Whisky & Tea: Pair it right

whisky and tea
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Tea and Scotch is a common mix in China and elsewhere in Asia. But can it catch on in Europe? This weekend treat your senses to the ultimate combination of a premium quality loose leaf tea and a bottle of whisky.

 For the record, I’ve never seen anyone mix red wine and Coke. But I’m told its fashionable in Spain, where it’s called Calimocho, and in parts of China. The nearest I’ve come to it was when one of my cousins in New Zealand poured lemonade into his white wine because he enjoyed a long drink.

The fact that his son-in-law was a winemaker and had made the wine in question didn’t seem to worry him. And why should it? At times even the most committed oenophile will admit that all they want is a mixed drink that both refreshes and provides a little kick of sweetness. You can drink wine any way you like, but I would argue that if you want to appreciate the subtle aromas and nuances of this magical beverage, adding a sweet, fizzy drink isn’t really the answer. Mixing handcrafted, complex beverages like wine or whisky usually destroys their character and flavor.

The exception is tea—not tea and wine, but tea and whisky. When blended, they can create a refreshing drink that manages to retain the integrity of both beverages. Green tea and blended whisky is popular in China—some say as popular as gin and tonic in England—but I’m talking about premium, handpicked tea and fine, single-malt Scotch whisky.

The first person who introduced me to this unusual match was Paul Benjamin, managing director of luxury tea importer Benjamin & Blum. Over a few hours at London’s Rosewood hotel, we tried all sorts of combinations, from Darjeeling Tea with Glenfiddich to oolong tea with Lagavulin. What I found was that the tea takes the edge off the alcohol and softens the whisky. In the case of Darjeeling and oolong, the floral character from the tea balances out the whisky’s dried fruit flavor. The acidity from the tea gives the drink a real lift, transforming it into something delicate. But it’s the aromatics that really intrigue, with the smell swinging from coffee to floral.

That comes as no surprise to Dave Broom, author of “The World Atlas of Whisky.” He says there is a natural synergy between whisky and tea, because both beverages have certain similarities in flavor, such as smokiness, malt and tropical fruit notes. He points to Lapsang souchong, which has a distinctive, rich, smoky character, and Lagavulin, a peaty Islay whisky.

But for pairing, he suggests matching different flavors: So, a Lapsang souchong would pair well with a Balvenie, which has gentle characters, while a strong peat whisky like Ardbeg would pair nicely with an oolong. ‘There is a natural synergy between whisky and tea, because both beverages have certain similarities in flavor, such as smokiness, malt and tropical fruit notes.’

On the back of Mr. Broom’s recommendations I organized a tasting with someone who knows all about experimenting with flavors, Sriram Aylur. The chef at Michelin-starred London restaurant Quilon has done a lot of work on food psychology, finding unusual matches for his Indian dishes. His menu includes combinations like pink grapefruit and beetroot, and pineapple and pomegranate.

With Ben Ireson of tea importer Lalani & Co, we tried several different pairings, including oolong with Japanese whisky and Craggonmore with Assam. Mr. Aylur, who described some of the combinations as “magic,” said he was surprised at how the flavor notes of both beverages changed and evolved when mixed together.

Tea and whisky, like fine wine, both develop in the glass and continue their flavor evolution over the course of an evening. As Mr. Aylur says: “I think these drinks will give an opportunity to make a relaxed evening a nice long one.”

whisky and tea
Three Whiskies to Pair With Tea

Glenfiddich 18-year-old | €130 or $150

Aged in Oloroso sherry and Bourbon casks, Glenfiddich naturally has a lot of fruit and oak on the nose. Paired with Lalani & Co 1st Flush Grand Reserve Darjeeling, the aromatics were transformed from malt to tropical notes of pear and pineapple. Alcohol: 40%. See the recipe by Will Lyons

Lagavulin 16-year-old | €55 or $70

Islay malts have a powerful phenolic smoky peatiness. But when mixed with Benjamin & Blum’s oolong tea, its character softens. The two beverages were a natural match. The tea didn’t alter the whisky’s flavor too much. Instead, it mellowed it, drawing out faint tobacco notes. Alcohol: 43%

Cragganmore 12-year-old | €40 or $45

Cragganmore has a floral, delicate character. It smells of wet hay and heather. When paired with Okumidori sencha green tea from Kyoto, the nose is transformed, with citrus notes really coming through. In the mouth, it has a lovely rounded texture. Alcohol: 40%

Source: Wall street journal

Cover photo: Jean-Manuel Duvivier

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