the classiest match of the night. The ginger + bourbon was a raucous party; this was a black-tie soirée. I voted for this combo as my favourite.

Jameson Gold Reserve + Chestnut Honey

I have tried all of the Jameson Reserve range head-to-head and the Gold is my favourite (it was the room's favourite whiskey of the night too). It has a lovely barley sugar centre and the subtlest wood finish. Its claim to fame is that it contains a proportion of virgin oak-matured spirit. In other words, the cask wasn't previously used to mature bourbon, sherry or anything else.

Curiously, in the three years the society has been tasting whiskey (with little repetition) we had not sampled the Gold until now.

The chocolate was Chestnut Honey, which means a honey derived from chestnut tree blossoms. It's French, and has an earthy taste that evoked mushrooms or truffles for some. Kate said people either love it or hate it. It must be true because I found it entirely unpleasant yet it managed to win the popular vote for favourite chocolate of the night.

Cooley Grain Green Tea Finish + Earl Grey

Cooley's Innovation Manager, Alex Chasko, brought along one of his experiments for us to try. The story was that a guy selling whiskey in Beijing and Ulan Bator asked Cooley if there was anything they could do to introduce a green tea flavour to the product. That's because the Chinese cut their whiskey with green tea to disguise the flavour (I've written about this before).

So it was that Alex filled a cask with 98° water and 2.5kg of green tea (he scaled the amount up from a cup of tea apparently!) and let it stew for 3 weeks. The cask was then emptied, refilled with 3 year old grain whiskey and left for a month.

He tapped off a bottle of that for us, at a cask strength of 64-65%. It might have been a very young grain whiskey but it was voted the second favourite sip of the whole evening. I liked it myself. Alex described it as having a light sherbety nose, while on the tongue green tea tannins show up in the middle. I found citrus there too.

It might seem too obvious to set this whiskey up with Cocoa Atelier's Earl Grey chocolate but it worked so well there was no need to look further. Favourite match of the night, as voted by the room.

Laphroaig 10 year old + Coffee

Of course we are always going to throw a peated whiskey into the mix as a challenge. Cocoa Atelier proposed their Coffee chocolate to stand up to the big flavour of an Islay dram. Their own tasting notes find a smokiness in the coffee so that might have been the inspiration. The milk chocolate coating on this chocolate brought some sweetness to the party too.

The chocolate on its own was delicious. A mature flavour, and a better use for ground coffee than coffee! The Laphroaig is your classic head-in-a-turf-fire peaty whiskey. Taken together: magic. Another one of those really vibrant marriages that create something new.

I was involved in some of the preparations for this night of excess; it required being locked in a chocolate shop after hours with a dozen bottles of whiskey. Many chocolates were sacrificed while gathering data. We ended up with more matches than we could use for the event, and once or twice a pairing I liked was voted down. It's all subjective and you have to experiment to figure out what appeals to you. Here are a few more suggestions...

First, just to convince you that Cocoa Atelier chocolates are on another plane entirely, try these: the Milk Chocolate Salty Caramel and the Five Spice. After trying these, I realised I know nothing about chocolate. There are amazing flavour combinations out there I never imagined.

The Five Spice contains cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, wild anise and star anise. We were due to have it for our meeting, matched with the Laphroaig, but it was not in stock on the day. So try it with a peated whiskey. Or, try it with Longueville House Apple Brandy. I tested that combo in the shop and it worked great. Apples and spice? How could it not.

I felt the Salty Caramel worked with a Connemara Sherry Finish, though I was alone in that opinion. Kate and Stephen preferred the Papua New Guinea with the Connemara.

I knew as soon as I tried one of Cocoa Atelier's truffles that it would work with Cooley malt. We tested it against the Tyrconnell 10yo Port Finish - perfect. I reckon it would work on an unfinished Cooley malt of about the same age just as well.

Some other matches: Balvenie Double Wood 12yo + Dominican Republic; The Glenlivet 12yo + Lime; Dalmore 12yo + Pistachio.

Cocoa Atelier has about 25 different chocolates and, of course, there are an endless number of whiskeys. There must be hundreds of spectacular matches just waiting to be discovered. Have at it!