Relight my fire

In this column for Unfiltered from issue 35 in April 2017, SMWS honorary ambassador Hans Offringa explored the historic links between whisky and food – and how this unique relationship has been discussed and dissected on the printed page

For the last decade, whisky dinners have become regular features at whisky festivals. The attention to whisky and food has never been livelier. And whisky is seen not only as an ingredient, but as a companion to the dish.

However, drinking whisky during a meal is not new. Hundreds of years ago the Scottish Highlanders seized every occasion to savour a dram: a funeral, wedding or birthday. A true Scot wouldn’t ignore any opportunity presented. In that respect, nothing much has changed over the years.

The perception of whisky did change, however. In former days it was common to drink straight from the still. It mustn’t have tasted very nice in its pure form because herbs and honey were added to flavour the raw spirit. Then in the 19th century, stories emerge about the positive influence of maturation in wooden casks.

In those days Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus wrote in her Journal of a Highland Lady: “…whisky mild as milk…long in the wood”. Slowly, attention focused on the diversity of flavour and aromas. Drinking well-matured whisky during dinner and using whisky to prepare food as a replacement for the ubiquitous wines are relatively new developments.

One of the first, if not the first whisky dinner of recent times was held in the late 1980s at Pennsylvania State University. The participants were mainly interested in the combination of different flavour congeners. In other words, it was primarily a scientific exercise. Michael Jackson, the famous late beer and whisky writer, selected the whiskies for that event. The US experiment rested in obscurity.

Lady Claire Macdonald’s The Best of Scottish Food and Drink appeared in 1990 but mentions single malts only as an after-dinner drink.

Hans Offringa

In the same year, Rosalie Gow published a recipe book with the promising title Cooking with Scotch Whisky. Gow limits herself to instructions such as “use two spoons of whisky” and “add whisky to taste”. According to her, single malt should be used sparingly in food.

However, she wasn’t the first writer on the subject. In 1968 Emanuel and Madeline Greenberg published a 316-page humorously written book titled Whiskey in the Kitchen – The Lively Art of Cooking with Bourbon, Scotch, Rum, Brandy, Gin, Liqueurs…and Kindred Spirits. A small section in chapter two – The Intelligent Guide to Spirits – refers to Scotch malt whisky as follows: “The pronounced smoky taste that some Scots call ‘peat reek’ and others ‘a gentle fragrance of peat reminiscent of heather-clad moorland in spring’ typifies Scotch whisky.” Only 28 out of 445 recipes contain Scotch.

In 1999 a then relatively unknown French cook and culinary journalist called Martine Nouet chose a gastronomic approach to the subject in her excellent book Les Routes du Malt, alas only published in French. In the next two decades Martine would grow into the true First Lady of Whisky and Food.

In 2003 Belgian whisky buff Bob Minnekeer came up with the tasty tome Whisky a la Carte. In this, he uses a handy spreadsheet with dishes and whiskies to go with them.

In Michael Jackson’s WHISKY (2005) Martine Nouet returns with a couple of pages about cooking with whisky and some generic tips and tricks. By then she had moved to Islay permanently and already earned her nickname ‘La Reine de l’Alambic’.

In 2007 I followed suit with A Taste of Whisky, focusing on taste specifically, for which Michael Jackson kindly wrote the foreword.

I presented 10 single malts to four chefs and asked them to pair these with food. Obviously, Martine was one of the contributors.

That same year The Whisky Kitchen, written by Graham Harvey and Sheila McConachie, appeared, containing about 100 recipes.

In years to come more and more books about whisky and food were published, varying in quality. Martine inspired me again when she presented her latest book on the subject, titled À Table: Whisky from Glass to Plate, published in English this time.

I decided to pick up where I had left it in 2007 with A Taste of Whisky. My wife Becky and I challenged three Michelin star Chef Jonnie Boer and his wife Thérèse, who own the fabulous Librije Hotel & Restaurant in our Dutch hometown of Zwolle. The four of us sat down for a series of sessions, fuelled with passion, knowledge, humour and a dram or 20 – among them a sumptuous sample from SMWS stock. The outcome is De Keuken in met Whisky, loosely translated as Take Your Whisky to the Kitchen.

And guess what? One of the dishes was paired with an exclusive Dutch SMWS bottling, Cask No. 29.214: Dance of Dove and Dram at De Librije.

Jonnie Boer, owner of the Librije, flanked by Hans and Becky Offringa. Photo courtesy Ron Greve