Mention cheese and the words “and wine” almost automatically fall off the tongue next. But put the cork back in that bottle. Whiskey and cheese, it turns out, pair incredibly well, maybe even better than wine and cheese. Who knew? Well, the folks at the French Cheese Board in downtown Manhattan did. Charles Duque, the managing director of the French Dairy Board in the Americas, says, “Pairing spirits and cheese has been going on for at least the last 20 years and has gotten more popular in the last 10.” There are some compelling reasons for high-proof spirits to team up with cheese: “The fat of the cheese protects the palate from the burn of alcohol,” Duque says. “Also the pairing works because the aromatic profile is much easier to match than any terroir consideration [as with wine].”
In most cases, we enlisted the help of two fromage gurus from the French Cheese Board, Raymart Dinglass and Baptiste Elhorry, in pairing cheeses with whiskies from Scotland and the US, ranging from sweet bourbons to a peaty Islay single malt, and trying to hit a wide range of flavor notes between the two.
Girvan Patent Still 25 Year Old Single Grain whisky and French feta cheese
Scotland’s Girvan distillery supplies grain whisky (distilled from unmalted barley and other grains) for blended Scotches like Grant’s, and in the last few years it has started bottling its own single-grain whiskies, which are generally lighter and smoother than the malt whiskies they’re usually combined with. This expression, bottled at 84 proof, has light vanilla, cereal and sweet fruity notes; Elhorry and Dinglass paired it with a French feta made from sheep’s milk rather than goat’s. It’s milder and creamier than Greek feta, but “it’s dry and has a tanginess to it,” Dinglass says. The tang of the cheese, rather than overwhelming the light whisky, actually amplifies its sweeter flavors.
Four Roses Small Batch Select bourbon and Langres cheese
Small Batch Select is the latest addition to the Four Roses line. Bottled at a healthy 104 proof, it’s a classic bourbon, redolent of caramel, chocolate and a hint of cherry, with some spice on the finish. Elhorry selected a Langres washed-rind cheese. Hailing from the Champagne region of France, the cow’s milk cheese is normally consumed with a glass of bubbly, but it also pairs beautifully with Kentucky’s finest. Dinglass describes the cheese as mildly pungent and creamy. Elhorry likes that richness of the Langres marries well with the “caramel richness” of the bourbon. The bourbon’s spice also cuts through the creaminess of the cheese, while the Langres’s pungency plays off Small Batch Select’s sweetness.
Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old Single Malt and Brique de Brebis cheese
The Balvenie, one of Speyside’s most famed single malts, is known as a gentle, smooth sipper with honeyed vanilla notes. That sweetness gets an extra dimension in the Caribbean Cask edition, which is finished in rum casks, bringing some brown sugar and molasses to the party. We tried it with the Brique de Brebis, a cheese that shares the same sheep’s milk source as Roquefort, but with quite different results. “It has a delicate, supple flavor,” says Dinglass. “It’s a little fruity, but it has a slight savoriness as well.” Brique is traditionally served with a black-cherry jam, so the sweet whisky makes for a great substitute. Both the cheese and whisky are quite mild, but put them together and each adds depth to the other.
GlenDronach Allardice Aged 18 Years
This whisky has spent 18 years mellowing in its barrels that once held sherry, and by now there’s a carmelized sugar layer to the fruity sweetness. Pair it with an Italian gorgonzola. The salt of the cheese contrasts with the sweet, and the blue cheese’s pungency is tamped down by the scotch’s notes of nuts, dates and figs. Gorgonzola is also one of the more creamy blues out there, so that helps balance the burn of a gorgeously rich, 92-proof dram.
Angel’s Envy bourbon and Fourme d’Ambert cheese
Angel’s Envy is finished in port casks, so in addition to bourbon’s classic brown sugar and caramel notes, it has rounded dark fruit from the port barrels. That’s why Elhorry chose Fourme d’Ambert, a creamy blue cheese often paired with port. Made from pasteurized cow’s milk, Fourme looks like a Roquefort, but it’s less intense. “It has fruity sweet notes to it,” says Dinglass. “And it doesn’t have that tang; it’s a savory blue cheese.” The sweet-savory combination creates a beautiful tug-of-war on the palate—a bite of the cheese calls for a sip of the bourbon and vice-versa.
High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram rye and Tomme de Savoie cheese
Like Angel’s Envy, A Midwinter Night’s Dram is finished in French oak port barrels. But it’s also a rye whiskey, so in addition to fruity notes like dark cherry, it’s got baking spices like cinnamon and clove as well as a bit of peppery spice. At nearly 100 proof, it’s a big, flavorful whiskey. The key was to find a cheese that complemented it without competing with it. Elhorry settled on a Tomme de Savoie, which is a semisoft, unpasteurized, lower-fat cheese: “It’s a small wheel, made with milk from cows that graze at a high altitude, so the flavor is a little bit drier,” he says. The nutty grassiness of the cheese balances the dark-fruit flavors of the whiskey and brings up delicious vanilla notes.
