An Evening of Scotch & Chocolate

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What’s better than a whisky tasting? A whisky tasting with chocolate.

The last time I attended a whisky event at the Morgan Library, it was hosted by Gordon & MacPhail and featured five of their independent bottlings plus a Benromach. Last Friday, Josh Feldman (aka writer of the Coopered Tot and personality extraordinaire) presented six unique whiskies coupled with stunning chocolates by Pacari. In a warm, inviting atmosphere, attendees softened chocolate between their fingers while learning from Francisco Vivar of Pacari about the origins and characteristics of each variety and from Josh about the whisky pairings. We nosed and sipped and tasted in various combinations (whisky first, then chocolate; now chocolate first and then whisky; now together!) to determine the impact on flavors resulting from each order. Surprisingly, it does matter which goes into your mouth first. Even simply placing the chocolate on your tongue, allowing it to melt a bit and then nosing the whisky can radically alter the evident dominant flavors.

Pacari is a company that seems relatively unknown to the average US consumer but has captured the spotlight of the chocolate world. Based in Ecuador (Pacari translates as “nature” in local language Quechua), they make 100% organic chocolate and adhere to “fair and equitable standards” of production while aiming to preserve traditional methods of cacao farming. The importance of this becomes clear when tasting Pacari’s different varieties of chocolate, several of whose unique flavors showcase the diversity of the local terroir. And all this isn’t just talk; Pacari really puts its money where your mouth is. The company is the first chocolate producer in the world to earn the Demeter Biodynamic Certification and, what’s more, Francisco’s sincerity and authenticity—he uttered not a word of industry jargon or marketing language—spoke volumes about Pacari’s confidence in their products. Indeed, with or without whisky, this chocolate shines.

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Joining me in flavor exploration were pastry chef/food writer Rebekah Pizanaauthor and chocolate expert Clay Gordon, and Allison Patel, Whisky Woman and producer of Brenne Single Malt. We formed a cozy little pack of nerds, exchanging notes and learning from each other throughout the evening. As I know next to nothing about chocolate (except that I enjoy it!), it was truly a privilege to taste alongside someone as knowledgeable as Clay and learn from his insights. It was also a treat to hang out with Allison—and even more so when Josh pulled out a bottle of Brenne to share with the room! For the unlucky (aka non-New Yorkers) who don’t yet have access to it, Brenne is a delicious, different kind of single malt produced in Cognac, France. It always surprises first-timers—even whisky connoisseurs—in a pleasant way and as other guests mobbed Allison to heap effusive praise on her whisky, the night culminated in a truly magical moment. Big ups to Josh for his perfect timing!

The night held other surprises too, not all of which I can reveal just yet. (Check back in a couple of months for something exciting that perfectly marries the realms of chocolate and spirits.) Clay generously shared some unique products with me—the beautiful 100% cacao Il Criollo by Domori, a bit of the ridiculously-addictive (and tragically not available for purchase) dried cacao fruit, and strangely awesome dark chocolate-covered, jalapeño-dusted corn nuts from Fruition Chocolate. (Yeah, corn nuts, I know—you have to try it to believe it.)

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but is worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but it’s worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Just as at the Gordon & MacPhail tasting, a comment from the evening perfectly reinforced the philosophy behind this blog, and behind my explorations of food and spirits in general. In the midst of the writers’ geekery over the pairings and our attempts to verbalize the tastes and feelings swirling around our palates and minds, Clay sagely intoned,

“You can take the whisky seriously. You can take the chocolate seriously. But you can’t take yourself seriously.”

How right he is. No matter what tone of “authority” I might take on this blog (and I do hope there’s not much of one), I earnestly believe that eating and drinking should be primarily about enjoyment. Tasting notes and philosophical rhapsodizing help me sort out the mechanics of food and drink, provide an outlet for my natural interest, and enable me to organize my emotional connections to the act of cooking, eating, and sharing. But I don’t have to deeply contemplate a dessert or compose an ode to a dram to enjoy it, fully and truly. In the end, what matters is the pleasure received from tasting what’s good, and that’s it.

