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What Food Pairs with Scotch Whisky? At Chicago’s SideDoor, Lots!

It doesn’t seem that Scotch whisky would be a great pairing with food: the spirit is big, sometimes smoky and seems like it could steamroll all but the most powerful flavors.

Faroe Islands salmon tartare

Faroe Islands salmon tartare

But you might be surprised how well Scotch can pair with foods. We were eager to try pairing Scotch whisky with Scottish-type food

It doesn’t seem that Scotch whisky would be a great pairing with food: the spirit is big, sometimes smoky and seems like it could steamroll all but the most powerful flavors.

 

But you might be surprised how well Scotch can pair with foods.

 

Standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean outside the Ardbeg Distillery on the isle of Islay in Scotland, we were served glasses of the peaty whisky and locally harvested oysters, which we thought would surely be an imbalanced pairing. But it wasn’t. It was a beautiful pairing, proving the adage, “what grows together, goes together.” The whisky seasoned by the local salt spray matched the saltiness of the oyster pulled from local Islay waters, and the smokiness meshed with the oysters’ oceanic tang. You like smoked oysters, right? Smoky whisky and oysters yield the same combination of flavors.

 

Back in Chicago, we were eager to try pairing Scotch whisky with Scottish-type food.

 

SideDoor is the gastropub on the west side of the old McCormick mansion, the urban palace built by the family of the Scots-Irish magnate Cyrus McCormick. We tried the pairing of Kumamoto and Blue Point oysters with Oban 10 year old Scotch whisky, distilled oceanside in Scotland and evincing the brininess that works so well with oysters. Oban lacks the peaty intensity of Ardbeg, enhancing the oyster flavor without peatiness. With slight salinity seasoning both Oban whisky and the oyster, the flavor of the sea creature seemed to come through even more clearly. Conclusion: both peaty and un-peated Scotch whisky pairs well with oysters.

 

For a tartare made with salmon harvested in the Faroe Islands (about 200 miles north of Scotland), we switched to a 10-year-old Macallan. A Speyside whisky distilled far away from the peat fields of Islay, Macallan has no notes of peat at all, which seemed like the right choice for a fish of this quality. The light Dijon sauce and capers matched the relative lightness of the Scotch. This was a superbly balanced pairing.

 

Scallops also made a very good pairing with the Macallan, the light and sweet sherry notes of the whisky, aged in sherry barrels, was a very pleasant match for the light, sweet flavor of the scallops.

Angus cap steak with 10-year-old Ardbeg

Angus cap steak with 10-year-old Ardbeg

Angus beef originated in Scotland, and for this heartier entrée, we chose the 10-year-old Ardbeg. The peaty weight of this whisky matched the robust flavor of the Angus cap, and although the steak worked well with the beefy Scotch, the chimichurri sauce tasted just slightly off when washed down with whisky. When we visit again, we’ll get the Angus beef cap with our Ardbeg but take a pass on this tangy green South American sauce, which we’ve had before and liked a lot, but which is not a friendly pairing with Scotch.

 

For dessert, with a little Ardbeg still left in the glass, we ordered the sticky pudding, a U.K. favorite: a spongy cake topped with toffee sauce and served with ice cream. We greatly enjoyed the combination of smoky dram and sweet cake. The sugariness of the pudding pleasingly played off the heaviness of the Scotch.

 

Scotch with dinner is not for everyone. If, however, you think you might like a wee drop with your meal, the whisky works much better than you might imagine. Sometimes the whisky contrasted with what we were eating (as with dessert at the end of the meal) and sometimes it compared with what we were eating (as with the oysters at the beginning of the meal). Either way, it was an interesting experiment.

 

One other advantage of having whisky with rich food is that the solvent qualities of the drink cleanse the palate and refresh the taste buds for the next bite. You should try it, at least once, and a good place to do so is with a whisky or two and a few plates of Scottish-type food at SideDoor in River North.