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Chocolate bars for whisky lovers

Give your tastebuds a sensuous treat by adding a little cacao to the water of life

by Nicholas Coldicott

A tawny port pairs wonderfully with Stilton. Grand Marnier tastes great on vanilla ice cream. Chianti seems to suit a Margherita pizza. And whisky? Well, that goes with haggis.

But haggis is a sheep’s stomach stuffed with a mash of its offal, and tastes just as it sounds — so we’ll have to find something else.

Suntory, the nation’s top whisky distiller, hopes to make 2010 the year of whisky and chocolate. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a great idea for a company looking for more ladies to sip single malts.

Hokkaido chocolatier Royce and candy conglomerate Lotte are already both selling chocolates filled with Suntory single malts Hakushu and Yamazaki. Every establishment with a whisky shelf has been sent a pamphlet with pairing tips. This month, Roppongi’s Academy Hills will hold a whisky and chocolate pairing seminar. And at next month’s Whisky Live! event in Odaiba’s Tokyo Big Sight, Whisky Magazine Japan editor-in-chief Dave Broom and chocolatier Sanae Hirata will team up to tell us how to match their respective foodstuffs.

Before I start banging on about noses and palates, I’ll concede that I’m flirting with pretension in even touching this topic. Many of you pair every dish with the second-cheapest wine on the list. Some of you don’t even match your jacket to your pants. And you won’t make friends by knowing which cacao goes best with a Campbeltown malt.

But sip a Lagavulin 16 Years. It’s an Islay malt, so it engulfs you with peat, though as the smoke clears, you get a long, sweet finish, something like mille-feuille. Now try a square of Valrhona Jivara. Malt, caramel and vanilla ooze across your tongue, and there’s still just enough peat on your palate to dim the sugar and keep things manly. In an evening of whisky and chocolate tasting, this was the combo that got my guinea pigs oinking with glee.

If you’re playing along at home, you’ll notice waves of flavors from the Valrhona, just as you would expect with a whisky or wine (unless you chomped your chocolate, in which case go back and start again). That’s top-quality cacao. For snacking at the office, feel free to eat Morinaga with its hazelnut paste and vegetable oil. When pairing with whisky, pick a premium brand.

Takahiko Kikuchi teaches sweet and alcohol matching at Tokyo’s branch of the Academie du Vin. He also runs Bar Odin in Ebisu, where your drinks are very precisely paired with snacks. Calvados comes with apple compo^te, peaty whiskies might be served with smoked scallops, and fruity drams arrive with cacao-coated orange peel and perhaps Kikuchi’s homemade chocolates.

Whisky pairs best with the sweeter chocolates, says Kikuchi. Fellow Odin bartender Toshihiko Oki says that a white chocolate can temper the big peaty brutes. Too much cacao will overwhelm most drinks, they both say, though if you love the dark stuff, there are rich, deep malts that can handle it.

So, with a bagful of posh chocolates and whisky, I spent last Saturday night testing combinations. Here are the highlights.

Yoichi, no age (¥1,580) Anthon Berg Fair Trade, 57% cacao (¥499) I asked Chris Bunting, founder of the Japanese whisky blog nonjatta.blogspot.com, to recommend a bottle and he surprised me by picking the youngest, cheapest Yoichi.

“On a whisky-per-yen basis it is, in my opinion, by far the best deal you can get in Japan,” he said. “It’s a big, muscular, assertive dram. The fact that it has a ‘no age’ statement does not mean that the whisky is unaged. I understand that much of the whisky in there is aged for about five or six years and all of it has been aged at least three.”

Big, bold and orangey, you can taste it on every part of your tongue. The 57 percent-cacao bar from Anthon Berg, purveyor of chocs to the Danish royal family, has a strikingly similar set of flavors and smoothes the rugged liquor.

