12 whiskies, 12 cheeses and me.
Whisky and cheese. It may not be the first pairing that springs to mind but I can assure you that it works. I have done the research to prove it.
Three weeks ago last Wednesday I found myself sitting at a table looking at 12 glasses of whisky. I remember looking up at the guy who’d poured them and saying,
“What’s happening now?”
“Well, you need to try all 12 so that you know what we’re all about.”
Never one to back down from a challenge I picked up the first glass and took a cautious sip. Cautious because I had noticed that all these whiskies were cask strength, that’s around 60%.
Something incredible happened. Suddenly I could taste flowers, resinous wood, tropical fruits. When I could speak again I looked up at my new friend, eyes watering slightly and said,
“That’s the best whisky I’ve ever had in my life.”
There was some laughter from the others in the room at that point. Apparently that’s a common reaction among people who try these whiskies for the first time.
My new friend in this context, is a guy called John McCheyne, brand ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, sole provider of these unique and at least in my experience, unprecedentedly incredible whiskies that I was trying. The table at which 11 more intense and life changing experiences awaited me was in the tasting room above the Society’s members only bar in Farringdon.
I had not just been pulled randomly off the street to try whisky. I was there to represent cheese for a project called Flavour Fanatics which brings people from different realms of food and drink together to give their take on flavour and how we experience it. My fellow fanatics included Dumo Mathema a coffee roaster and Fergus Drennan, a forager. The fact that my experience in the realm of cheese got me the chance to be involved in this and to try all these incredible whiskies is further confirmation of my belief that being a freelance cheesemonger is the best job in the world. This first session was a chance for us to meet each other and some people from the society, and began a process that would culminate in the Flavour Fanatics event in Shoreditch where Dumo, Fergus, Morgaine Gaye, a flavour futurologist (!) and I spoke to an enthusiastic bunch of whisky fanciers about our various passions and then served examples of our most loved cheeses, coffees and foraged fungi to be matched with whiskies. It was more fun than pie.
Flavour is, well it’s everything to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They offer exclusive bottlings of single malt whiskies from single casks. They’ve moved away from talking about regions, like Speyside or Islay, or the products of named distilleries. Instead the focus is on the flavour in this individual bottling from this particular cask. Each bottling, or outturn, is unique. Once it’s all been drunk you’ll never get that complex set of flavours again. As I said, the Society’s whiskies are exclusive to the society. You can’t just nip down to Tescos and pick up a bottle. That’s fine because membership is eminently affordable, even free for the sample membership. So join the society, buy some amazing whisky and invite me round because that’s only fair right? I’ll bring some cheese.
The bottles aren’t labelled with their distillery or region of origin but instead have two numbers on them. The first denotes the distillery and the second the number of bottlings that have come from that distillery. So for example 3.124 might mean that this is the 124th bottling to come from Lagavulin. While explaining this system, John pointed out that if I was ever to come across a bottle of 1.1 I should snap it up immediately as it would pay for my retirement. Although of course it wouldn’t because for starters I’d never be able to afford it and even if I could I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from drinking it.
The whiskies are grouped into flavour profiles of which there are 12, with names like Spicy and Sweet, Light and Delicate or Oily and Coastal. There might be a number of bottles within each profile and they are given names that are an evocative and somewhat whimsical description of the flavours you’ll find in that bottle. One of them is called ‘Riding a duck bareback up Mount Etna.’ See? Genius.
So that’s why I was trying 12 whiskies. In fact I had to try each one twice, once neat and once with a drop of water to open out the flavour. This is what I look like after 24 shots of cask strength whisky:
Apart from getting me to drink all that smashing whisky, and come up with intelligent and apposite flavour descriptors while I did so, which I assume was some sort of hazing/initiation ritual, the idea was to come up with a cheese to pair with one of the whisky profiles. This choice would form the basis of our talk at the Flavour Fanatics event. Feeling at the time inexplicably confident, I offered to match all 12 profiles with a cheese.
Thoughtfully the nice people at SMWS sent me a care package of samples of each of the profiles to help with that project, which you can see here.
It turns out it is possible to match each of these whisky profiles to a cheese, or a style of cheese, and I have done so. Over the next 12 weeks you’ll be able to read about these matches. I’ll start this week with my favourite cheese and whisky match, Lancashire with Spicy and Sweet. Like I said, if you get one of these smashing whiskies, let me know and I will bring around the relevant cheese. If I can have a drop of your whisky.