All that being said, now I’m going to share my tasting notes. Ha!

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 12yo with Pacari Piura 70% Regional
The Piura chocolate is made from Peruvian white cacao beans and is an unprocessed as possible. By itself it had a strong fruitiness—notes of berry, cherry and green apple. Paired with the Glenmorangie (which displayed typical sherried notes of golden raisins on the nose and spiciness on the palate), the two produced a honeyed butterscotch flavor with the fruitiness coming out as peaches, and a hint of underlying white pepper.

Compass Box Hedonism with Pacari Lemongrass
My favorite combination of the evening, best taking the whisky first. Hedonism is an all-grain blend with a sweet nose of marshmallows and gorse flowers and a tropical palate full of coconut. Josh described it as a “500 thread count silk pillowcase” and it is, indeed, indulgent. With the chocolate, the citrus notes of the whisky came out in full force beside the lemongrass along with a crisp freshness—to me, spearmint—which lingered on the finish. As the whisky breathed (and as we tasted other chocolates), the gorse scent (some smelled it more as jasmine) became stronger and more developed and lingered sweetly.

GlenDronach “The Revival” 15 yo with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
Another sherried malt, the Revival gave off strong plum and raspberry notes on the nose and a palate of dried fruit, orange peel and a hint of hot paprika on the tip of the tongue. With the chocolate, strong gingerbread notes emerged which deepened both elements.

Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 42 with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Aberlour and especially their A’bunadh series. Paired with this chocolate, the dram that displays some of the richest sherry notes I’ve tasted takes on an earthiness entirely new to me. The familiar cooked fruits now seemed roasted rather than stewed—bolder and more complex. This was one of the most interesting combinations of the night, as the chocolate and the whisky completely changed each other.

Ardbeg Uigeadail with Pacari Salt & Nibs
The pink salt in this chocolate comes from Cuzco, where people dig ponds, fill them with water, and let the water evaporate, leaving this salt behind. Ardbeg, an Islay whisky, also incorporates parts of the earth where it’s made, displaying characteristic peatiness. Together, these two elements created a total explosion of salt and peat: dissonant at first, but which soon mellowed to a sweet, honeyed harmonization. A very fun combination, especially since this was one of the few chocolates we were encouraged to chew (the “nibs” being little bits of the cacao bean).

Balcones Brimstone with Pacari Fig
By this point, I was so caught up in the general atmosphere of excitement (this was right after Josh produced the Brenne and the whole room went wild), I neglected to take very comprehensive notes. As you might have guessed, the chocolate contained chewy little niblets of fig. Its sweet fruitiness married nicely with Brimstone’s uniquely smoky profile, achieved via Texas scrub oak (whatever that is—tastes sort of, but not really, like mesquite). It was like drinking a barbecue sandwich topped with fig preserves—and therefore awesome. The Brimstone also paired fabulously with the aforementioned corn nuts, leaving me in a state of near-delirium and joy.

PS—Read Allison’s beautiful take on the evening here

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Making Up for Lost Time, Part One: Aberlour Distillery

I know it’s been an atrociously long time since I posted. My only excuses are that in the last six weeks I

– finished my Masters dissertation in Edinburgh;

– packed up my life and moved from Edinburgh back to the US;

– got married, for the second and third times*; and

– moved from one state to another, unpacked and reorganized my life.

*I actually got married in August 2011, so that my fiancé-then-husband, Sunjay, could get a visa to join me in Scotland for the year. It was a strictly-immediate-family affair, with no celebration to speak of, so this year we renewed our vows and held a reception with all our family and friends. On top of that, my mother-in-law organized a Hindu wedding ceremony. Three weddings, no funerals.

In light of those events, I hope it’s okay that I took a hiatus. I’ll try to be more with it from here on out, although I’m going back to work full-time tomorrow and frankly have no idea how I will feel for awhile. I’m still sorting out all that reverse culture shock business and trying to figure out how to be a New Yorker again. I miss Scotland terribly, so this post, in addition to being my re-entry to blogging, will function also as a chance for me to wallow in my reminiscences for awhile, whisky in hand, head in clouds.

