Whisky & Chocolate and heaps of enthusiasm
Alwynne Gwilt aka Miss Whisky (@themisswhisky), ran a hugely popular whisky and chocolate pairing class with the second masterclass of the International Women of Whisky Day. Combining both whisky and chocolate.
I have been fortunate enough to attend Alwynne’s Masterclass at the Midlands Whisky Festival, read more about that here. I was very excited about this class, as since the last time, I have really been thinking about whisky and chocolate as a pairing, I’ve also been thinking more about chocolate itself, about the whole chocolate making process and about the ethics of the chocolate industry.
It really is staggering as to just how similar the process of making good quality chocolate is to the process of making single malt. Even the cocoa beans themselves take up the outside influences of the habitat. The colour of the soil influences the colour of the beans, much like the colour of whisky is influenced by the casks.
Background on Alwynne Gwilt
For those of you who aren’t as yet familiar with Miss Whisky (have you been living in a cave?), here’s a bit of background. Canadian born Alwynne, made the decision to come to England and was continuing her work as a journalist. Having fallen in love with whisky during a tasting at Milroy’s whisky shop in Soho in 2008, Alwynne continued on her quest to discover and learn about the ‘water of life’, buying a bottle for herself every birthday and Christmas. A change of job direction in 2011 saw her pondering her next career move and during a four-month bout of traveling she decided to return to England and delve into the world of whisky!
Alwynne works closely with Balvenie (a personal favourite of Alwynne’s) as well as running a hugely successful website and holding many tastings, events, judging and writing all over the wold too.
Alwynne was also the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival’s International Ambassador for the past year. She is incredibly hardworking, and one of the nicest, friendliest and helpful people I have been lucky enough to meet.
The Whisky & Chocolate
Now back to the Masterclass. This was a very busy class and, as I have come to expect from Alwynne’s classes, there was a really diverse mix of people. If there were people out there who had thought, as I first had, that it would mainly be attended by women (yes, shock horror, I stereotype sometimes too) then they would be wrong. It was about a 60/40 split with more men present. There were people there that were hard core whisky fans, people that were completely beginners, those that were tempted by the idea of the chocolate or the whisky and those that were curious to see if you really could pair whisky and chocolate. I have no doubt that there were those who just wanted the chance to see Alwynne at work.
Alwynne began the class by explaining why it is that chocolate and whisky work. Alwynne told the class that she was not that big a chocolate fan and that on a day with Rachel Barrie, of Morrison Bowmore, it was in fact Rachel that introduced Alwynne to pairing whisky and chocolate together. Alwynne readily admits that she didn’t think it would work, and even told Rachel Barrie that, yet when she gave it a try, its fair to say, Alwynne was hooked.
Throughout the class we were talked through why whisky and chocolate making had so much in common, breaking it down to the similarities in production and explaining just how much of a range of aromas and taste could be found in good quality chocolate. Alwynne told the class that she now noses a chocolate bar (a good quality one, that is) much in the same manner a whisky.
So on to the Whisky, we had:
Tamdhu 10 paired with Granada Chocolate Company – 60% cocoa dark chocolate
Balvenie 14yo Caribbean Cask paired with – Duffy’s Ecuadorian 72% cocoa dark chocolate
Glenfiddich 15yo paired with – Peruvian 70% cocoa chocolate
Benromach paired with – Dominican Republic produced chocolate
SMWS 73.61 paired with – A sea salted caramel & Rosemary chocolate.
Before we moved one to the pairing Alwynne handed round some cocoa nibs and explained the similarity of them to grist, and then talked us through a little of the history of the cocoa bean and then chocolate itself. The first reference to the cocoa bean is believed to be 1400BC in Honduras, where it was taken very much like a tea, this would have been very bitter but it was used for its stimulant properties. It wasn’t until the late 1500’s, early 1600’s it was taken more like the product we know today.
Good quality chocolate, like whisky changes depending on what region the cocoa bean comes from. And like whisky the way in which it is produced can vary greatly from one producer to another. Alwynne explained that with good quality chocolate the “conching time” is longer. So the cheaper chocolate bars will maybe only have five to six hours conching time. As this is not enough time to truly bring out the flavours many additives have to be added, including wax, soy lechin, caster oil and glycerine to name but a few.
So what is conching? Well it’s the penultimate process in making chocolate. A conche is a container filled with metal beads, which act as grinders. The refined and blended chocolate mass is kept in a liquid state by frictional heat. Chocolate prior to conching has an uneven and gritty texture. The conching process produces cocoa and sugar particles smaller than the tongue can detect, hence the smooth feel in the mouth. The length of the conching process determines the final smoothness and quality of the chocolate. High-quality chocolate is conched for about 72 hours, lesser grades about four to six hours. So again, similar to the production of whisky, this is the equivalent of grinding the grist.
Now to the whisky and the chocolate itself.
Tamdhu 10 – A very light Speyside malt, however this is spicy on the palate, fresh and drying with a slight bitter after taste. However, once the chocolate was introduced there were notes of redcurrants, apples, honey, cherries and Hazelnuts. This really brought out the rich fruitiness that was hiding within the whisky.
Balvenie 14yo Caribbean Cask – This whisky is finished in an ex rum cask. On the nose this is just stunning, all tropical notes, pineapple, banana, mango, vanilla, Demerara sugar and lashing of good quality rum and raisin ice cream. It doesn’t disappoint on the palate either, with those tropical notes promised on the nose, really shining through on to the palate. When paired with the chocolate it really brought out the tropical notes in the whisky, rich warm banana, fresh hot pineapples and soft mango with just a little more honey sweetness. A great example of an already great whisky being raised just that little bit more by a fantastic pairing.
Glenfiddich 15yo – This whisky is made in a Solera cask, which has chocolate, buttery smooth pancake batter, with the typical pears that is to be expected, and alongside it gentle spice and juicy raisins and plums. Once paired with the chocolate there was a root vegetable quality, like perfumed parsnips and a little strawberries and cream.
Benromach – This is a lovely dram, its sweet with a lovely gentle peat which kisses the palate and gentle rumbles on in the background. The barley and malted cereal notes are next to follow, with a touch of salt and a little floral heather. Once paired with the chocolate a crunch honeycomb comes through with a slightly burnt butterscotch and cranberries.
SMWS 73.61 – This is a 1989 Aultmore – 24yo refill ex-sherry butt this is rich and oily, lashings of sticky toffee pudding, with melted candle wax and soft leather. Chocolate and smooth on the palate with plums, dates and figs and a touch of lemon barley sweets. Slightly drying on the palate with coffee and damp wood on the finish. When paired with the chocolate it really brings out the savoury notes. A hidden saltiness, like a good Parma ham comes through, and a slightly sweet amaretto with prunes. This was my favourite of both the whiskies and the chocolates and as a pairing they were stunning.
A really well thought out, interesting and informative class. Alwynne really knows her stuff when it comes to whisky and chocolate it would appear too. The class was quite lively at times, but Alwynne was happy to take questions as they came along and to let the class have a bit of discussion between themselves also. The people on my table and that behind me also really enjoyed the class, there was a mix of first timers and long standing whisky fans, all were surprised that the pairing worked as well as it did. Everyone walked out of the class smiling, and I don’t think you could ask for more than that,
As always the whisky and the chocolate picked were perfect. I can’t recommend Alwynne’s classes enough, if you get the chance to see one make sure you do, as I can guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)