A 5-course example of how to pair whisky with food

Of all whiskies, single-malt Scotch probably has the most daunting reputation – something along the lines of complicated, strong and best drunk in leather armchairs while discussing high-minded subjects.

Chef Josh Ward and maitre'd Mitch McCaskill (Hospitality Management ’08) aren’t convinced that’s fair. Scotch’s complexity, they’ll tell you, is a virtue, making the drink an experience like no other. To prove it, they helped plan a whisky dinner held May 12 at Ernest’s, NAIT’s fine dining restaurant. The event pairs 5 Glenfarclas Scotch whiskies with 5 courses.

They admit, however, that Scotch pairing is tricky. “It is very challenging,” says Ward, who helped develop the menu that incorporated each variety into the dishes they will accompany. “The thing about whisky is it’s so powerful that you have to have equally flavourful dishes as well.”

Given whisky’s high alcohol content (all of those included in the dinner are above 40%), Ward pairs for intensity, which means a menu featuring the boldness of rich meats and the soothing sensation of creams and occasional starch.

Here we look at his and McCaskill’s effort – course by course – to turn more diners onto Scotch and show how “complicated” can, in fact, be not just complementary but enjoyable and memorable.

Chili spiced pork belly
paired with £511.19s.0d Family Reserve
43% alcohol by volume

Named for the price the distillery was purchased for 150 years ago, 511 features a sweet sherry profile with a mix of fruit, light nut and chocolate. Even if still potent, “It is the lighter of all of the whiskies [on the menu],” says Ward. Pork belly, a fattier meat, was a clear choice to “cut through” the alcohol, while the chili pairs with its bite.

For balance, included is a creamy chevre polenta and crunchy chicharon for texture.

Orange thyme duck breast
paired with 12 year old

“When we tasted the 12 year old, 4 out of the 5 people got a floral note,” says Ward. He and the team used that as their guide. Orange and thyme matched that flowery taste while saskatoon gastrique, pickled candy cane beets and arugula salad went along with the sherry, oak, and peat that also define the variety.

Purée of succotash soup
paired with 15 year old

“The 15 year old to me was probably the smokiest of the 5,” says Ward. It’s a vintage that boasts malt tones and peat flavours. To emphasize those without competing, the accompanying purée relied upon charred corn and smoked paprika. Crème fraîch was added to take the edge off the alcohol – dairy coats the mouth, Ward points out, softening that alcohol tingle.

Porcini crusted striploin
paired with 21 year old

Milder than the 15 year old, the 21 features a mellow mix of fruit, smoke and spice. Ward also detected an earthiness. “It’s woodsy. You can tell it’s been in the barrel a little bit longer.” To complement that, he went with mushrooms, tubers and roots. Beside the porcini crust on the striploin, the course includes a gruyere potato pavé and a sunchoke purée.

Pecan tart
paired with 105 Cask Strength

“Everyone coughed after the first sip,” says McCaskill of this seriously strong whisky (even Glenfarclas recommends adding a little water to help it go down). “It surprised me,” says Ward, a longtime whisky enthusiast who claims he did not, in fact, cough. “This one opened my eyes.”

Ward paired the caramel he tasted in 105 with a pecan tart, which he makes that much richer by adding molasses. He hit the caramel sauce with a smoke gun and went with brown butter for the ice cream to play off the Scotch’s nuttiness.

For the latter, he did have to burn off a little of the alcohol for the dish to work. The alcohol was so high, he says, that the ice cream wouldn’t freeze.

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