The Kitchen’s Kindred Spirits

By Sarah Annese

For decades, wine has been the focus when it comes to food-alcohol pairings, and more recently craft beer has generated a lot of attention in the arena. But what about distilled spirits? Experts say the field is wide open for experimentation. Pairing dinners make spirits more accessible and increase brand awareness.

Alexandra Sklansky, director of public relations for the Distilled Spirits Council, says the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can do with spirits.

“The biggest thing to note is just how broad the market is for offerings right now. Everything from flavored bourbons to flavored vodkas, to liqueurs, offer mixologists and chefs an enormous portfolio to work with,” she explains. “We’re seeing everything from the expected pairings, like bourbon and beef, to some rather unexpected and unique ones.”

Mitch Bechard, Glenfiddich ambassador, notes that often, an unexpected pairing can open minds and palates. “People are always amazed when I give them a dram of Glenfiddich 21 with some high-quality dark chocolate,” he says.

Distilled spirits have greater depth of flavor, according to Andrew Weir, brand manager of The Balvenie whisky, which makes for better food pairings, and even the use of whisky as an ingredient in sauces or dressings. He says, chefs are often excited to move away from wine. “There’s so much complexity in flavor, it’s great fun for them.”

Someone who may shy away from purchasing certain beverages in the store can, at a pairing dinner, experience them used in a setting where nuances in flavors are considered and described. Knowing those flavors later, they can apply them to everyday use.

“Scotch dinners are a great way to get people interested,” says Bechard. “For some who may feel slightly intimidated and also for those who are very familiar with scotch, it’s a fantastic experience for them to deepen their knowledge.”

Margaret Mary Clarke, senior brand manager of Old Pulteney, recognizes the importance of pairing dinners because they are an opportunity for people to taste the whisky in ways they may not have otherwise. “We focus on having consumers try the whisky in its purest form, so they can appreciate different aromas, flavors and the complexities,” she says.

Distilled spirits, when mixed into cocktails, also can complement a meal. “When it comes to cocktails, there’s an inherent art form in creating a drink that has a perfect balance when consumed alone, but becomes something greater when complemented by a food choice,” Sklansky says. “Food and spirits trends are rather complementary, and the market is broad. Innovations extend to a variety of flavors—from sweet to umami.”

Bechard notes that when people taste distilled spirits paired with food they often have an ‘aha’ moment. “I love seeing the surprise on someone’s face when they experience this for the first time followed by that eureka moment of ‘Wow, that really works!’”

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