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New Zealand Whisky - Kiwis playing catch up

By Dominic Roskrow

In New Zealand they refer to their homeland as Godzone. Indeed, they like to tell the story of how soon after he had created the country God told St Peter of its many virtues and its abundance of riches.

“Isn’t it a bit unfair on all the other countries in the world to make one place so perfect?” St Peter enquired. “Oh it’s not perfect,” replied God. “You should see the pricks I gave them for neighbours.”

I'm seated with a cross between Captain Haddock, Fagin and a cabbage

Nice joke except the neighbours on New Zealand's West Island include the very amiable, educated and absorbing distillers of Tasmania. And the joke would have been a lot funnier if the Kiwi I sat next to at dinner hadn't been such a small-minded ignorant sub human capable of single handedly dismantling any claim New Zealand might make for style and class.

You'd struggle to find a more impressive setting for a whisky and food pairing dinner the Ponsonby Sailing Club close to Auckland harbour. Close to where I used to live, and almost under the main bridge linking Auckland to the North shore, it is close to perfect. So why on earth did they seat me with a cross between Captain Haddock, Fagin and a cabbage?

The last decade has seen some seismic changes in Aotearoa. In the early 90s you had more chance of enjoying New Zealand seafood in Sydney than you did in Auckland because economic necessity meant that all the finest catch was exported. The bulk may still go overseas but now a host of top line restaurants are serving quality local fish produce.

Auckland has also become considerably more Asian in the last 20 years, and Japanese restaurants and karaoke bars dominate Auckland’s main Queen Street. It wasn’t a surprise, therefore, to be served a Japanese-influenced dish at the trade dinner, or to find it fused with European flavours. What was a surprise was the whisky that was matched with it, Sullivan’s Cove Double Cask, and the fact that all three parts of the canapé combination worked so excellently with it.

It was to set a trend for the rest of the meal, which overall was one of the best whisky dinners I have ever experienced and was peaked to perfection by the chocolate mousse and Classic of Islay whisky, which is apparently an eight year old Lagavulin.

Whisky Live organiser and drinks specialist Bart Burgers says that New Zealanders have been very willing to experiment with whisky and food matching, even outside Auckland.

“We did a highly successful event at Em-Bar-Go in Hamilton. As with this dinner we ended up with a smoky whisky with dark chocolate only on that occasion we used Laphroaig with whjite and dark chocolate truffles and chocolate meringues. Chocolate and peat might not seem the most obvious combination but I find that they always work well together.”

Without doubt New Zealand is at the vanguard of food and whisky pairing. At Em-Bar-Go, for instance, unusual and stylish combinations included Magilligan Peated 8 Year Old Irish whiskey with canapés of Pacific oysters with lime cappuccino, smoked salmon blini with citron mascarpone, and honey roasted pear and prosciutto; Glenburgie 14 Year Old with snow crab and sweetcorn salad, and Asian-style duck, baked baby potatoes and warm beetroot salad with an apricot and lime chutney with Highland Park 14 Year Old.

Dessert was a revelation, too. An earthy Highland malt with a sweet serving? Step forward and take a bow, Tomatin 14 Year Old, the ideal dancing partner for almond tart of poached pears accompanied by praline and crème fraiche.

Bart, who owns wine shops as well as The Whisky Shop in Auckland and has considerable experience in matching food and drink, urges people to be adventurous. Sometimes the best pairings come from the most unlikeliest of directions.

“Another winning combination is Chieftains Longmorn 13 Year Old white port finish served with watercrackers covered with a soft blue brie and topped with a juicy strawberry,” says Bart. “Some of the combinations that work best wouldn’t seem likely but that is the fun of it.”

Bart remains convinced that whisky dinners provide as good a way as any to bring people to whisky and to introduce them – or re-introduce them – to the drink’s seductive charms. Certainly for a young style venue such as Em-Bar-Go, which boasts an extensive wine list and a healthy range of spirits but relatively few Scottish single malts, it’s helping bring premium malts through the door.

“People are willing to try something new and are always looking for a different experience,” he says. “What better way of doing that than pairing unusual whisky with great food?”