My friend suggests a whisky bar he knows just a short walk from the station. I’ve just arrived in Aberdeen and the wind blowing off the North Sea feels capable of biting even into the solid Granite that built the city. A couple of warmers later and we’re heading off for a curry, a smart new place he’s heard about that’s just up Market Street.
Whisky followed by fish seems appropriate in Scotland, but strangely we end up with a fish that’s been imported from Bangladesh – a whole tilapia, spiced. It’s not bad but a bit dry. As we are. We down our Cobras and order a whisky. The choice is from the region of Speyside, the small but prolific whisky producing area that is famous for its mostly gentle style of the drink. My friend wants gentle so as not to over-power the fish but goes for something slightly oily to help the dryness. It’s got a taste of pepper too. Three cheers for my clever curry-whisky friend and we’re soon happily off back to the whisky bar to discuss the merits of importing a fish from the freshwaters of Asia to the north of Scotland.
Whisky and curry go together remarkably well. The spicy notes – cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, cloves among others – are central to the aroma and taste of many whiskies while a host of the other tastes you associate with your favourite curry can be found too. In whisky you’ll also find creamy smoothness (Korma dishes), smokiness (Tandoori), sweetness (Dhansak), vanilla (Kulfi), nuttiness (Pasanda), zestiness (Achari) aniseed (Goan fish dishes), as well as saltiness, fruitiness and slight oiliness.
There are two approaches to pairing food and drink. One is to complement the dish by choosing a drink with the same or similar tastes and aromas; the other is challenge the dish by adding new tastes to the equation.
Master of Malt John Lamond is firmly on the side of the former. “The whisky you choose has to complement the food. I’d say always do this, but particularly with Indian dishes which are so complex. They’ve been carefully put together to create a range of different tastes and the last thing you want is to choose a whisky that upsets that and blows the food’s taste out of the water.”
But Lamond also warns it works both ways due to the power of some curries. “The art, or magic, is in the marriage of the flavours of the whisky with the flavours of the food so that each complements the other, rather than one swamping the flavours of the other. The more highly flavoured, such as Vindaloo blast the taste buds and make tasting almost anything alongside them almost impossible,” he advises.
“Creamy masalas would go with youngish (up to 15-year-old) Speysides – Glenfarclas, Aberlour, Mortlach, Glenfiddich for instance. Jalfrezis would work with Ardbeg, Black Bottle, Big Peat or Caol Ila, even Springbank or Johnnie Walker Red or Black. Some would also fit well with tandoor cooked dishes, but they would have to be quite heavily flavoured and a lot of the flavour in curries is down to the contents of the dish rather than the way it has been cooked, such as perhaps a Gosht.”
Pairing whisky and curry works, but ultimately it’s about experimenting and having fun.
There’s a lot of snobbery associated with whisky (as with wine) but just as you don’t choose your favourite beer with an elaborate performance of swirling, staring and sniffing nor do you have to do so whisky either. See the boxes for some ideas of Indian dishes and whiskies but don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works for you. A few select whiskies and a selection of dishes from your favourite takeaway can make for a great night at home with friends.
As Lamond mentions, curry has plenty of complex flavours so give your taste buds a chance! I’d advise trying the whisky and the dish you want to pair it with before loading extras like pickle on to your plate. Keep the rice and bread dishes as plain as possible (plain or pillau rice and plain nan or chapatti); you’ve got enough taste stuff going on without introducing lemon rice and garlic nan into the equation as well.
Ultimately, have fun discovering which whiskies work with which curries, but always tread carefully with powerful tastes, as Tom Morton, BBC broadcaster and author of the whisky books Spirit of Adventure and Journey’s Blend warns.
“Matching curries with whisky is really about the post-prandial hitching of a dram to the aroma left behind by a curry. A Glenfarclas 105 after a nice wee korma can cut through the cream and coconut. But you have to be careful. A cask-strength Talisker on the back of a ferocious Jalfrezi may leave your throat or oesophagus in tatters.”
Classic dishes and popular whiskies
• Butter chicken, with its creamy, tomato base works well with the vanilla smoothness of America’s favourite, Jack Daniel’s. No Coke!
• The strong and powerful smokiness of popular blend Johnnie Walker Black is needed to compete with the extra hot spiciness of Lamb madras.
• Famous Grouse combines spiciness with sweetness (from its fruit tastes) something that fans of a Prawn Dhansak will recognise and enjoy.
• Biryanis are dry but highly aromatic and need a light and sweet whisky that will not fight the subtle aromas of whole spices used in the dish. Go for a Bell’s.
• Kormas or Pasandas, with their creamy and nutty tastes both work well with the easy, smoothness of Ireland’s triple-distilled Jameson. Any wonder it’s a favourite for Irish coffees?
Advanced tasting menu
Starter: Onion bhaji and Glenkinchie 10 Year Old. A classic, simple starter of sliced onion and gram flour that deserves a gentle accompaniment and this Edinburgh whisky is light but has a touch of spice and ginger.
Lamb: Lamb tikka and Caol Ila (pronounced Cal-le-la). The tandoor-cooked lamb needs something as strong and smoky as the single malt Caol Ila (it’s the lead whisky in Johnnie Walker Black) with its hint of pepper and spice.
Chicken: Achari chicken and Tullamore Dew. This Irish blend offers spicy and lemon flavours, ideal if you like your chicken cooked in tangy pickles.
Vegetable: Motor paneer with Wild Turkey. The smoothness of the cheese needs a smooth whisky and this famous Kentucky Bourbon provides that, but also adds hints of spices including cinnamon.
Fish: Goan prawn curry and Bowmore 12 Year Old. The great texture of this shellfish is popular but their taste of origin is often lost in the cooking process. Go for a whisky that was matured by the sea. Islay whiskies are well known for their salty, seaweedy flavours.
Dessert: Kulfi and Johnnie Walker Gold Label. Have a bit of fun with this creamy, soft dessert. Take a mouthful and let it freeze for a few seconds then enjoy a nice amount of this creamy, honeyed blend.
• This article first appeared in Chaat! (British Curry Club magazine)