Left to my own devices at a bar, I'd never spring for a tumbler of Scotch. It's so smoky and peaty and strong, Scotch whisky seems more suited to people who smoke cigars and speak in low tones about stock prices and vacation houses. People kind of like my dad, for whom I buy a bottle of Scotch every Christmas.
But remembering the unlikely success of the sake and cheese pairing I attended last year, this past weekend I took a chance on a Scotch tasting hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Annual Festival.
At the festival, in addition to meeting Michigan culinary visionary Ari Weinzweig and dozens of other cheese lovers, I attended three pairing seminars: Scotch and cheese, rum and cheese and dessert wines and cheese. (I'll get to those latter two next.)
Calling them "seminars" makes them sound less fun and more formal than they were. For the first tasting, a be-kilted Gregory Long from Vom Fass regaled us with stories about Scotch — how it's made, what creates the smoky, peaty, minerally flavors, why the kind of barrels matter.
Did you know that with Scotch, older does not necessarily equal better? (I'm sure my dad didn't know that.) It's all about the flavors the distiller wants, which may not require extra aging. When you swirl whisky in a glass, much like wine, thick "legs" dripping down can indicate a heavier mouthfeel; thin, fast-moving drops might mean it's more delicate.
According to Long, all Scotch is aged a minimum of three years, usually in American oak barrels that used to carry bourbon. Whiskies and cheeses, incidentally, are often aged in the same way — "cured" in caves.
These were our pairings:
Arran 14 years old/ Uplands Cheese Co. Pleasant Ridge Reserve
The Pleasant Ridge, a gorgeous, slightly nutty, white-fleshed cheese, quieted the harshness of this Scotch from the Isle of Arran. The Arran was an oaky, nutty whisky with a touch of creaminess on the finish, almost like you'd find in a chardonnay.
Blair Athol 11 years old/ Emmi Roth USA Gran Queso
The Blair Athol had a very different smell than the Arran, almost a sugary softness. It was aged in a sherry cask, which gave it a dark, complex flavor. The Emmi Roth reminded me less of a manchego (Long's comparison) and more of a mahon, the Spanish cheese's milder cousin.
Ardmore 7 years old/ Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar
Most whiskies are aged in 60 gallon casks, Long said, but not this one. The Ardmore, described as "semi-peated," was aged in quarter-casks, which speeds up the process since so much more whisky is touching the wood. To me it smelled like moss or wet grass.
The Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar was simply beautiful — creamy, complex without being sharp. It's called "bandaged" because of how it ages, wrapped in cheesecloth and covered in lard. (Long works for Fromagination as well as Vom Fass, so he knew all the answers.)
Caol Ila 12 years old/ Roelli Cheese Dunbarton Blue
The Caol Ila was the most overwhelming, with big, smoky flavors and a medicinal quality that Long compared to "sea air" and, oddly, kiwi fruit. This kind of Scotch takes some getting used to, Long admitted, "but once you do, it's very rewarding."
The Roelli cheese Long paired it with was one of my favorites, creamy like a cheddar, blue-veined but with no bite.
At the end of our tasting, one of the participants asked Long what he drinks when he's left to his own non-educational devices. He figured he'd be downtown later that night, drinking Ardbeg ("a peat bomb") and smoking a cigar at Maduro.
For myself, I grabbed a hunk of the bandaged cheddar and resolved to find out whether it would pair with the Cotes du Rhone I already had open at home. I had a feeling it would.
(For Thursday: Rum and Cheese)