New Expressions of The Macallan…and an old challenge
When I asked British whiskey guru Jim Murray (back in 2007) what his thoughts were on the notion of pairing whiskey with food he was characteristically subtle: “No. I think more pretentious rubbish is written and spoken about this than any other factor concerning whisky … It’s a load of crap.”
Having been a guest at numerous “spirits dinners,” I’m inclined to agree with him, though perhaps with a tich less vehemence. While tequila and food actually did kinda/sorta/maybe work, “whisky dinners” have been more problematic. Almost inevitably the whiskies were very good, and the meals generally superb, but pairing the two just didn’t seem to gel. Give me wine with dinner and save the drams for later. So I couldn’t help but sigh when a recent invite for a virtual whisky tasting lunch bleeped into my inbox.
I’m a fan of The Macallan line of luxury Scottish malts and was more than game to taste through a range of its new-to-the-market Double Cask expressions. And saying “no” to a four-course catered lunch from Hy’s Steakhouse/Cocktail Bar would just be nonsensical. But pairing the whiskies with the food? I mean, must we? Turns out a few pleasant (and unexpected) surprises were in store.
Introduced by Cameron Millar, The Macallan Brand Ambassador, Eastern Canada, The Macallan age-defined Double Cask versions, in Millar’s words, demonstrated The Macallan’s “commitment to the long run and our commitment to-seasoned casks.” The Double Cask line retains “The Macallan’s core principles, while at the same time innovating” as they are matured in a combination of sherry-seasoned American and European oak casks.
We sampled The Macallan Double Cask 12 Year Old – “the ideal luxury house whisky” in Millar’s eyes. Honeyed on the nose, with hints of liquorice, malt, butterscotch, toffee and green apple; aromas that reappeared as flavours when tasted, along with suggestions of raisin and caramel. Up next, The Macallan Double Cask 15 Year Old, with vibrant aromatic notes of marmalade, dried fruit, baking spice, buckwheat honey and oats, and flavours leaning towards walnut, sultana and caramel. Round and viscous on the palate, it showed great balance and trailed off with a long, memorable finish.
The Macallan Double Cask 18 Year Old was undoubtedly the pièce de résistance of the tasting. (At over $400 per bottle, maybe not everyone’s go-to…but look at all the money you’ve saved being shut in!) Ultra intense on the nose, with a multi-layered tapestry of hard toffee, butterscotch, dried apricot, vanilla custard, orange oil, cocoa and a bare hint of tobacco. Complex, beautifully balanced, palate-enveloping flavours suggesting a range of baking spices (ginger, nutmeg, clove) intermingled with signature The Macallan notes of sultana, honey, caramel and dried fruits segued into mesmerizing, spice-tinged end notes.
Thrown in for good measure was The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Year Old. Matured exclusively in Spanish sherry-seasoned casks, it’s an expression that Millar thinks will appeal to “a more mature palate; someone who likes a chewier, more profound whisky.” Lots of fruitcake, sultana, vanilla pod, browned butter, ginger and lemon peel in the aroma profile that leads to bold, spicy flavours of raisin pie, crème caramel, vanilla and dried orange. Hauntingly long (as always) on the end note.
Beautiful drams, to be sure, but would they work with the meal?
First up was a cheese course featuring Ossau-iraty, a hard sheep’s milk cheese from France paired with The Macallan Double Cask 12 Year Old. This combo worked pretty well, with the subtle fruitiness and rich texture of the cheese enhancing the whisky’s caramel, honey and oak nuances.
Next up was Roasted Butternut squash soup garnished with Dungeness crab meat and chili oil. Though paired with The Macallan Double Cask 15 Year Old, the soup would have flattered any of the malts we were tasting. There was something about the soup’s silky texture, sweet/earthy flavours, and woodsy/baking spice undertones that enhanced similar elements in the whisky and brought them to the forefront. Though rich in texture, the soup in no way overplayed its hand. A fabulous combination.
The main course consisted of Honey Mustard Rosemary-crusted Lamb Rack with Lyonnaise potato and green beans paired with The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Year Old. To my palate, this combo seemed to enhance the alcohol in the whisky, throwing it a bit off balance. Interestingly, the honey mustard and rosemary crust on its own worked with the spirit in more or less the same way the soup did, but add in the lamb and the whisky got clobbered. A great dish, but probably the least successful when it came to playing nice with the scotch.
Finally, Granny Smith Apple Crumble baked with cinnamon, brown sugar, and oat crumble. Served with Vanilla ice cream. Topped with caramel drizzle. This was matched with The Macallan Double Cask 18 Year Old and you just knew it was going to work before you even tried it. I mean cinnamon, baked apple, brown sugar, oats, caramel, vanilla…practically The Macallan Double Cask 18 Year Old’s tasting note! With the flavours of the whisky mimicking those of the dessert, both components definitely sang from the same songbook and harmonized perfectly.
All in all, the matches worked rather well (a testament to Millar’s skills at pairing). But as I’ve experienced in the past, red meat and whisky don’t seem to want to get along. Maybe it has something to do with the way meat proteins interact with the high alcohol content in the spirit (my uneducated guess, not being a food scientist). In any case, the event was a great way to celebrate Robbie Burns Day — every day.
Photo by Brilynn Ferguson