Whiskey & Cheese Geeks

Whisky is not my thing. At least I never thought so until last night. It turns out whisky, when presented with a first-rate storyteller in the form of Craig Johnstone from Bruichladdich, is actually pretty good. And it can be an excellent pairing with artisan cheese.

A few months ago, the fine folks who run the annual Madison Ruby Conference asked me if I’d partner with a whisky geek from Scotland to lead a two-hour cheese/whisky pairing session for 150 of their trade show attendees. I thought it sounded like fun, so when Craig emailed me the three whiskies he had chosen, I did like any good writer who hates whisky does – I googled each, and then blind-paired a cheese based on his tasting notes. I figured — it’s whisky — how complicated can it be?

For the whisky drinkers out there, you know exactly how complicated it can be, and after two hours of whisky infotainment by Craig, I now have a much better understanding. Hell, I might even buy a bottle or two. Here are the pairings we came up with (all miraculously very good) and a little about each:

1. The Botanist, a small batch, artisanal Islay gin
Okay, so Craig pulled a surprise on me with this one, and I didn’t have a cheese lined up to pair with it. But after tasting this aromatic gin (made with 22 wild, native island botanicals, including juniper), I’d pair Marieke Honey Clover Gouda with it. This gin is a relatively new offering from Bruichladdich, and the first batch they made filled 250,000 bottles (a little confidence is a good thing).

2. Laddie 10 paired with Sartori BellaVitano Gold
The first whisky of the evening proved to be my favorite, perhaps, as I was to learn later, it was the least-peatiest (is that a word?) of the Bruichladdich whiskies. This 10-year-old spirit was the first whiskey the company made in its renovated Victorian distillery on the far west of the Atlantic Coast of Islay. It is malted from only Scottish barley, slow-fermented and cask-filled at 70 percent. Its mellow oak sweetness paired well with the fruity BellaVitano Gold, highlighting the lighter, sugary notes of the drink.

3. Port Charlotte PC7 with Carr Valley Sweet Vanilla Cardona
We learned this whisky has been sold out in Scotland for years, and that Craig had found a stash and bought it at Riley’s Liquor to take back home with him. While this heavily peated whisky was not my favorite, I found a few drops of water helped cut the smoke so the taste of the barley and craftsmanship shined through. Bruichladdich is excellent at telling the story of its product, with profiles of everyone from the barley farmer to the crofters, to the export clerk included with every bottle. This whisky paired beautifully – the best pairing of the night – with Carr Valley Sweet Vanilla Cardona, a goat’s milk cheese rubbed with sugar and infused with vanilla beans. Yum.

4.  Octomore 3/152 PPM with Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Branded as an iron fist in a velvet glove, this super-peated whisky about did me in. It was, however, the favorite of the whisky connoisseurs in the room. The company owner says it’s “like getting hit by a 20-foot wave that has crashed over the peat bogs of Islay.” I believe him. The Pleasant Ridge only brought out more smokiness, so while the true whisky lovers in the room loved it, in good news, the rest of us were too drunk by this time to care, and just gravitated toward more cheese. As usual, it’s hard to wrong with one of the best artisan cheeses being made in the United States.

Many thanks to Craig and all of the Ruby goers for an entertaining and educational evening. If I can swing it, I’ll be bringing Craig and his Bruichladdich artisan whiskies to a future Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival. He’s just too entertaining not to share with my fellow cheese geeks.