Glen Garioch 17 Years a dram at Bar Odin) Cachet Vanuata, 44% cacao (¥330) As with most artisan chocolates, Cachet’s Vanuata has tasting notes on its box. It boasts of “a strong but delightful cocoa flavour, with a hint of coffee and spice, caramel and smoke.” At Bar Odin, Oki read the notes and pulled three bottles from his shelf: a Springbank 2001, a 30-year-old Fettercairn and a Grand Old Parr from the 1970s. With the agonized look of a quiz-show contestant who fears he’s about to blow the million dollars, he said: “32 percent cacao, right? I have no confidence about this.”

They all paired pretty well. Then Oki tasted the chocolate and reached straight for a 17-year-old Glen Garioch (say “Geery”). The bold, firm Highland malt could almost have passed for bourbon, with notes of coffee, caramel and just a wee hint of smoke. Bingo.

St George’s new-make whisky spirit (¥5,800) Cachet Madagascar, 32% cacao (¥330) This isn’t technically whisky. It’s what would have become whisky if they hadn’t bottled it, shipped it to Japan and sold it to me at a ridiculous price. It’s the product of England’s new whisky distillery, but it’s the raw stuff.

The 60 ppm barley phenol count means it should taste smokier than an Ardbeg filtered through Amy Winehouse, but the peat is buried in ethanol. It tastes like a gutsy wheat vodka. It was hard work finding a chocolate that could handle this, but Belgian maker Cachet’s caramel-rich Madagascar can. At 32 percent cacao, it’s sweet enough to tame the wild spirit.

Midleton Very Rare (¥16,000) Domori Chuao Hacienda San Jose, 70% cacao (¥840) I bought a blended Irish to break up all the single malts. Midleton is the world’s greatest whiskey, according to my friend Steve. “Leave a glass of this to breathe for 24 hours and you’re blown away by its complexity,” wrote Dave Broom in Whisky Magazine. It’s “better than sex. Not good sex perhaps, but certainly better than what most of us experience,” said one online reviewer.

“Pencils!” said bartender Oki, sampling it in Bar Odin.

It did taste of HB, and I rued my wasted yen. It’s grown on me, though, and it pairs rather well with the most extraordinary chocolate. Like most Domori products, this Chuao contains only cacao and sugar. Not even cocoa butter. Yet it’s the most complex bar and, like the Midleton, is delicate and floral with notes of honey.

Macallan Gran Reserva 12 Years (¥12,800) Theobroma, 90% cacao (¥1,000) This sherry-cask Macallan tastes like dark chocolate. Theobroma’s 90 percent-cacao bar is dark chocolate. You don’t have to be clever all the time.

Bar Odin, B1 1-8-18 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3445 7527; www.authenticbar.com/odin The next chocolate and whisky seminar will be held at Academy Hills on Feb. 28, 4:30- 6:30 p.m., 49-50 F, Roppongi Hills, Roppongi, Minato-ku. For more information, visit www.academyhills.com (Japanese only)

Ten years of Whisky Live!

Whisky Live! began in Tokyo in 2000 to celebrate the launch of the Japanese version of Whisky Magazine. With astonishing speed it has grown into a global event, reaching 21 cities worldwide and leaving its original home in an Aoyama banquet hall for Tokyo’s gargantuan Big Sight convention center in Odaiba.

Among the attractions are seminars by some of the world’s top distillers, including Japan’s Suntory, Nikka and the new Chichibu distillery, as well as the chance to sample the latest releases from dozens of brands. Craft-beer fans will also be impressed, with stands from the likes of Baird, Ise Kadoya and Ozenoyukidoke Beer. There’s music, too, from Shuya Okino of Kyoto Jazz Massive, cocktails from Shiba Park Hotel “cocktail designer” Takayuki Suzuki, and to mark the event’s 10th anniversary, there’s the chance to buy bottles of single cask Japanese whiskies selected by Whisky Magazine editor-in-chief Dave Broom.

Whisky Live! in Tokyo Big Sight, Odaiba, Tokyo, takes place on Feb. 21 from 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; entry is ¥6,000 with a free tasting glass and a copy of Whisky Magazine. For more information, visit www.whiskylivejapan.com