WhistlePig rye and Delice de Bourgogne cheese
WhistlePig has been the torchbearer for the rye revival of the last decade, with its high-rye mashbill (100 percent rye, actually) and spicy, robust flavor setting the standard for what a modern rye should taste like. For a cheese that could go toe-to-toe with WhistlePig, Dinglass selected Délice de Bourgogne, a rich, luscious triple créme. Triple crémes have extra cream added to the milk during ripening, resulting in a cheese with a higher fat content. “Triple crémes are sometimes a little light,” says Elhorry, “but some, like this one, have that mushroom flavor that gives them depth.” The mouth-coating texture of the cheese smooths out the spicy tingle of the rye on the palate without dulling its dry, savory flavor. Dinglass recommends eating the rind as well as the soft center: “Especially with soft cheeses, you should eat the rind—it adds another layer of flavor.”
Macallan Rare Cask Single Malt whisky and Délice du Poitou cheese
The Macallan is famed for its sherried malts, and Rare Cask was designed to showcase the whisky’s sherry influence. Along with vanilla from the oak, center stage is occupied by raisins, citrus and a hint of salinity from the sherry seasoning. Dinglass pairs it with an unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese from the Loire Valley: “It has a tanginess and creaminess to it, with slight citrus notes.” The rind is sprinkled with vegetable ash, imparting a subtle saltiness. The flavor profiles overlap a little bit on paper, but in practice the chèvre amplifies the fruitiness of the Rare Cask, which in turn amplifies the savory notes of the cheese.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon and Saint Albray cheese
Aged for 12 years and coming in at around 130 proof, the Elijah Craig is a beast of a bourbon, with sweet vanilla and brown sugar notes and a fair amount of alcoholic heat—there’s no shame in adding water to this one to tamp down the fire. Elhorry recommends an aged, pasteurized, washed-rind cheese similar to Camembert but stronger and more pungent. “Some washed-rind cheeses are strong in aroma but not flavor,” he says. “This one is both. It has a lot of character.” The mouth-coating funk—some might say stinkiness—of the Saint Albray, enhanced by a slight saltiness, is powerful enough to stand up to the strong spirit, and its richness proves a worthy counterpart to the bourbon’s sweetness. A pairing that’s not for the faint of heart.
Ardbeg Uigeadail whisky and Charles Arnaud Comté cheese
Ardbeg makes some of the peatiest whiskies on Islay, the world capital of peated malts. Uigeadail, named after the loch that is its water source, leavens the peat with a sherry influence. The result is a mouthful of dark fruits, slightly bitter citrus, salty sea air and a touch of chocolate as well as Ardbeg’s trademark campfire smokiness. It’s a powerful, intensely flavorful dram. Elhorry and Dinglass love to pair it with a Comté—the most popular cheese in France. Their pick is aged for two years in the famed Charles Arnaud cellar in Fort des Rousses, which is “the best Comté I’ve ever tried,” says Elhorry. The long aging produces small, crunchy protein crystals. “The crystals add a nice salinity,” says Dinglass, “but it still has that Comté nuttiness and fruitiness.” The mild cheese interacts surprisingly well with the full-flavored whisky; the Comté plays up the Uigeadail’s fruitiness but doesn’t clash with the smoky notes, while the whisky doesn’t overwhelm the cheese.
Clyde May’s Rye whiskey and Camembert Le Chatelain cheese
Clyde May’s is based in Alabama, but the liquid in the bottle is one of many fine ryes coming out of the MGP distillery in Indiana. It features MGP’s distinctive 95 percent rye mashbill, which gives it a lot of spice, but there are also floral notes to be found and a fruity, almost candied sweetness. “The sweetness tells me not to go close to the Camembert,” Elhorry says, “but the spiciness may work well with the Camembert.” It turns out he’s on the money. The powerful whiskey somewhat obscures the mild flavors of the Le Chatelain, a pasteurized cheese from the Normandy region. But the texture—creamy, rich and smooth—is a terrific supporting player for the sharp flavors of the rye.
GlenDronach Original Aged 12 Years and Dubliner cheese
If you’re more interested in simpler cheeses like cheddar, you’ll find that whisky might be your ultimate pairing. GlenDronach’s sherry-cask aged 12 years does the job beautifully by mining the contrasts. A buttery, mouth-coating sharp cheese like a Dubliner cuts the alcoholic heat of the scotch but its own slight sweetness elicits the spirit’s sherry sweetness. And as this Irish cheese often pairs well with fruit, more of the 12 year old’s fruity notes come out to play too.