The night of the tasting is at hand. Whiskies have been assembled, glasses are polished and spotless, and the table is clad in white, which leaves only the menu to be decided.
Wait, the menu? For a whisky tasting?
Absolutely! While food outside of bland crackers or bread is unwelcome at critical tastings where judging or reviewing is the goal, a social tasting is another animal altogether. Indeed, having food available to promote conviviality and help allay the effects of the alcohol should be considered both a social and socially responsible imperative. In addition, tasting more than a few whiskies is sure to induce palate fatigue, where the taste buds simply become exhausted. The right nosh can not only make a whisky more enjoyable, but also renew the palate in the process.
Your whisky tasting table can range from relaxed, with bags and boxes of prepared snacks and hors d’oeuvres, to a multi-course meal, according to the occasion and the whiskies on offer. However, a simple and successful approach is to mix and match quality packaged snacks and easily prepared foods to produce a banquet tailor-made to complement the whiskies on offer.
For more studious samplings, restrict yourself to plain crackers—water biscuits, typically used for cheese, are very good, but any unflavored cracker will do—or cubes of plain bread, during the tasting portion. While you might wish to offer some nibbles off to the side of the tasting, cheese or even plain potato chips, for instance, the bulk of the food is best left to after all have finished their analyses. For more social, “grab a glass and have a taste” gatherings, offer food throughout.
Different styles of whisky lend themselves to different foods. When offering multiple types of whisky, it can be fun to display the snacks with the matched style, so that, say, the pecans are near the bourbons, the smoked salmon is with the lighter single malts, and the Stilton sits beside the peaty scotches.
The one exception to the free-for-all approach is to save sweets and desserts for last. While they often produce dynamite pairings, they can also be palate killers. Check out our can’t-miss picks suitable for your next tasting, because every whisky can benefit from your hospitality and good taste.
As a general rule, bourbons are full-bodied and sweet, which means that timid flavors have no place beside America’s spirit. Select foods that are themselves sweet and round, fatty, or for rye-forward bourbons, a little spicy.
Kettle-style Potato Chips: Crunchy texture contrasts brilliantly with smooth, rich bourbon.
Bratwurst/Kielbasa: Fattiness matches the heft of the bourbon without being too spicy.
Oysters Rockefeller: Bacon and seasonings add fortitude to subtle oysters.
Manchego/Emmental: Bold but nuanced, semi-hard cheeses bring out subtleties in whiskey.
Candied Pecans: Sweet with sweet—a pairing born in the American South.
With spice flavors as a hallmark, straight ryes tend to clash with all but the most robust dishes. However, you want to avoid buffalo wing-level heat, which will only impair your palate. Instead, look to foods with assertive characters and significant seasoning.
Tangy Goat Cheese: Goat cheese welcomes peppery companions, like radishes or rye.
Onion Rings: Frozen onion rings come alive with spicy rye.
Shrimp Cocktail: Rye acts like an extra dash of spicy cocktail sauce.
Salted Peanuts: Ideal with hoppy beer or peppery rye.
Spicy Dark Chocolate: Bitterness and spice echo the very nature of rye.
Sherried Single Malt
Arguably the most food-friendly of whiskies, malts with mild to moderate sherry influence embrace a wide variety of dishes, so long as the spice and intensity levels are kept in check. Look for foods that are homey and comforting, much like the whiskies themselves.
Aged Cheddar Cheese: Dryness and sharpness tease out the whisky’s nutty and fruity nuances.
Focaccia with Rosemary and Olive Oil: Resinous herbs dance with complex whisky aromas.
Smoked Salmon: Subtle smoke unites spirit and fish in a most delicious fashion.
Roasted Almonds: Accent the nutty flavors of the sherry cask.
Devils on Horseback (cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon): Sweet, salty, lightly smoky, and fruity dates. These hit all the right notes!
Peated Single Malt
Big and bold, peated malts are prone to overpower delicate foods. Choose flavors that are assertive, but not overly sweet, and those that exhibit some degree of smoke that can enhance and play off the whisky.
Stilton Cheese: Bold, creamy, and smooth cheese relishes a touch of smoke.
Smoked Almonds: A delightfully smoky twist to the classic pairing of almonds and single malt.
Dark Chocolate: Chocolate with 70% or more cocoa content is the beneficiary of the whisky’s character, adding even greater depth.
Dry-Cured Chorizo: The smoke of the whisky seems to tame the spicy sausage.
Smoked Trout: Has the weight to balance and be enhanced by the whisky.
Blended Whiskies: Canadian & Irish
A diverse crowd, blended Canadian and Irish whiskeys can run the gamut from sweet and soft to spicy and more assertive, although common ground is generally found in their broadly mild-mannered dispositions. Foods with moderate character and high approachability resonate with these whiskies.
Cheese Crackers: In cracker or straw form the cheese flavor becomes subdued and harmonious.
Mini-Quiches: Soft richness complements the gentle spice and sweetness of the whisky.
Liver Pâté: Unctuous texture adds richness to the body of the spirit.
Vanilla Biscuits: Draw out the vanilla character that comes from used bourbon barrels.
Dark Chocolate: Chocolate with 50%-65% cocoa content strikes the perfect midpoint for a well-balanced whisky.