Thursday 2 September 2010

Whiskey & cheese pairings

I've put forward the argument for sampling cheese alongside whiskey. We did just that at the last meeting of the Irish Whiskey Society. For anyone who would like to repeat the experiment, the specific pairings are listed below.

It's most definitely not the case that any whiskey goes with any cheese. During the research phase for this tasting (conducted with IWS President, Gary Mongey) we quickly discovered that some combinations fought with each other. Sometimes the whiskey overwhelmed the cheese, sometimes the cheese overpowered. Even a seemingly obvious pairing like smoky whiskey with smoky cheese failed entirely to take off.

There is an added difficulty that the same cheese can be different each time you buy it. The St Gall, for example, was younger and less intense on the night, and couldn't quite deliver the knockout one-two combination with its paired whiskey.

All three of the big distilleries in Ireland were represented. Cooley, however, contributed four of the six bottles. This wasn't intentional; the choices were entirely dictated by the cheeses. Cooley happens to make a much wider range of whiskey than the others - malt, grain, peated, unpeated, finished, unfinished, and various combinations thereof - so we were more likely to find matches among its output.

All cheeses, with the exception of the Gubbeen, are unpasteurised.

The pairings:
  1. Greenore 6yo & Gubbeen
    Gubbeen is a pasteurised cow's milk cheese and the mildest of the cheeses we sampled. That suggested a light whiskey and they don't get any lighter than the single grain Greenore, from Cooley.

    The usual expression of Greenore is 8 years old. This 6yo was produced for the Swedish market and I selected it because it was less likely to have been tried previously by society members. I think Greenore suited well enough but it was the opinion of some that a bit more cask age was demanded. On the night, with the Gubbeen we had, I agree.

  2. The Irishman Single Malt & St Gall
    St Gall is perhaps my favourite cheese, and in the research phase went extremely well with The Irishman Single Malt. On the night, the cheese was a little under-matured, as I said. It develops nicely on the finish and so marries well with a whiskey that delivers its hit up front.

    The Irishman Single Malt, like the majority of 40% ABV whiskeys, is chill-filtered because some export markets demand it. The bottles destined for the Irish market, however, are released without chill-filtering. This nicely parallels the unpasteurised St Gall. There was no compromise on flavour in the making of either whiskey or cheese.

  3. Writers Tears & St Tola
    St Tola is a fresh goats cheese. In texture and flavour it is most unlike any other cheese I've had. It is soft and gluey, and the taste is a quiet lemony tang. I wouldn't choose to eat it on its own but it was really transformed by the addition of the punchy but controlled Writers Tears.

    We always vote on our favourites after a tasting and both whiskey and cheese, and the combination thereof did very well here. You can see all the results here.

    I won't say more about Writers Tears here because that will be the topic of my next article.

  4. Tyrconnell 10yo AN Crianza Finish & Bluebell Falls Hard Goats
    We stuck with the goats for the next round, though in a very different style. This Bluebell Falls is hard, almost crumbly. Goats cheese has a particular taste that some people find hard to accept but it has really mellowed here.

    We originally matched this cheese with an aged Tyrconnell (a 15yo say) from Cooley. The Anima Negra Crianza finish is a new whiskey produced specially for the Celtic Whiskey Shop. We had the chance to sample it a week before its release so we could not pass that up.

    It's a magnificent whiskey, one I should probably write up separately. Suffice to say that it really fizzed with the cheese. A great match and, indeed, the favourite of the night.

  5. Locke's 8yo & Knockanore Smoked
    We tested this oak-smoked cheese with Connemara, a properly smoky whiskey. The smoke-on-smoke didn't work, however, so we tried Locke's 8yo, also from Cooley. This whiskey contains a very small proportion of peated malt (10%, my notes from an old tasting state) so that it's not obvious what's going on until you get to the finish, when the peat reveals itself.

    It's a strongly-flavoured whiskey that can hold its own against the smoked Knockanore. The suggestion of smoke in the Locke's is neatly filled by the actual smoke in the cheese.

  6. Connemara 8yo & Crozier Blue
    Instead, a smoky whiskey is tailor made for the salty-sweetness of a blue cheese. I find it hard to eat a lot of blue cheese but this cheese made from sheep milk is smooth and delicate and quite addictive.

    The 46% Connemara 8yo is only sold in Sweden. We tried it before as part of a vertical Connemara tasting where it was my favourite. Ordinary Connemara is a vatting of 4-, 6- and 8-year old whiskeys, the 8yo providing the finish. To my palate, the 8yo finish is predominately liquorice, and very pleasant.
The whiskey part of the evening came to an end there but the cheese continued with a bonus tasting. We were privileged to have a real cheesemaker, Tom Burgess from Coolattin Cheddar, explain how his cheese is made and to lead our tasting of his 2- and 3-year old cheddars. It has just gone on sale here in Dublin, in Fallon & Byrne.

Again unpasteurised, this cheese is so much more flavourful than the cheddars you get in the supermarket. The 3-year old is perhaps a little dry to eat on its own but it tastes so good. I had a vision of the best ham, cheese and pickle sandwich ever which I will have to make reality in the immediate future.

I'd like to thank Kevin Powell, from Fallon & Byrne, who introduced each cheese on the night, leaving me to waffle on the more familiar topic of whiskey. And Rachel Firth and Emma Colleran, also from Fallon & Byrne, for selecting the cheeses and other valuable advice.

Thank you to Bernard Walsh (The Irishman / Writers Tears) and John Cashman (Cooley) for supplying the hooch and for putting up with all my questions (and for making great whiskey!).

And thank you to the rest of the Irish Whiskey Society committee who somehow pull off a tasting every month with military efficiency. I have a new appreciation for the amount of work involved.