Creativity is to be applauded. Whisky and culinary exploration oft times stretches the imagination and adds zest to life. Building on this premise, Beam Suntory, Formaggio Kitchen, and drinking establishment Alden and Harlow presented a Suntory Whisky and Cheese Pairing class this past week.
I am a wild fan of pairing whiskies and cheeses and experimenting with the many potential combinations. Yet, for all my whisky tasting I have never paired any Suntory whisky with cheese. How did I miss that? So the class called my name.
The class was organized as a learning experience. Perfect. To add in a twist, Dan Pontius of Alden and Harlow would prepare two distinct cocktails using a Suntory whisky and pairing them with a cheese. There would be six pairings in total, and Uber to take us home safely.
Jack Kavanagh of Beam Suntory, gave a quick overview of the whisky lineup:
- Suntory Toki
- Hibiki Harmony
- Hakushu 12 YO
- Yamazaki 12 YO
Julia Hallman of Formaggio Kitchen led the cheese conversation with the comment “cheese and whisky is a classic but only two of the six cheeses will be cheddar.” Awesome. The class began!
First up was the Shelburne Clothbound Cheddar, a cow’s mill from Vermont. Only 100 wheels are produced a year and are aged in caves at Jasper Hill. This version was a 2 YO cheddar with Julia’s notes of “soft, rich and sweet.” Jack poured the Toki, which was first launched in Boston spring of 2016. It is a blend that still has the Japanese core notes of bright,, fresh and clean. I found it very light on the palate. Jack deemed it “abundant, approachable and affordable.” Both Jack and Dan said they use it in cocktails. I would drink it neat because its lightness would be lost for me in a cocktail.
The pairing was fairly bland while individually the whisky and the cheese were both pleasant enough to warrant tasting.
Next up was the OMG “Norigami” cocktail created special for the class by Dan. Using Japan as his theme this cocktail base was Nori-infused Toki, with Suze, Elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice and Demerara sugar. The drink was green, thick and reminiscent of a “this must be healthy” juice that no real person wants to drink. Ever. Yes, Nori is actually seaweed generally used as the wrap to make sushi!
The Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, again a cow’s milk out of Vermont, dried diligently to save the cocktail, but failed. The cheese on its own was stunning, what one might consider a true cheddar bursting with flavor and calling for a crisp apple.
With enthusiasm we moved away from the seaweed and on to the Hibiki Harmony. Funny that “Hibiki” actually means Harmony. Now that the 12 and 17 YO Hibiki are discontinued, Harmony is meant to pick up the slack. The Harmony is also a blend and made up of more than 10 types of Suntory whisky. The beautiful bottle has twenty-four sides, each representing the 24 Japanese season. Who knew? As approachable as the Toki, the Harmony adds a subtle creaminess with a hint of oak.
Julia paired it with a triple crème by Winnimere, a Vermont cow’s milk. Must have been a holy cow (Haha) because it hit the palate with rich, smooth pungency. Then she told us that it is made of 70% butter fat. Of course. The Harmony and the Winnimere kept bouncing off each other in, do I dear say it….perfect harmony. A winner all around.
A fellow participant asked if Beam Suntory works with other distilleries to bring together the many different blends that make up the final product. Jack emphatically let us know that there is no sharing in the Japanese whisky trade. Each distillery holds its own products close to the vest from start to finish.
Number four was back to the cocktail….with some hesitation I nosed the red colored drink – medicinal, and brought it to my lips. Yes, this Campari like concoction I would order. Dan combined the Harmony, tamarind-golden raisin syrup, Gran Classico, Batavia Arrack, and Yellow Chartreuse. As with the first cocktail it was hit or miss with fellow participants. Aptly named “One with Everything”, the cocktail was paired with another triple crème cow’s milk, the Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery, California. The Red Hawk is a personal favorite but then Julia really did pronounce that it has the same bacteria “that grows on your socks.” Fortunately, this was with drink number four so the senses were a tad blurred and the awfulness of socks in my cheese was more funny than off-putting. Still is a favorite. Either way, the cheese did not work with the cocktail for me. There was too much competition between the bold flavors of the cheese and the medicinal tones of the cocktail. But I finished both!
The fifth pairing moved us to a higher shelf whisky, the Hakushu 12 YO. Here a hint of peat not found in the blends made a quick appearance with a bit of spice across the palate. The cheese was a sheep’s milk out of Corsica called Corsu Vecchiu. this cheese is rarely exported, which made it a treat for all of us to savor. While sheep cheese has the highest fat content, I found this cheese on the powdery and light side. I didn’t really care too much for it. The whisky did pair with the cheese by lifting it up to the level of the whisky. Although when I tried the cheese with the Harmony and found that it worked better. The Hakushu 12 YO is a member of my scotch cabinet.
The final pairing of the evening was the much talked about Yamazaki 12 YO, I always have several bottles of this fine dram at home. It is a perennial favorite for its smooth, sweet, caramel, perfect example of fine Japanese whisky. It was paired with a Capriole Fresh Goat Cheese out of Indiana that was on a toast point and drizzled with honey. The whisky actually became sweeter after the cheese to my swooning pleasure.
At the end of the evening I chose the Hibiki Harmony/Winnimere pairing and the Yamazaki 12 YO/Capriole Goat Cheese pairing as the best examples of winning combinations.
I highly recommend experimenting with whisky and cheese. Start with your favorites then branch out from there.
BONUS: One of the participants had a bottle that his father brought back from Japan 25 years ago. Still in its box, but with only about a third left, he let me pour a taste. It fell somewhere between the Toki and the Harmony. Light, easy and clean. He didn’t know the exact age so I did some quick research on it. There is one store that advertises it as a collector whisky and is selling it for $279. The owner said he gave an unopened bottle away, not having any idea what he had. Lesson learned.
I raise a glass to thank Julia, Dan and Jack for an interesting and lively class; and to damn good whisky and mouth watering quality cheese!