Whisky and Cheese Pairing: A Primer

Convincing spirits aficionados that their beloved whiskies can and do pair admirably with food is a daunting task at the best of times. Extending that gastronomic linkage to cheese, long the domain of wine and, more recently, beer, can be nigh on impossible.

But the fact is whisky really is an ideal accompaniment to many cheeses, in some cases superior, even, to wine or beer. The key, as ever, lies in making the right combinations under the most favorable circumstances.

That latter part, the circumstances, is oft-times glossed over in beer and wine pairing, but can prove vital when partnering spirits with comestibles. Because aromatics are both intense and key to the appreciation of whiskies, how they are delivered can make or break a food pairing, and so care should be taken with respect to temperature, dilution, and even the shape of the glass, or in other words, the circumstances of the tasting.

Where the more intense flavors of blue and aged hard cheeses are concerned, for example, it can be beneficial to construct a situation in which the aroma of the partner whisky is softened and smoothed, so that you don’t wind up with strength battling strength. This can be accomplished by choosing a wider glass than, say, the chimney-like Glencairn or aroma-concentrating sherry copita, or by watering the whisky slightly so that it becomes less densely aromatic and more perfumey.

Even that widely acknowledged adversary of whisky flavor, the ice cube, can make a difference in a cheese pairing. Something like a triple cream Camembert or Brie, for example, can have a bold and stinky character, especially when made with unpasteurized milk, but a very soft and creamy texture, qualities that will respectively clash and be battered by a room temperature, full-strength whisky. Add a bit of chill and dilution, on the other hand, and the subtle muting of the spirit can be of great benefit to the food partnership.

Of course, when the wrong whisky is chosen to accompany the right cheese, no amount of playing with glass, water, or ice is going to save the day. When planning your pairings, then, it’s best to start with some sense of geography.

It is a time-honed truth that when beverage and foodstuff have developed alongside one another, chances are that they will also partner well together, as in British best bitter and fish and chips, a hearty beef stew – boeuf bourguignon – and a robust red wine, or Bavarian roast pork knuckle and pale, moderately hoppy lager. In a similar fashion, a proper Cheddar or Stilton, each born in relative proximity to Scotland, partner beautifully with, respectively, a balanced Speyside and a somewhat smoky island malt. Across the Channel, pot-stilled Irish whiskey and the creamy flavors of Cashel Blue seem made for each other; which, after a fashion, they kind of were.

Uniting bourbon with made-for-melting American cheese isn’t going to do anyone any favors, though, so after geography you should turn your attention to one of the prime directives of food and drink pairing, specifically the partnership of complementary characteristics.

The most obvious form of this would be the pairing of a rich and full-bodied bourbon with a boldly flavorful cheese, something like a Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, perhaps, or more conventionally a medium Spanish Manchego or young Raclette. Further, texture and body can have strong harmonizing effects and so should be considered when, for example, a particularly creamy cheese like Brillat-Savarin is on the plate, leading you toward a rich and round Speyside with little or no peat influence, perhaps even one finished in a port pipe for extra roundness.

Of course, grain and, as noted above, barrel can have great effect, as well. High rye contents in Canadian whiskies can suit them to tangy goat cheeses or aged Goudas, each of which are sometimes themselves spiced, while a sherry-casked malt can develop raisiny, nutty notes that will lend themselves well to dry and crumbly cheeses like Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano. Don’t forget that cheeses like Taleggio can be quite salty, suiting them to the briny character that sometimes develops in a coastal whisky.

With so many tasty options at hand, once you discover the myriad joys of whisky and cheese, you may never look at a cheese board quite the same way again.

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