Tips for Pairing Whisky with Food

Who doesn’t love a good food and drink pairing? I’ve spent enough time in Italy to have adapted their ‘no alcohol without food’ policy. I love a good snack to go with whatever I’m drinking, whether it is simply salted nuts and olives or something fancier like a smoked salmon blini.

I’m also always interested in finding the ideal pairings to complement both the drink and the snack in question. As Burns Night draws closer, I wanted to share some whisky and food-pairing suggestions.

Burns Night is celebrated on the 25th of January in memory of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The celebrations usually include (a lot of) whisky, plenty of food and overall partying, anything from boozy dinners to a traditional ceilidh. Again, this year may be slightly different for many, so a whisky and food-pairing night offers an alternative way to celebrate in smaller groups (or own your own, no judgement here… I come from the country of kalsarikännit).

There are a few things to keep in mind before you start planning your options.

  • Avoid foods that are strong in garlic or overly spicy as these will kill the flavour of any whisky.
  • Spirits with strong flavours often match well with stronger foods and lighter spirits with foods with a lighter flavour profile, but you want the elements to complement each other rather than being too matchy-matchy.
  • If you’re hosting a full meal, keep in mind that one whisky won’t necessarily pair well with each course.
  • Fatty foods generally work well with a range of scotch whiskies, especially when it comes to cask-strength options. The fat coats your mouth, which will help to soften the high alcohol hit.
  • If fatty foods aren’t an option, cask-strength whisky will pair better with a few drops of water added. However, I always recommend trying the whisky without water first and adding drops as you go along.
  • Stronger whisky pairs better with sweeter nuts, while sweeter whisky pairs well with bitter nuts. Choose roasted nuts with smokier drams.
  • Many fish dishes work well with a wide range of whiskies, but sushi can be hit and miss when paired with single malts.
  • When pairing whisky with either fresh or dried fruit, avoid citrus unless it is used to flavour a cake or marmalade.
  • Remember your whisky doesn’t have to be neat. Why not make a Highball?
Salmon blinis
cheese plate

Pairing Scotch Whisky

Fruitier single malts pair extremely well with a wide variety of foods. Fruity notes often include tropical fruits such as banana, pineapple, papaya and mango (for example from rum cask finishes), orchard fruits (The Glenlivet), and dried fruits such as raisins, figs and apricots as well as citrusy fruits.

Great pairings for fruity whiskies include rosemary focaccia, roasted nuts, dark chocolate and ginger biscuits. When it comes to selecting cheese with fruity malts, try creamier options like camembert, mild goat’s cheese, cream cheese or a nice buttery mature cheddar. Even smoky fish could benefit from a lighter, fruitier whisky.

Try these:

Waldorf salad with Glengoyne 12-Year-Old – The crispy, yet creamy salad pairs well with a fruity and sweet whisky.

Cheesy, salty popcorn with The Glenlivet Illicit Still – The combination feels almost creamy.

Strong cheddar with Tobermory 12-Year-Old is always a winner.

whisky and popcorn pairing

Heavily sherried and full-bodied whiskies are great with meats such as venison, elk or a steak as well as a range of root vegetables. Talking about Burns Night, this category is ideal for haggis pairing. Dark chocolate and coffee flavours (Tiramisu, anyone?) complements strong and rich single malts.

Try these:

Bunnahabhain 12-Year-Old with vegetarian haggis as it tends to be spicier than the traditional meat version.

Auchentoshan Three Wood with thinly sliced beef steak and mushrooms.

The Glenlivet 18 works beautifully with the buttery notes of crackling.

The Glenlivet whisky range

Spicy and dry scotch works well with various meat dishes with strong flavours. Try venison, lamb or a good old steak. Choose whiskies with aromatic and warming spices or ones with a little kick of chilli. Dark chocolate makes a great pairing with ‘hotter’ drams.

Try these:

Mini lamb and feta burgers with minty yoghurt with The Compass Box Spice Tree, as the peppery kick pairs beautifully with the lamb while the yoghurt helps to keep the spices in order.

