It’s feast or famine in my house. One type of spirit that I am interested in learning more about is Scotch, and Scotch is pricey. Thankfully, I know a place that serves flights: Macleods, in Old Ballard, a community in northern Seattle. Flights are a great way to taste numerous spirits for a set price, and without getting pickled.
For my birthday, I gathered my two favorite tasting buddies and brought a selection of cheese to Macleods for a tasting. Some people prefer to use cheese that they already know pairs well with what they are drinking. I prefer to use some that I know will pair well, and some that could go in any direction. Wild card cheese.
For this tasting, I brought five to pair with six Scotches. The selection was eaten in the following order: Fougerus, a double crème brie; Cablanca goat gouda, a young, amicable snacky cheese; Ewephoria, a ewe’s milk gouda style that tastes like butterscotch when eaten alone; Abbaye St. Paulin, a cow’s milk washed rind that is buttery and with low level funk; Isle of Mull Cheddar, a Raw Cow’s milk cheese from Scotland (because “what grows together goes together”!). We tasted one Scotch with each cheese before we moved onto the next Scotch, which we again paired with each cheese. We took our time, and I didn’t feel buzzed at all because I was eating just as much as I was drinking. The point was to taste, not to exceed.
Naomi, one of Macleods’ owners and an incredibly knowledgeable Scotch-tender, set us up with three astringent and three peaty Scotches. As she placed our flights on the table, she gave us a brief explanation of the Scotch, without insinuating what flavors and aromas we should expect. I appreciate this, as I try not to plant flavor seeds in customers’ minds prior to tasting cheese either. Palates vary, and that’s that. We tasted in order: Old Pulteney 12 yr., Cragganmore 12 yr., Deanston 12 yr., Bunnahabhain 12 yr., Talisker 10 yr., and Caol Ila 12 yr. The first group are Highland Scotches, which tend to be more astringent and acidic, and the latter are of the Isla category—these are the smokey, peaty ones. I liken highly smokey scotch to licking a bandaid. I cannot get enough of this bizarre, tongue numbing flavor.
The exciting part of pairing cheese with beverages is that unforeseen flavors, aromas, and textures come to the forefront. It is essentially a chemical reaction occurring that can impart hidden nuances, accentuate sought after flavors, as well as exacerbate undesirable qualities. It is a matter of trial and error. As I taste, I like to gum up the cheese and swish the liquid (in this case Scotch) around in my mouth until the two are undiscernible, and then I close my nasal passage prior to swallowing and exhale through it right as the mouthful has slipped down my throat. It aerates the retro nasal passage where we glean most flavor. It is ugly, and it works. I used to only do tastings at home alone for this reason, but now I don’t care. I am here to experience, attractive or not, and my tasting partners don’t mind.
Some highlights of the tasting were: Old Pulteney with Fougerus. The brininess in the scotch brought out the saltiness in the cheese, and the acidity cut right through the creamy brie and made it slick on the tongue. Texturally, this was my favorite pairing. Unfortunately, as the scotches became smokier, the main nuance that Fougerus emitted was ammonia, yuck.
Deanston, with its higher alcohol percentage, brought out a minerality and a verdant lush quality in Isle of Mull Cheddar, and the cheese smoothed out the acids in the scotch. It was a reciprocal pairing.
The slightly peated Bunnahabhain made Cablanca Goat Gouda taste like salted, buttery caramel corn. It was a divine match. This is a dessert coupling that I will use in the future.
Talisker, my favorite scotch of the tasting with its coastal briny, spicy, peat moss character, paired swimmingly with Isle of Mull Cheddar. The peatiness, that bandaid quality, was front and center in both the scotch and the cheese.
The safest cheeses that were altogether inoccuous across the board were the goat gouda, which ended up addressing the burnt sugar, vanilla and floral flavors that most of us find agreeable, and the Abbaye St. Paulin, with its buttery unction, seemed to enhance the scotch and did not make any kind of flavor waves, though it was at times overpowered. Next time, I would like to use Brabander from L’Amuse, an aged goat gouda with much more pizazz than a younger version. I would also be curious to learn what a funkier washed rind, like Burgundian Tru du Cru or Alsatian Munster does with scotch, as the Abbaye St. Paulin is a rather innocuous washy.
The unexpected cheese, not at all my wild card, was the Ewephoria. Scotch and Ewephoria are not sympatico, unless one delights in excessive phenolic, lanolin, and under-tail flavors. To be truthful, this was the cheese that I thought would be the easiest pairing. I am curious to know if it’s the fat content (ewe’s milk is high fat) that conflicts with the alcohol levels or what? Why don’t they like each other?!
As a food experimenter, I would say that the tasting was an overall success. The most important thing I learned was to never recommend Ewephoria for a scotch pairing. And that the cliché “What grows together goes together” proved to be true in the case of Isle of Mull Cheddar.
Tastings are experimental. There should be successes and failures. As a cheese professional, these trials are mandatory in order to be a competent resource. To be able to titillate my senses and at the same time receive an education that improves my professional capabilities is why I work in the food realm. And the education I received on my birthday at Macleods will stick with me in future customer interactions as well as future scotch tastings.
Naomi, my trusted scotch-tender, says that the most important aspect in improving scotch knowledge is to “, taste, taste some more, and then taste again”. Likewise with cheese. When I first delved into cheese, what might have been overwhelming, unbearably farmy, or too hefty at the time can taste like candy to me today. It is all part of palate development. I am grateful that Seattle has places like Macleods where a person on a budget can still partake in the luxury of tasting. After all, in order to live our best life, we must experience.
Editor’s note: Rachael Lucas holds ACS CCP status (The American Cheese Society’s professional certification) and works at The Cheesemonger’s Table in Edmonds, Washington. This is her second piece for us. More of Rachael’s articles will be appearing in both Taste Washington Travel and Taste California Travel. You can learn more about her entry into the world of cheese in her initial article, How I Got Cheesy