Pairing whisky with chocolate
Connosr member Stuart Robson is a man of many talents - whisky and chocolate being two of his great passions - so we felt very honoured when he offered to contribute an article for Distilled.
A complex relationship
When it comes to pairing chocolate and whisky, I am always looking for something interesting: for the chocolate to really add something to the whisky and for it to draw out certain flavours and intertwine with others.
Having a high cocoa percentage is not the mark of a fine chocolate, any more than the words 'Single Malt' indicate a truly wonderful whisky.
It is always something of a case of trial and error, such is the complexity of both products involved that you can never be sure quite how they will interact.
It cannot be stressed enough that having a high cocoa percentage is not the mark of a fine chocolate, any more than the words “Single Malt” indicate a truly wonderful whisky; and I implore anyone so inclined to try a couple of bars from the best chocolate producers.
You will be amazed at the vast difference between an average supermarket blended dark chocolate at 85% and a fine bar at 65-70%. What matters more is, in the first instance, bean quality.
When tasting Chocolate and Whisky together, the following process is advised;
- Take the whisky on the palette, moving it around the mouth for awhile to let the flavours build.
- Once swallowed, wait a few seconds before placing a very small piece of chocolate on the tongue. Allow the chocolate to melt slowly and experience the profiles of the Chocolate and Whisky as they come together.
- Towards the end of the melt, take a little of the whisky back over the chocolate. This leads to greater intensity and often the development of some interesting and unexpected flavours.
- Enjoy the finish as you normally would, only this time you will see some interesting variations in the profile of the whisky.
Sometimes the best pairings come from inherent contrasts that result in a surprisingly balanced union, whereas others are the result of complimentary profiles drawing the best from each other.
Balblair 1989 43%ABV & Domori Sur Del Lago 70% (Venezuelan)
A delicate Chocolate with light fruits, toasted cashew and fresh tobacco leaf. This is a quite feminine pairing with the Domori playing on the typically American Oak character and subtly of this Balblair, with some lovely sweet spices and contrasting apple skins in the finish.
Aberlour Abunadh #22, 59.3%ABV & Valrhona Palmira 64% (Venezuelan)
A Chocolate big on Honey, nuts and light spices. The Valrhona brings a rounded sweetness and a brighter fruit quality to the whisky while intensifying the typically spicy sherried notes in a rather sweet but very satisfying pairing.
Buffalo Trace 43%ABV & Friis-Holm Chuno 70% (Nicaraguan)
An unusual Chocolate full of star anise, black liquorice, dried tobacco and green tea. A lovely pairing full of both compliments and contrasts, the spicy liquorice depths of the chocolate finish in harmony with the sweet vanilla of the bourbon.
Talisker 10yo 45.8%ABV & Willies Delectable Cacao Madagascan 71%(Madagascan)
A typically fruity Madagascan bar with lively citrus, passion fruit and cedar wood. A deeper more brooding molasses backnote adds depth. A Classic whisky and chocolate pairing and something of a taming of the characteristically wild, elemental Talisker with lifted fruit syrup notes and softened pepper, but the late brine leaves the Talisker on top.
Lagavulin DE 1993, 43% & Amedei Porcelana 70%(Venezuelan)
An ultimately delicate bar with crème caramel, blanched almonds and macadamia nuts and a touch of light grape. The huge Lagavulin does not dominate as might be expected but instead gives way to a hugely sensuous pairing, softened smokey peat with lifted dried fruits and vanilla coming in waves across the palette. Quite beautiful.
A natural combination
Whisky and chocolate - a natural combination. Both are produced from minimal ingredients and yet through an almost magical process give rise to a complex array of heady aromas and flavours. Chocolate, like whisky, comes in a plethora of interesting varieties and the profile of any Single Origin chocolate bar (produced from beans grown in a singular locality) is inextricably linked to the country in which the beans were grown and the location within that country.
Chocolate, like whisky, comes in a plethora of interesting varieties and its profile is inextricably linked to place where it is produced.
However as anyone immersed in the joys of whisky will know, such “regional influence” only goes so far and as a distiller can play tunes in the distillery to create his desired spirit character with length of fermentation, size of charge, speed at which the stills are run and the cuts etc, the chocolate maker does likewise.
He/she has a number of important decisions to make that will affect the final profile of the chocolate, for example the bean locality, variety and how long to roast and conche the beans for. The process is all in the aim of producing desired aromas and flavours, whilst always taking into account the “house style” of the producer and bean’s natural profile.
The bean variety plays a big role here but the practices on the plantation itself for example the fermentation and drying of the beans cannot be underestimated. Whilst we do not have space to elaborate too much here, broadly speaking there are three bean varieties:
Criollo; very few pure Criollo trees remain. These are highly susceptible to disease and largely replanted with stronger, higher yielding varieties. The beans tend to produce distinctive and highly complex chocolate often showing a nutty profile with caramel, tobacco and fruit notes. Today most so-called ‘Criollo’ trees are in fact genetically much closer to the Trinitaro variety we will come to later.
Forastero; an easily cultivated tree with high yield. On the whole quite poor and often bitter flavour characteristics. Forastero accounts for the vast majority of the global cocoa crop and tends to be bulk Cocoa intended for the mass market. However, there are a number of exceptions to the rule; most notably the Ecuadorian Cocao National or Arriba Forastero which are frequently used to produce fine bars.
Trinitaro: a hybrid of the fine Criollo and the largely mass-market Forestero . Originating in Trinidad, the tree shows some of the robust elements that have made the Forastero the global commodity cocoa, together with beans producing some of the fine flavours that have made the pure Criollo so revered. The majority of today’s fine chocolate is produced using Trinitaro beans with some quite stunning results.
Bean quality, however, is not the end of the issue and like a distiller filling great distillate into top quality casks, the chocolate producer must take great care in how he processes his beans; roasting, refining, conching and tempering them into the final chocolate. Like all things it all comes down to taste and there are no generalisations that can be considered true in any dogmatic sense of the word.
There have certainly been some very fine bars produced from Forasteros and equally some not-so-fine bars produced from Criollos. Perhaps one thing we can say with certainty however is that the production of fine chocolate, just as in whisky, requires a great deal of knowledge, skill and a dedication to quality.
www.chocolateandlove.com the only place in the U.K to purchase the Friis-Holm bar above and the they will soon be stocking the widest range of fine flavour bars in Britain.
www.thechocolatetradingco.com online chocolate retailer carrying a wide range of bars and other products.
www.seventypercent.com a great resource of info and reviews of the finest chocolate.