'Tis The Season For Spirits and Cheese: Whisk(e)y Edition

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.

Whisk(e)y aficionados will tell you that their beloved spirit can enhance ANY cheese. Given the diversity among whiskys, this statement is probably true. But I'm not interested in obscure pairings, like some single malt Japanese blend with a Romanian lavender goat cheese, but rather more mainstream, accessible, and, I hope, more affordable couplings. For this edition of 'Tis The Season For Spirits and Cheese, I focused on American whiskys (those from the Emerald Isle deserve their special post).

During the holidays, domestic spirits seem to dominate family gatherings, so I moseyed over to my local Spec's to pick up small bottles of Jack Daniels and Maker's Mark. (By the way, I do recognize that sour mash whiskey is not the same as bourbon whisky but their similarities, I believe, warrant placing them alongside each other in a tasting.) Then, it was on to Trader Joe's.

Do some cursory research into whisky and cheese pairings and you're guaranteed to find a lot of repetitive advice about the importance of matching the spirit's strong, smoky flavor. While I agree with this general guideline, I would encourage you to be more adventurous; diverse selections will often bring out notes in the whiskey other than, well, burnt wood.

At TJ's I picked up three cheeses (total cost just under $10): a New Zealand grass-fed sharp cheddar, a Dutch (Boerenkaas) gouda and a Welsh soft cheddar infused with chives and shallots. A good knife plus two neat glasses of my respective spirits and I was good to go.

It's hard to go wrong with a sharp cheddar and whisk(e)y, and TJ's New Zealand variety proved no exception. I'm happy to report also that "sharp" is an accurate descriptor of this incisive cheese whose creamy bite and rich texture stood up to the heavier booze overtones of both the Maker's Mark and Jack Daniels. The slightly milder, nutty Dutch gouda also fared well with both blends, though the smoother, sweeter Maker's Mark was definitely the better match.

All hell broke loose when I got to the Welsh cheddar (and I mean that in the best way possible). The gritty tang of the chives and shallots brought out some heretofore hidden spice notes in the Jack Daniels, while the cheddar's melty milkiness made the Maker's Mark taste that much more mellow. Hats off to the Welsh for managing to produce a cheese that alternates between stimulant and depressant depending on what you drink with it.

Some restaurants and cooking schools offer their own fancy whiskey and cheese tastings, most of which run about $70 per person. For just over $25, I had enough supplies to share my pairing experiment with my a few friends in the comfort of my own home. Which means I didn't even have to take off my bathrobe. Score.

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Joanna O'Leary