Whisky is robust. Between its spectrum of potent flavours, alcohol content (a minimum of 37 per cent by law in Australia) and big reputation for premium quality, it’s the kind of drink that proves itself a sweet reward once you take the plunge. While these characteristics tend to make whisky more of a sipper than a drink to pair with food, Glenfiddich and The Balvenie brand ambassador Ross Blainey thinks this doesn’t need to be the case.

“Whisky is so complex and it might be bold and quite a big flavour, so pairing it with other big flavours is definitely worthwhile,” he says.

Whisky pairing basics

If you’re thinking about your own dram and dinner pairings, Blainey sees two ways to go about it. “You can either complement the food – so the flavours are similar to the food you’re using – or you can go the other way and choose flavours that are kind of the opposite, so that they balance each other out,” he says.

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For contrast, you might pair a sweet, rich whisky like The Balvenie (which has a hint of honey) with briny oysters for a salty/sweet balance, while a savoury, umami-heavy dish like cacio e pepe (a Roman blend of cheese, pepper and pasta) goes to a new level with a sweet whisky pairing. And, for an extra indulgent pairing, Blainey recommends looking for dishes with game meats (such as venison, duck or kangaroo). Grilled simply, those gamey flavours are balanced by the sweet fruitiness of whisky - much in the same way fruit sauces are used by chef.

On the other hand, a like-for-like match could be the same whisky with an equally sweet dessert – creme caramel, for example – with the rich, sweet flavours heightening each other and lifting both the dish and whisky.

Either way, Blainey recommends serving your whisky neat – at least to start with. “I always recommend having it neat first and then you can change it from there, because when you’re tasting it neat, you’re tasting it as the malt master has intended it,” he says. “Always taste it like that and understand the flavours.”

Matching bold, fiery flavours

There are endless examples of big flavour combinations, but one technique Blainey has been exploring lately centres around the power of fire. Working closely with chef Lennox Hastie of renowned flame-focused eatery Firedoor on a one night only pairing dinner on December 5, Blainey has found that cooking over different woods can impart powerful notes in food that are well-matched with whisky.

“Whether it’s different types of meat or vegetables … the wood changes and interacts with what you’re cooking,” Blainey says. “[Hastie] uses mostly ironbark for the heat, but then at the end of the cooking he might change it to a peach wood, or an applewood, and the flavour from that wood interacts with that meat. That meat then interacts back again – the oil drips back down onto the wood and [it] changes again.”

Blainey recognises that for the home cook, it can be difficult to achieve these flavours. But whisky can still be an easy win for the backyard cook. “There are a lot of people using woodsmoke at home and you could definitely play around with that,” he says. “Whisky can be such a great addition to a barbeque, whether it’s making a highball; a tall, bubbly, spritzy drink; or just a neat whisky itself.”

Cuisines that complement the spirit

Blainey loves matching whisky with a few international cuisines – each with their own powerful flavours. French fare – like the crispy-skinned, salt-brined roast chicken at Restaurant Hubert, for example – can be a winner when paired with something like The Balvenie’s 12-Year-Old Doublewood whisky. “It’s quite creamy and buttery and garlicky, so you can really pair it with sherry cask-finished whiskies,” says Blainey. “[Whisky] is a refresher along the way when you’ve got something quite heavy and creamy and buttery.”

Spanish cuisine is a prime candidate too – particularly when matched with those rich, sweet whiskies finished in Spanish sherry casks like The Balvenie Stories: A Revelation of Cask and Character. “Things like Iberico jamon and olives – Iberico jamon is one of my favourite pairings,” says Blainey. “It’s quite a big flavour, super salty, balanced out with the sweetness of the whisky but they’re both bold flavours with a little bit of funkiness. The sherry cask-finished whiskies are great for that.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with The Balvenie.