GAME CHANGING: TEXTURES
The rough and the smooth
There’s nothing quite like the mouthfeel of an undiluted, un-chillfiltered Society single malt on the palate, and the texture of different flavour profiles can differ dramatically, from dry to viscous and everything in between. Ghillie Başan takes a look at how intriguing food and whisky pairings can dramatically influence our experience and appreciation of texture in our whiskies
I’m one of those people who get a great deal of enjoyment out of mouthfeel. I’ll bite a piece of chocolate, hold it in my mouth and let it melt and release its flavour. But an important part of the enjoyment is the texture – creamy, silky, smooth – and how long this enables the flavour to linger in my mouth. If I just pop a lump of chocolate into my mouth, chew quickly and swallow, my appreciation is diminished. I’m missing two thirds of the flavour story. Why bother eating the chocolate at all?
STEPS OF APPRECIATION
When it comes to single malt whisky there are several steps of appreciation on the road to texture, and they all contribute to the ensuing tasting journey. At the beginning there is the colour, perhaps light gold or rich amber, usually an indication of the cask type and age; there is pleasure and satisfaction in the beading; and there is surprise and anticipation on the nose as notes of spice, fruit, honey, toasted nuts, worn saddles, salty sea air and the earthen floor of a dunnage warehouse spring to mind – each person interpreting aromas according to their personal experience.
A NEW DIMENSION
When the spirit dampens the tongue, other flavours might emerge, and a drop of water softens the spirit. But there is one new dimension that can only be experienced in the mouth, and that is texture. The sensation of chewy, creamy, oily, crisp, crackly, dry, succulent, melting, stringy, spongy, cloying, watery will affect the enjoyment of that particular whisky. Texture and pleasure are intertwined.
Experts tell us that the texture of the whisky has been formed during the maturation process: the tannins of the oak might be coating the mouth like the fine velvet on a stag’s antlers; the vanillin, also extracted from the cask, enhances the velvet coating with creamy and silky textures extending the mouthfeel to luscious and lingering; and the hint of fruity notes from the esters might contribute to these textures and perhaps introduce a little oiliness or butteriness to the overall mouthfeel.
I believe that, to some extent, texture is also preconceived. It goes right back to the beginning of the story and how it was told. Take a fillet steak as an example. On the menu, it might be described as ‘A fillet of well-hung, grass-fed, native Highland beef from the Estate’s suckler herd which roams freely outdoors all year round’. The ‘terroir’ narrative is already implying that the fillet will have fine marbling, that it will be tender, tasty and juicy. The anticipation and expectation are set before you’ve even smelled the smoky char of the grilling and the sweetness of the creamy sauce that comes with it.
The aroma is enticing, the knife draws through flesh cleanly, the first bite is tender and juicy, the steak meets your expectations – you think this is the best steak you’ve ever had, as the Highland cow has roamed freely all year round. But what if the steak is chewy, tough, stringy? There is no escaping the disappointment. Texture and pleasure go hand in hand.
ENHANCING THE JOURNEY
So, how does this all relate to whisky tasting and food pairing? How do you separate texture from flavour? My answer is: you don’t. If you want texture without flavour, chew on the cartilage of a duck’s foot. But if you want to pair the texture of a single malt with food you have to include some of the flavour – partly because they are inseparable in the mouth and partly because of the tasting narrative.
When I host whisky and food pairing experiences, which often involve whisky collectors, whisky writers, whisky connoisseurs and bartenders from all over the world, I get my guests to join in the preparation of the food. That helps them understand the process and reasoning as we explore flavour and texture and end up with a sequence of tasters arranged on one of my roof slates. Each mouthful has been created to enhance or contrast the flavour and texture of the single malts, to take the palate on a food journey in the same way that the whisky does.
Here is my pick of six SMWS flavour profiles, each with notes drawn from the flavour characteristics and associated textures documented by the Society's Tasting Panel. The food pairing mouthfuls have been chosen to enhance your appreciation of the texture of the whisky…
GHILLIE’S TEXTURE & FLAVOUR PROFILE PAIRINGS
DEEP, RICH & DRIED FRUITS
Flavour: toffee, treacle, caramel, dense dried raisins and currants, orange peel
Texture: chewy, sticky, moist from dried fruit, ‘bite’ from peel
PAIRED WITH DATE TRUFFLES WITH ROASTED PISTACHIOS AND ORANGE PEEL
By whizzing roasted almonds or pistachios with the moist flesh of dates, you have a rich, sticky mixture to bind with a little honey, flavour with cinnamon and mould into small balls. Combine finely chopped roasted almonds or pistachios with finely chopped orange peel and roll the balls in it to coat them. The crunch of the nuts will contrast with the rich, sticky texture, making it more enjoyable, and the orange peel picks up on flavour as well as texture.
