Cooking with casks


The whisky kitchen is about being creative and using what you have. Local produce and a love of flavour exploration are all you need to get started. Here with some inspiration is SMWS executive head chef, James Freeman

James Freeman knows a thing or two about using whisky in the kitchen, although he admits, that wasn’t the case when he started.

The SMWS executive head chef has spent nearly 20 years crafting and honing dining experiences for the Society. His kitchen is one that’s influenced largely by the French, Spanish and Italian cooking he encountered during his post-university travels, along with some Chinese and Japanese elements.

It’s Britain’s melting pot of cultures that drives his creativity. “That’s what British cooking is all about,” he says. And with that comes a careful consideration of each element and flavour. “We’re ingredients-led in terms of the cooking. It’s produce that inspires ideas. Seasonality is absolutely key.”

This seasonality fuels James’s whisky kitchen, with Scottish produce playing a big part in the menus for Members’ Rooms and in the Society’s home dining experience. If you’ve been a Society member for a while, you might recognise our whisky-cured salmon, a dish that was one of the first whisky kitchen dishes for James. “This was one of the recipes we developed early on, and we’ve had it on and off the menu in various forms for all of 20 years,” he says.

“This was one of the recipes we developed early on, and we’ve had it on and off the menu in various forms for all of 20 years”



One of the unique aspects of Society whisky is also one of the reasons to proceed with caution when using it in the kitchen. “The challenge is that the flavours can be overwhelming,” says James. “You’ve got to be quite careful. You don’t want the whisky to dominate the flavour of an ingredient – and that’s really easy to do when you’re talking about cask strength whiskies with individual characteristics.”

Another top tip? Stick to the brandy when you’re flambeeing. “There’s no point in burning off our whisky,” he says. “It’s too expensive and you don’t get the effect of it.” So if you’re making a sauce, how do you get big bold SMWS flavours? “We use SMWS whiskies raw in dishes, rather than cooking them out. If you were making Steak Diane, for example, you would use brandy and flame all of that off. At the end, a Highland whisky or a sherry cask would be perfect, you would add a tiny bit to the sauce.”

Equally, you don’t always need to sauté, boil or bake to get whisky into a dish. James uses the example of mignonette, a bold and tangy French vinaigrette with shallots and red wine vinegar, that is usually served with raw oysters. “Try adding a smoky Islay whisky from the likes of distillery 29,” he says. “Mignonette traditionally had spice in it with cloves, peppercorns and other spices. You’re looking for a whisky where the spiciness comes through the back end of it.”

Less is more: don’t let the whisky dominate the flavour of your ingredients

Using whisky raw can produce tremendous results, but there are one or two exceptions

It’s also worth considering the other ingredients you’re using if you’re looking to add such a bold whisky. “A white wine vinegar might work even better with the whisky,” James says. “Replace the red wine with white wine and add a bit of sugar to help with the tartness of the white wine vinegar. Add a drop of whisky and a squeeze of lemon.”

There are of course exceptions to the rule, but it boils down to how you’re using whisky in the kitchen. “The exception I might make to that is that we do a pulled pork with a bourbon smoky whisky,” he says.

“In that case you just wrap the pork in tinfoil with a bit of the whisky at the beginning so that the flavour goes right through as you’re braising the pork.”

James Freeman has been the head chef at 28 Queen Street since the Society’s Members’ Room opened in 2004.



If you’re working in a plant-based whisky kitchen, the ideas are largely the same – it’s all about flavour. “Mushrooms and whisky work well in the same way that venison and whisky work well together,” he says. “Chargrilled mushrooms will give you smokiness. Add tarragon and some smoky whisky to a cream sauce maybe.” But it’s seasonality that wins out as he points out that chanterelle mushrooms are found all over Scotland in August, and they can often work in place of game such as venison or grouse. “Wild mushrooms, especially chanterelles, and redcurrants and a nice citrusy whisky would work well together,” says James. “You could fry mushrooms, deglaze with whisky, add a bit of crème fraiche – that would be delicious on toast!” Perhaps most importantly, expect the unexpected. “A smoky whisky works really well with tomato. You wouldn’t really have thought that,” he says. “A nice fresh gazpacho with tomatoes and crab and smoky whisky is surprising. It doesn’t seem to make sense.” Shellfish will also work well with a smoky whisky. “Try putting mussels on the barbecue until they are open, then eat paired with a smoky whisky,” says James. “Oysters too, served raw will pair beautifully with a smoky whisky. Use anything from Lightly Peated through to Heavily Peated or try our Oily & Coastal flavour profile.”

Finally, don’t forget about dessert. Whether it’s a cheese board, or something sweeter, whisky can appear in most forms. Aside from traditional dishes such as cranachan, James offers some ideas. “Macerate your raspberries in whisky with sugar for half an hour before you eat them – then add a bit of lemon and a dollop of vanilla crème fraiche,” he says. “Vanilla and whisky marry together really beautifully.” And there’s plenty of scope for adding whisky to a cheese board as well, “Cheese is a surprising one,” he says. “Highland whisky, with honey and spicy creamy textures – goes nicely.”