Whisky is Not Wine / by Jason Hambrey

Much of this website strives to be fairly objective and scientific, where possible, but it’s perhaps time for some opinion.

Wine is perhaps the benchmark for any drink to be studied, savored, and enjoyed – wine has been made since before recorded history, with roots tracing to the Phoenicians and Greeks when they colonized the Mediterranean as early as 1100 BC. Wine has resulted in a massive industry ($257.5 billion in 2012 according to Business Wire), produced in countless countries – but, morever, it has centuries of history which has lead to selection of particular varieties which thrive in certain regions - with the characteristics of both the region and the grape present together in a bottle of wine. The study of wine has lead to universities which specialize both in teaching about wine and also the study of wine: the impact of agriculture, chemistry, fermentation, and mood.  It is a massive and remarkable drink.

Whisky is not wine. Whisky’s roots trace back originally to Arabic alchemy which developed distillation -  eventually utilized, perhaps by the Irish, to first transform a grain alcohol (beer) into a spirit. Eventually this was dumped into barrels to be aged and developed immensely in Ireland, Scotland, and England and then be brought to North America and Japan, and then to the rest of the world. Compared to wine, it’s a newcomer – but, moreover, it is a different drink entirely.

There are master sommelier’s in the world, who have studied wine intensely and can nose and taste a wine and identify variety and region, and perhaps even vintage, or a particular wine. Wine is amazing – a combination of grape, winemaking process, and, importantly, terroir – a demonstration that the land in which the grapes is grown significantly influences flavour.

Whisky is not wine. It is immensely complex, presenting a myriad of flavours that expose the genetic differences in being able to smell compounds infinitesimally present in the spirit. The variation in source materials, fermentation methods, distillation methods, aging methods (length and cask selection) provides so many thousands of flavour variations available at a single distillery that even the most refined palates have trouble identifying where a whisky comes from in a blind tasting. There is no tasting school that grades students on anything more than a basic level because of this (and, inevitably, because of a lack of need). It is remarkable spirit.

Why am I even bothering to write about this? Because of two things: 1) terroir is mostly BS in whisky (let’s say 90% of the time) and 2) whisky doesn’t pair with food, 90% of the time (or more). Now, let me elaborate.

TerrOIr and Whisky

Terroir: most of the time, whisky is made from grain sourced from all over a continent, if not the world. It is rarely local, due to the mass nature of the industry and the absence on the requirements of grain sourcing in labeling (there are a few exceptions, but few). I am not asking for more intensive labeling regulations, but I am saying that context needs to be provided when terroir is ever mentioned in whisky. I clearly remember my graduate school supervisor recounting his experience visiting a distillery, and, after hearing their statements about sourcing local barley, asking the question – „from where? I didn’t see any barley anywhere near here”. Well put. We have Indian and Japanese whisky being made with Scottish malt, American bourbon being made with Belgian or Canadian Rye, Canadian whisky being made with American corn, and the Scottish whisky region flavor profiling BS (ever wondered if Bunnahabhain 18 fits within „Islay”, if Aberlour A’Bunadh or Benriach Curiositas is a „Speyside”,etc., etc.). Not to mention the non-locality of most yeast.

This is in no way to suggest that terroir does not exist – Craft distilleries, along with a handful of large distilleries (e.g. Bruichladdich) are actually sourcing grain, yeast, local oak, and sometimes even growing their own grain – demonstrating terroir. Peat has very different characteristics, depending where it is harvested. But, so little of this information is readily divulged. There is terroir in whisky, but it is a drop in the bucket given the rarity of exclusively local ingredients and the lack of information presented to the consumer. So, if you mention terroir in whisky – you had better be ready to back it up. I’m not about to endorse the „terroir” of Highland scotch whisky made with Islay peated malt.

Whisky and Food

Whisky doesn’t pair with food. I’ve never understood this. And, from the journalists I’ve talked to – it seems this is a topic because people ask (or want it), not because it is necessarily true. There is something magnificent, and perhaps etherial, when the tannins in red wine start to play with the fat in meat, or the grassiness of a sauvignon blanc start to make you itch for a contrasting and complementary vegetable like asparagus. Wine (and beer, too) pair not just well, but magnificently, and often easily, with food. Whisky does not. Wine, beer, and other drink pairings provide vehicles where both the drink and the accompanied food taste better. In other words, wine and food pairings can bring about an experience where the food actually tasted better, and is complemented, by a drink which not only is complemented but which tastes better itself.

I’ve never found that with whisky, with a few exceptions. Largely, I find whisky (neat) very hard to use for pairing. How are you going to make a magnificently complex, flavor packed whisky pair with a food that, frankly, has flavors on a very different level of both temporal and structural orientation? Whisky takes time, sometimes hours, to reveal itself fully – and it is in this slow, carefully observed process, that it is fully known. Food is, actually, similar – but few take the time to actually spend an hour observing an onion (as the brilliant Capon does). But that isn’t how food is typically consumed.

So, when people ask me (perhaps my most common question) – how to pair whisky with food, I tell them not to. Whisky is magnificent, and there are very few situations where it actually enhances food. It doesn’t need any accompaniment. Just enjoy, for few scenarios enhance both the whisky and the food (which, in my view, is the ultimate goal of pairing). However, I must list my exceptions (which are exceptional, haha) – and there have only been two so far. A smoky malt, particularly a medicinal one, pairs brilliantly with blue cheese. The sharpness and broadness of the cheese cuts into the sharp and focused nature of the malt, and, moreover, the flavors combine to more than the sum of the parts. It is magnificent. Medicinal ryes, such as those produced at Alberta (like Masterson’s), can produce a similar pairing, but sometimes extending even to creamier friuty cheeses like Lancashire. The only other exception I have had was not even with a true whisky – but is perhaps my most remarkable pairing. It was Forty Creek Cream, a complex flavoured cream whisky, with a cardamom infused white chocolate. Perfectly, it showed what both the chocolate and the whisky was missing. Believe me, you have to try it.

However, despite the exceptions, it’s hard to pair whisky with food unless you dilute it. So, please stop talking about it. The best of whiskies doesn’t need anything except a fellow human to share it and quality conversation to accompany it. This is whisky's true pairing. And the best of that lasts hours, and often a lifetime.