SPICY & DRY
Flavour: clove, sandalwood, chilli, cocoa, rum and raisin, toasted coconut, nutmeg, pipe tobacco, pencils
Texture: bark, brittle, crunchy – use an ingredient that is brittle and crunchy, slightly chewy and pick up on the spice and toasted flavours
PAIRED WITH BUTTERY COCONUT CHIPS WITH MACE
Coconut chips sautéed in a nob of butter until lightly browned are brittle, crunchy and slightly chewy – perfect texture – but by adding a fingerful of crumbled mace (not ground mace) you retain the texture but pick up on the aromatic resinous aroma and taste implied by the cloves, tree bark, and sandalwood. The butter and toasted coconut notes lend a sweet aroma and all you need to do is season with a little salt and eat with your fingers. If you want to pick up on the chilli, just toss in a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper.
SWEET, FRUITY & MELLOW
Flavour: sweet fruit – apple, apricot, orange, watermelon – tartness from lemon meringue pie, sweet from boiled sweets and pina colada
Texture: slight chew or ‘bite’ (Turkish delight and orange/lime peel) melting, creamy, coating the mouth, fizz – bring together the ‘bite’ using a sweet fruit with the ‘creamy’ but with an added hint of fizz
PAIRED WITH LABNEH FILLED APRICOTS IN LEMON SYRUP WITH DRIED LIME
Dried apricots poached in syrup provide the chew and bite of the texture and pick up on the fruit flavour notes. The apricots need to be soaked in water first and then the syrup is made with that water, lemon juice and pared lemon rind. To serve, you fill each apricot with a spoonful of labneh (yogurt strained through muslin for six hours), which gives you the creamy texture and emphasises the bite of the apricot. To finish, sprinkle the apricots with ground dried Omani lime, which is tangy, almost fizzy.
YOUNG & SPRITELY
Flavour: mint/eucalyptus, tangy, tart, fresh, nippy
Texture: leafy, perhaps waxy or gummy – emphasise the freshness with young leaves and waxy/juicy green juniper berries and bring those two elements together with something smooth but mild, possibly oily or melting
PAIRED WITH SMOKED SALMON FINGERS WITH GREEN JUNIPER CREAM IN GARLIC MUSTARD GARLIC LEAVES
Cut a side of smoked salmon into thick fingers – not fine slices – place each one on a garlic mustard leaf (hedge garlic) or a young nettle and top with a teaspoonful of green juniper cream, made by pounding the berries with garlic and combining with lemon, crème fraiche and a drizzle of honey. Lift the whole thing in your fingers and eat like a taco. To pick up on the fresh flavours, garnish with wood sorrel (tastes like green apple skin) or mint.
OLD & DIGNIFIED
Flavour: spice or floral scent, fruity, sweet, vanilla, caramel, poached fruit, wood, roasted nuts
Texture: fleshy, syrupy, succulent, lingering
PAIRED WITH PEARS POACHED IN SAFFRON AND CINNAMON SYRUP
The gleaming, golden colour of these pears will sit companionably with the whisky that fits this profile. The succulent texture with a slight bite encompasses all the fruit mentioned and the flavoured syrup adds to the scent. To achieve the colour and texture, the pears need to be poached gently for about three hours. The texture can be enjoyed on its own, or combined with a hard, salty cheese to contrast or you could use toasted walnuts to bring in a hint of the wood and roasted nut aroma.
Flavour: smoke, herbal, lavender, tar
Texture: Could be meaty or perhaps crisp
PAIRED WITH WHISKY CURED VENISON WRAPPED IN FRESH WILD GARLIC LEAF WITH LAVENDER SYRUP
Cure a piece of venison or beef fillet/loin in peated whisky with black cardamom pods for extra smoky flavour, black peppercorns, brown sugar and salt for 10 days. Sear the cured fillet in a hot pan or over char-grill (lightly roll it in the embers and dust off, if wanting to enhance the flavour), slice very finely and serve wrapped in wild garlic leaf for crispness and a drizzle of lavender syrup. To enhance the texture, I would add a gin-soaked rowanberry, a by-product of my rowan gin, to jolt the palate into focusing on texture rather than solely flavour and I would present the wrapped venison on an aromatic leaf, such as sweet cicely.