Before life got so crazy (or perhaps this just contributed to the craziness), Sunjay and I went for one last Scottish hurrah through Speyside, Orkney, and Shetland. The next four posts will showcase the whisky highlights of the trip.

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Our first stop was Aberlour Distillery, which at £12 rated as a bargain even before tasting the whisky. The friendly, knowledgeable guide whose name I have forgotten (Sarah? Julia?) led us through the usual mash tuns and wash backs, stills and spirit safes while detailing the history of the distillery and its founder, James Fleming, who was a businessman and philanthropist whose contributions in both fields still give back today. These days, Aberlour is owned by Pernod Ricard.

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The tasting, of course, was more or less what we came for, and it did not disappoint, In fact, I think it’s the best distillery tasting I’ve had yet, both in terms of quality of spirit offered and content of the “tutored” session. In this aspect, our guide shone with evident passion and knowledge which made for an ideal atmosphere.

Look at the size of those drams!

We started with Aberlour’s new spirit (“clearac”) which is unaged, extremely strong, and basically right off the still — this is what goes into the casks. Think of it as proto-whisky. To me, it was quite like other clearacs I’ve tasted in that it had the usual oats-and-honey smells with strong tones of grapes and currants and a thick mouthfeel. Not bad, not whisky.

Throughout the tasting, I sipped and sniffed and reserved bits of each dram to compare at the end. Some of my notes, therefore, reflect a healthy amount of breathing — I certainly didn’t get every note on the first time around.

Aberlour 16yo Bourbon Cask – 54%
Nose of banana, vanilla, and light caramel — reminded me a lot of a Mary Jane. Palate extremely peppery but still light with oak and leather on the finish. Improved with time/air.

Aberlour 16yo Sherry Cask – 58.5%
Nose of dates and raisins, icing sugar, some maple sugar too. Thick and velvety palate, rich with dark fruits and syrup. Long finish with just a hint of bitterness and everlasting sugar. Both this and the preceding Bourbon Cask were available to”bottle your own” in the tasting room that day.

Aberlour 10yo Sherry Cask finish
Available only France, which is a shame as I found it highly quaffable. Nose of pear with an earthiness that reminded me of a certain Mortlach 15. Despite the sherry finish, heavy bourbon notes prevailed throughout a smooth and creamy palate. Finish short but satisfying. I could see myself drinking this on a nearly daily basis.

Aberlour 16 yo
With a nose of berries — raspberry and bramble mostly — and a lovely cinnamon-and-pepper palate, I loved this whisky even before it ended. Which it nearly didn’t. I swear, they had to kick me out before the finish was done. Truly a remarkable and delicious whisky.

Aberlour A’bunadh batch 38 – 60.3%
Having tasted a whole range of A’bunadh batches from 35 to 39, I already knew what to expect with this one — and that was a good thing. The A’bunadh (“the original”) range came about when some distillery workers in the 70s discovered a bottle of whisky in the wall with a newspaper from the late 1800s wrapped around it. Realizing that they’d stumbled on what may have been the original recipe for Aberlour whisky, the distillery sent the spirit for analysis and has produced this expression as a way to reach back through the annals of time and recreate what had once been lost. Of course, each batch (no age statement) is slightly different from the others, so if you find one you really like, buy up as many bottles as you can because it ain’t coming back.

Batch 38 is good (though batch 35 is definitely my preference out of all the ones I’ve tried) — typical sherried notes of plum and other cooked fruits, but with a lovely twist of bitter orange or perhaps orange oils. It improves with a bit of water and really packs a punch (a good one!) on the finish.

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Visiting Aberlour made for a marvelous start to our long trip. Big thanks to our lovely guide and the staff at the distillery who made us feel so welcome and even allowed us to store our rucksacks in the manager’s office. I sincerely hope to visit again someday.