How to pair curry with whisky


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)

A good whisky aroma

3. Reviews (International)

Indian Zaffron, Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote

Originally recommended by the Morrocan kebab shop owner (Mister Kebab does a good kebab by the way), this seems to be the universally accepted ‘best curry house in area’ when you talk to the locals. This includes an ex-pat I meet when checking out the Indian Zaffron, who was celebrating his daughter passing her driving test. “There are others,” he said. “But this is the best,”

I’d had a little takeaway taster here before and the Chicken Dansak (€6.95 plus 5% tax) was pretty much one of the best I’ve tasted, the thick, dark sauce enhanced by the use of yellow chana lentils instead of the usual split red ones. But better still, this was a decent value Canary Island curry when compared to inflated prices found on Tenerife. Does it really cost that much more to get spices to this neighbouring island?

So intrigued was I to see all my favourite dishes in Spanish (strange that in Spain, eh?) that I ordered a Torta Crujiente de Lentejas (that’s a papadom to you and me €0.99 each plus tax), which in itself is strange. Still, it gave me just enough to find the dish I’d never knew even existed: a Chandigarh Sizzler, a lamb curry cooked in a whisky infused sauce (€12.90 plus tax).

I have extolled the virtues of whisky and curry on this site before and have created whisky-curry pairing menus so know this drink works beautifully with Indian food but I have yet to find a dish that uses it. But I’m glad I have

Cooked with Ballantines apparently, the whisky gave the dish a real richness, although wasn’t overpowering with the taste of whisky (more of an aroma) once it had been cooked through. I was impressed and think the choice of lamb is certainly the right meat as it absorbs the subtle flavours beautifully.

And to top it off there was a nice pilau rice (€2.25 plus tax) in the multi-coloured 1980s style of Brit curry houses. yes, I know it doesn’t taste any different with all the colouring but it looks nice. And it was going to take more than that to knock me off my stride once I’d found my whisky curry.

Indian Zaffran, C/Juan Carlos I, Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote, tel: +928 528 405 (reservations) or +928 512 747 (deliveries). Open: daily noon–3pm, 6.30pm–11.30pm.

Indian Zaffran snapshot

Food ① ② ③ ④

Decor ① ② ③

Value ① ② ③ ④

Atmosphere (Saturday night) ① ② ③ ④

Service and friendliness ① ② ③

Curry tip of the week 7


Fancy a change from beer with your curry? The spices in whisky make it an ideal drink to accompany your favourite dish. Try the smoky Johnnie Walker Black with Chicken Tikka Masala.

Whisky and curry


Mandeep Grewal, Johnnie Walker brand ambassador, pairs his whiskies with some classic Indian dishes.

• Chicken Tikka Masala (tandoor-cooked chicken in a creamy tomato sauce)
A classic dish deserves a classic like Johnnie Walker Black Label. Although Chicken Tikka Masala seems a fairly simple dish the preparation is very complex: from marinating the chicken with selected balanced spices to putting it on charcoal fire and then using a number of natural flavours like tomatoes, nuts, spices and fresh cream. There is a lot that goes behind the scenes. In a similar way the natural flavours of Scotch whiskies present in Black Label make it a complex but a very balanced whisky, using whiskies from all the regions of Scotland. There are creamy vanilla notes from the Lowland Grain whiskies, fresh fruit and citrus notes from the Speyside malts, rich and dried fruits from the Highlands and a hint of smoke or barbecue from the Islands and Islay. Also, just like the slow marination and slow cooking process of Chicken Tikka Masala, nothing is rushed to produce Black Label. Only whiskies aged in oak casks for 12 years or over are selected for the blend. Try the whisky on rocks or with a splash of spring water.

• Lamb Vindaloo (very hot with a little vinegar)
This robust classic deserves a robust beauty such as Lagavulin 16 year old malt from Islay. It is the only whisky that can tame the fiery nature of this dish. Also Lagavulin has a meaty body that complemnets the red meat in the dish. Try this whisky with a splash of mineral water.

• Prawn Dhansak (sweet and sour with vegetables and lentils)
Fairly hot, sweet and sour prepared with lentils this is a great sea dish that would be complemented by the only whisky from the Isle of Skye – Talisker 10 year old malt. The flavours of the sea in the prawns are further enhanced by the sea weed, salty notes and a warm peppery finish of Talisker. Try this whisky with a single cube of ice or a splash of chilled mineral water.

• Chicken Korma (mild, aromatic and creamy)
This extremely pleasant and mild creamy dish can be lifted up by the balanced flavours of the sea, forest and fruit present in the blended malt Johnnie Walker Green Label. The four signature single malts in this blended malt – Cragganmore (Speyside), Talisker (Isle of Skye), Caolila (Islay) and Linkwood (Speyside) – are subtly apparent but work in harmony to form a smooth flavour that changes each time you pick up a glass. Each of the single malts in the blend are matured for a minimum of 15 years in oak casks. The smoothness of Green Label complements the smooth and nutty flavour in Chicken Korma. Try this whisky with just 2-3 ice cubes and let the ice melt slowly while sipping it.

• Onion bhaji (spicy onion in batter)
This spicy and herby starter is balanced with the robust blend Johnnie Walker Red Label. These Indian dumplings are fried with flavour and work just right with the younger whiskies present in Johnnie Walker Red Label. As it is a starter I would recommend to enjoy Red Label with lots of ice topped up with either soda water or dry ginger ale. It’s a great refresher that would complement this classic starter.

• Kulfi (Indian ice cream)
Finally the dessert whisky. My choice would be frozen Johnnie Walker Gold Label or frozen Clynelish 14 year old. Gold Label is a blend of whiskies aged 18 years or more and is the lightest blend in the range. The malt whisky that sits at the heart of this blend is Clynelish whose distillery’s water prospectors once panned for gold deposits released from the red granite rock. When frozen these whiskies give a honey heather flavour that finishes with some dark chocolate notes, making it a unique dessert or after dinner drink. Serve from the freezer and sip from a frozen shot glass along with the creamy kulfi.

This article first appeared in the SA Whisky Handbook 2009