Our first opportunity to attend a blogger review event together came in the form of an invitation from The Macallan to attend a special chocolate and whisky tasting featuring their whiskies paired with Artisan du Chocolat chocolate.
But we couldn’t go! I was quite disappointed, let me tell you and Pete had a few choice words to say about it too!
He’s been a fan of The Macallan for quite some time, and remembers fondly a couple of bottles from their Travel/ Decades series, no longer available but blended to emulate the styles and tastes of their whiskies through the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties.
And I, of course, am a fan of Artisan du Chocolat!
But the kind folks at We Are Social, who look after social media for The Macallan, took pity and invited Pete and I to a private tasting session in their offices instead.
Whilst we didn’t have Toby Shellard from The Macallan or Artisan’s Gerard Coleman on hand to guide us, we did have the lovely Ingrid Thorpe (a bit of a whisky aficionado, or should that be addict?) and the handsome Mauricio Samayoa.
First of all, they explained why The Macallan and Artisan du Chocolat had teamed up in this way.
The Macallan are, so we were told, very particular about sourcing their barley and their wood. Very particular indeed. They believe that wood accounts for much of the flavour in a finished whisky and claim to spend 40% more on their barrels than any other whisky brand. Their “Master of Wood”, George Espie, is responsible for sourcing and maintaining these barrels and The Macallan are known for their use of sherry oak barrels (barrels formerly used for Oloroso sherry).
They also have the smallest stills in Speyside – they refer to them as their “curiously small stills”. They take only 16% of the new make spirit, what they call “the best cut”, which is then transferred into wooden barrels for maturation into whisky.
Ingrid explains how The Macallan felt that Artisan du Chocolat’s Gerard Coleman showed the same commitment to careful sourcing in the chocolate world and hence approached him for his suggestions about pairing his chocolate with their whiskies.
The first whisky we try is the 15 Years Old Fine Oak. It’s triple cask matured in both Spanish and American oak.
“Why is it relevant that the oak is American?” I ask.
Apparently, because of our changeable seasons in Europe, the rings in our oak are also more variable and the wood itself is more porous. American oak is grown in regions with a more consistent climate which results in a more even, less porous wood.
Ingrid also explains that, when making barrels for sherry, in Europe, the inside is only very lightly charred. When making barrels for American bourbon, the insides of the barrels are charred much more heavily. This caramelises more of the sugars naturally present in the wood and has a resulting impact on the flavours of drinks matured in the barrels.
Fine Oak is matured in both the Spanish sherry and American bourbon barrels. Every barrel imparts subtly different flavour characteristics to the whisky. Balancing which barrels to use and for how long is all part of Bob Delgarno’s job, as The Macallan’s whisky maker, he is responsible for ensuring a consistent quality and character for the whisky year after year.
This particular whisky is popular with women drinkers who like the light, vanilla and citrus notes.
Pete nods in appreciation. I think it tastes like eating garden.
We try the whisky with three Artisan bars – Jamaican Milk, Ginger and Lemongrass (milk) and Orchid and Orange Blossom (dark).
For me the Jamaican Milk brings out the sweetness in the whisky and balances the smokiness. The Ginger and Lemongrass, unsurprisingly, brings out the citrus notes. And, oddly, the Orchid and Orange Blossom draws out some hidden spiciness and makes the whisky taste like chilli! On it’s own, I like the Orchid and Orange Blossom chocolate a lot but with the whisky, it doesn’t work at all for me.
Pete also thinks the Jamaican Milk is the best match as it allows the whisky to retain it’s original character most faithfully.
Next, we try 12 Years Old Sherry Oak.
This is a much darker spirit, aged solely in casks from Jerez in Northern Spain.
An individual cask displays it’s characteristics very early on. The Macallan have a spreadsheet with notes on every single cask that helps them decide which ones are suited to which final products. When the whiskies are mature, a process called marrying and vatting occurs – 12 year olds from different barrels are blended, their alcohol level is set and then they are bottled.
I find I need water with this one. With that little added loosener, I clearly detect raisins and spices. Ingrid agrees and describes it as “an enormous Christmas cake of a whisky”. It reminds me of my much-loved Pedro Ximinez.
The Mole Poblano (chilli) bar is an interesting match. It’s very nutty and smoky and that really echoes the whisky very well. Both Pete and I agree that the two complement each other strongly.
We also try the Sherry Oak with the Tonka bar. Tonka is a South American bean – it has the flavour of citrus without the usual citrus tang. Pete isn’t a fan of the bar at all, disliking the strange aftertaste. I don’t mind the bar on it’s own but find it an unpleasant and jarring mismatch with the whisky.
I decide to also try the Sherry Oak with the Orchid and Orange Blossom and like it a lot – the chocolate mutes the spiciness of the whisky but brings out it’s sweetness – the element I most like.
For our third whisky we move on to Select Oak from The 1824 Collection.
Age isn’t specified as the idea here is to focus on the flavour imparted by the oak. It’s all about finding the best casks to add the very best characteristics of oak.
It has a hint of vanilla and a distinct creaminess, which is an odd thing to say about a whisky, but there it is.
Almond Milk is, as you might expect, a rich, creamy, nutty chocolate and definitely emphasises that sweet, creaminess in the whisky. This is, hands down, my favourite pairing, I think it’s fantastic. And I don’t really like whisky!
Incidentally, Ingrid tells me that, despite the packaging for this bar listing cow’s milk, it is in fact made with almond milk and therefore, it’s a vegan bar. (Perhaps the packaging has been corrected by now; this tasting session happened a couple of months ago).
The Tonka pairs a little better with the Select Oak than it did with the Sherry Oak but not enough to make us love it.
We have one more whisky to taste – The Macallan 18 Years Old.
This is probably The Macallan’s signature whisky, or at least, the one that made them famous.
My notes tell me I found it “proper sweet” (a good thing) and “smoky”. Pete too declared it his favourite of the four.
This whisky was so good that Pete refused at first to “distract the palate” with anymore chocolate but relented and tried some pairings. To my surprise, as he doesn’t like almonds or almond-flavoured products, he felt Almond Milk to be the best match, as did I.
The whole tasting session was an interesting experience, not least because I really never imagined that the different chocolates would have such an impact on how the whisky tasted. Which is daft, really, given the word count expended on discussing food and drink matches for wine, and even beer!
I’d encourage anyone who found this interesting to assemble a gang of friends with which to share the costs and try some whisky and chocolate pairings of your own!