This holiday season, turn the tables on the traditional "wine and cheese" combo by pairing cheeses with your favorite hard alcohol. In this special series, I'll be investigating which fromages go best with distilled spirits as well as offering tips on how to construct a tasting without breaking the bank.
First, I would like to acknowledge that many might consider the title of this post to be oxymoronic, as "whisky" without the e necessarily designates a fermented mash beverage made in Scotland (as opposed to Ireland, Canada, the U.S., Japan). But I added the "Scotch" just to emphasize I was not tasting spirits o' the Emerald Isle (yet). (Btw, if you have all the time in the world and are interested in the whisky/whiskey debate, read this discussion.)
Second, I also have to acknowledge I broke one of my own guidelines for this series, specifically my focus on moderately priced spirits. My husband, so excited at the thought of a whisky and cheese tasting, offered to chip in for an upgrade. Which is how we ended up with a fancy-schmancy bottle of Laphroaig, aged ten years ($53).
I didn't go quite so overboard with the cheeses, though I did spring for four selections rather than two. Anyway, after ogling the whisky selection at Spec's, I moseyed over to the refrigerated cases, where I found two large hunks of applewood-smoked cheddar and a horseradish cheddar, respectively, for just under $9. Those alone would have been totally sufficient, but later that afternoon, I spotted Sticky Toffee cheese plus an intriguing Ivernia white cheese, so two more were added into the mix.
My general plan, by the way, with this whisky and cheese pairing was to select robust, almost pungent cheeses of medium to hard texture. Stinky bleu cheeses and smelly soft creamy cheeses, I thought, wouldn't exactly complement the burnt, earthy flavors of the Laphroaig and anything too spicy might make for an overwhelming combination.
A few friends kindly volunteered to join in on the tasting so I could have some input from palates not my own. The overwhelming majority favored the applewood cheddar and the Ivernia, though a few (myself included) thought the prickly horseradish cheddar was quite wonderful. Given its smoked flavor and rich autumnal notes, the applewood cheddar was an easy and obvious partner for the Laphroaig by matching the spirit's own strong flavors of charred oak and slightly sour grain. The Ivernia, in turn, presented a more piquant, salty flavor that lightened the whisky and made me think of balmy September afternoons rather than crackling November nights.
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And while the Sticky Toffee cheese was delightful on its own (skip layering it on salty crackers), the sweet, brown-buttery flavor made the accompanying whisky seem bitter by comparison. This cheese would probably do better with a darkish rum or medium-bodied red wine.
Although I somewhat broke the bank with this spirits and cheese pairing, it was difficult to feel too regretful as I slowly sipped my glass of Laphroaig (served almost neat, with just a splash of water to open the bouquet) in between bites of cheese and crackers. 'Tis the season for indulgence; save austerity for January.