A few nights ago I was part of a team of experts that got together at Esquin Wine & Spirits for a chocolate and whiskey pairing. I was joined by Nathan Kaiser of Seattle’s 2bar Spirits, Lenny Rede of Esquin Wine & Spirits and Nathan Barker of Vinum Importing in leading a group of 25 through a tasting of eight single-origin chocolates and eight whiskies. Whiskey and chocolate are one of my favorite pairings, and this night was no exception.
Like any good pairing, you have to do your homework first. While I find chocolate much easier to pair with whiskey than with wine, it still takes work to find combinations that make the chocolate and the whiskey better as a pair than as individuals. Lenny, Nathan Barker and I got together in advance to match up the whiskies with the chocolates, and I have to say that it was one of my favorite days on the job. It ranked up there with the cheese and chocolate pairing exercise I did with Alison Leber of Table2Palate.
So how did we go about finding pairings that worked? Nathan Barker brought samples of the whiskies we planned to taste and offered me verbal descriptions of the tasting notes for each whiskey. As he provided descriptions, I pulled out samples of chocolates that might be a good fit based on the flavor profiles, and I lined the chocolates up next to the appropriate whiskey. In some cases the first samples I pulled out worked, in other cases we had to try a few different chocolates to find a strong match. Overall it was a much faster process than trying to pair wine and chocolate.
When I conduct chocolate tasting classes I like to taste the highest percent cacao first (i.e., the least sweet chocolate) and then move down the line to the lower percentages (i.e., sweeter chocolates) before finishing with milk and white chocolate. This keeps my palate from becoming covered in sugar at the beginning of the tasting, enabling me to enjoy the more bitter chocolate on a clean palate. One thing I’ve noticed about pairings is that I often need to conduct the chocolate tasting in the opposite direction. This is true for the wine pairings I’ve conducted recently, where we’ll start with a dry sparkling white wine which is almost impossible to pair with a dark chocolate but works nicely with a sweet white chocolate. It was also true for the whiskey pairing. We started with 2bar Spirits’ Moonshine, a clear, un-aged corn whiskey with a sweetness that reminds me of sake. This one went with Valrhona Ivoire, a sweet white chocolate.
When we’d finished our test and had chosen a chocolate for each whiskey, I noticed that three of the eight chocolates we chose were made with cacao from Africa. Two of those chocolates were made with cacao from the small, island nation of São Tomé. Normally when I conduct a chocolate tasting I try to pick chocolates from different cacao-growing regions so that tasters get a sense of the terroir associated with each region. The chocolate we sell is predominantly made with fine flavor cacao that hails heavily from Central & South America and Madagascar. While we have sections devoted to Africa and Southeast Asia, they are the smallest sections in our curated collection, and they are not known for producing fine flavor cacao.
Why two chocolates from São Tomé? São Tomé has a very distinctive, savory flavor profile that I find pairs well with foods that are earthy or smoky. It’s not my favorite chocolate by itself. For me the taste of Sao Tome creates a sensory metaphor of eating chocolate while sitting next to a diesel-fueled campfire with bacon burning on a skillet. Earthy, smoky, hammy and diesel are the flavors that predominate. It is probably for this reason that I’ve found it to be one of the easier chocolates to pair with red wine, and, on this night, with smoky whiskies. As you may have surmised, I’m not a fan of smoky foods. I prefer my lox cured not smoked, I don’t like chocolate that’s been smoked and I really don’t like smoky Scotch or whiskey.
Given my dislike of smoky foods, I had trouble enjoying the two smoky whiskies by themselves. By adding the chocolate made with cacao from Sao Tome, suddenly the whole package was not only bearable, it was quite enjoyable. That, to me, is the best example of a successful pairing. The sum of the parts is better than the parts by themselves.
Here are the pairings from our event in the order in which we tasted them:
Valrhona Ivoire White Chocolate with 2bar Moonshine