Scotch from Scotland is always the first thing that crosses my mind when I hear whisky. That connection has been broken for me due to this event. For the first time this year, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, has not a Scotch in the top 5.
Both the Scottish and the Greeks claim to invented the whisky world, so it is no surprise that on a cold Thursday evening, I found myself attending the World of Whisky event at The Forth on the Danforth. I could tell you all about an event that passed in breathless language in such a way that would make you wish you were there but I’m not about inducing jealousy. Instead, what knowledge I learned about world whisky and food pairings, I’ll share.
Welcome to The Forth
The Forth has a multi level space where eight different stations served eight different pairings. To start out the evening right, there were five classic cocktails available to try where whisky was an integral ingredient. The Forth makes a number of its own simple syrups with additional flavours including an Earl Grey simple syrup. The bartenders recently started to mess around with bitters but nothing more than a vanilla cherry bitter has made it bar side. Maybe this is a place to watch for cocktails?
Toronto: You Can Drink It
I was happy to find a Toronto cocktail, and yes it is a real thing, on the menu. It’s a take on the Old Fashioned using Fernet Branca. For those of you beginners, FB is one of the vilest, bitterest substances in a liquor cabinet. If you took a minty toothpaste and infused it with bitter herbs including saffron and myrhh, it would taste similar. Inveterate drinkers and macho bartenders sometimes drink this stuff. I have a mild sadistic streak and so this is a wonderful cocktail. You put FB and Canadian whisky in a glass with a little sugar and get them to fight it out. It’s like watching a really good UFC match. Using Lot 40 whisky, a world class whisky from Windsor (yep), elevates the drink and does a lot to balance out the Fernet Branca. All that is left is a pleasant mintyness with caramel notes and a slight taste of the orange used for garnish. This was a great way to start the tour.
Our two tour guides were sommeliers, both female. I only mention this fact because women, in general, are better tasters. Science.
The approach that the sommelier that arranged the pairings, Emily Pearce, were to match the whisky with food from the terroir. The idea is that as the drinks and the food evolved, the flavours of the land would evolve with them. Most of the matches become safe and traditional using this type of idea but it did make it accessible to the novice drinker of whisky. While I appreciated this approach, a few of the matching could have been more adventuresome.
It’s interesting to take this type of journey on a travel blog and I’ll try my best to point out the highlights and what tourist traps to avoid.
Around the World in a Whisky Glass
The first stop on our tour is Japan. Paired with a Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 yr Whisky was a Soy-Glazed Tuna Sashimi. The tuna was a simple rectangle of fresh fish with a slight garnish topped with the soy. The two partners were clean, fresh and had a silkiness that bounced off each other.
Next up was the homeland for scotch whisky, Scotland where Laphroaig 10 year Scotch paired with Oysters. Huge smoke wafted from the glass when taking a sip. There was a minerality; a saltiness in both the scotch and the oyster. I could almost imagine someone walking alone a craggy and rocky shore, bending down with knife in hand, shucking and guzzling, following the oyster with a quick nip from a flask. Seems like a natural pairing and a nice flow from the refined Japanese to the rougher Scotch.
The next stop on the tour was Canada. Windsor. There is a world class whisky being made in Windsor. Given the history and general opinion of Canadian Whisky, it was a little surprising to see one here. The truth is that due to the lax labeling in Canada in regards to whisky has lead to mixed results but there are some good ones out there worth seeking out. As an example, Lot No. 40 Single Copper Pot Still was paired with lamb and beef meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Not quite sure of Windsor’s terroir as having a lot of lamb but the spicy and sweetness of tomato sauce mirrored the softness and slight spicy notes of the rye whisky.
The next three pairings were the safest of the evening. It started with Jameson Gold Reserve with cheddar fritters and a chutney. Jameson is such a classic pairing with cheddar that there are cheese pucks that are flavoured with it. Of course, it helps to have an aged cheddar with the sharpness to enhance the sweetness of the whisky.
We headed to southern cooking and bourbon and Tennessee whisky. Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Bourbon which is smooth enough to drink on its own but with fritters, it made a lot of sense. The corn fritters were served with a sweet BBQ sauce that had a touch of smoke and heat. The corn in the food matched the corn in the glass.
The Tennessee whisky was of course JD. But it was a more refined and less alcohol burning sensation in the form of Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Whisky. Pulled smoked pork with Cola BBQ, pickled mustard seeds and apple served as an accompaniment. The sweetness was cut with the pickle and stopped the pairing from veering off into candyland. This was probably both the safest and tastiest pairing. While I wished to have more adventure on my world adventure, when the traditional pairings work well, they remind you of why they are classic.
And for Dessert…
Desserts weren’t left out of this world travel by proxy but they were represented by two different cultures of sweets. The first was India and the second was Scotland. India, the land of sweets. Living in little India, there are a lot of sweets available but to our western palate, they may not evoke the same kind of joy and resonance as sugar and flour based treats. One of the more interesting whiskies of the evening was the Amrut Peated Indian Single Malt Whisky served with an updated French classic of a Caramel Mango Clafoutis with vanilla cardamom custard and banana ice cream. These desserts are a reason to try the Forth’s menu on a day when they aren’t doing up a special event. A farmhouse treat pushed Indian flavours to reflect the culture and draw attention to the complexity, fruitiness and spiciness of the whisky. I detected jaggery which is a sugar made from palm tree sap and not overly refined leaving the molasses in tact. I can’t find a reference to it in any tasting notes. The whole Indian whisky experience was singular and I could easily spend the whole post talking about what I learned from the sommeliers and whisky in India.
The last stop was Scotland where Eccles Cakes sat side by side with Arran Malt Single Malt Scotch Whisky. I love Eccles Cake with their mincemeat quality and the dried fruits mimicked the dried fruit and citrus quality of the Arran.
They say that travel changes you. Travel by food does as well.
My expectations were that elements of smoke, heat, sweetness and malt would dominate the pairings. Instead, got a gentle introduction to pairing whisky based on where they were from. There is definitely room for pulling out more adventurous matches that highlight citrus or molasses elements in new ways but there is something to living like a local and enjoying the spirit in its more natural element.