Glen Scotia 15-Year-Old pairs wonderfully with crystallised ginger. You could also try dark chocolate with ginger or Border’s Dark Chocolate Gingers.

Seafood dish
Scottish oysters

There are many levels of smokiness when it comes to whisky. Some whiskies have an earthy, sweet or barbecue-y flavour to them. The aroma can be of heavily roasted coffee beans, cigar- or wood smoke. Smoky whiskies often tend to offer more coastal elements as well.

Heavily peated single malt is best matched with gouda, strong blue cheeses, chorizo, haggis (especially if the whisky is aged in sherry cask), hot-smoked salmon or many other fish dishes or meat that has a subtle smokiness to it. Dried fruit with sweeter nuts is an easy pairing.

Lightly peated or more savoury scotch can be used to pair with oysters. Simply add a few drops on top of the oyster and enjoy. It can also pair well with Cullen Skink (creamy fish soup). Fruits like persimmon brings out the floral notes in lightly peated or savoury whisky. Cambozola is a creamy and mild blue cheese, making it ideal for whiskies with subtler smokiness.  

Try these:

Ardmore 14-Year-Old (by The Whisky Cellar) paired with TUC tomato & cheese crackers.

Big Peat works well with the savoury flavours of Cacio e Pepe spaghetti.

Blue cheese (such as Roquefort) and poached pear with The Ileach Cask Strength.

whisky and food pairing

Light fragrant single malts have a softer, lighter flavour profile. These can range from a full-on floral bouquet to greener, grassy, almost hay-like tasting notes. Think of heather, floral honey, jasmine tea and freshly cut grass. I would even include berries like blackcurrant and redcurrant as well as raspberry leaves.

These styles of whisky match well with soft creamy cheeses, brie, olives (try olive focaccia), many fish dishes and certain curries. A good, sweeter pairing would be milk chocolate-coated nuts.

Try these:

Herby, soft goat’s cheese* and fresh bread with Teaninich 10-Year-Old Flora & Fauna.

*Slice soft, mild goat’s cheese into the bottom of a glass dish, chop plenty of mixed fresh herbs on top and coat with extra-virgin olive oil. Cover with cling film and leave to sit in the fridge for a few hours. Take the dish to room temperature an hour before serving.

Coconut curry (medium spicy) works well with The Glenlivet 12-Year-Old.

Glenkinchie 12-Year-Old is light with a grassy finish that works well with finocchiona, a Tuscan salami with fennel seeds or flowers.

whisky and meat pairing

Other suggestions

Blended whisky usually works well with a range of sushi, quiche, chicken liver pâté, mild dark chocolates and cakes with vanilla.

Nikka from the Barrel, for example, works well with chicken cooked in a creamy sauce with mustard and spices – The creaminess will mellow the punchy whisky and the spices and sweeter notes of the whisky complement the chicken.

Grain whiskies are sugary and sweet, full of caramel, vanilla and baked-fruit flavours with some subtle spiciness. This makes them ideal for most dessert pairings. Think of apple or rhubarb crumble or crème brûlée. Sweeter grain whiskies also pair well with unsalted peanuts.

Single grain whisky paired with nuts

Rye whiskey goes well with milk chocolate, either plain or with added ginger or chilli. Choose snacks like salted peanuts, spiced shrimp cocktail and onion rings. Foods with subtle spiciness pair well with rye, but avoid anything too spicy or your palate will be ruined for the night. Try Canadian whiskey with hummus or mild salsa dip and nachos.

Bourbon works with a range of foods, sweet and savoury. Try scotch egg served with mustard, ham terrine with apple mayonnaise, even honey-glazed salmon. Thick-cut or triple-cooked chips with a nice crunchy texture pair nicely with the smoothness of bourbon.

For a dessert, try a slice of apple pie or lemon cake. Bourbon also pairs well with pretty much any type of chocolate. You can even pour a measure over vanilla ice cream.

Nachos with dips

Do you have a favourite whisky and food pairing?

*Some of the links used are affiliate links. If you buy through the links, I may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.

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