He-Man and Skeletor. Shearer and Sheringham. Hall and Oates. Pie and mash. Some things are just meant to be paired together. I have long been a fan of pairing whisky with cheese, whether that be at a dedicated tasting, or totally shitfaced, trying to apply some much needed fat/carb damage limitation, after a night of heavy drinking. So, when our great friends at the Birmingham Whisky Club announced that they had organised a whisky and cheese tasting, at The Plough in Harborne, with Glenfarclas (one of our favourite distilleries), Tom and I decided that we’d be crazy not to go along, on an otherwise drab and dreary pre-World Whisky Day Wednesday.
James from Glenfarclas was our whisky guide for the night and the line-up was solid and familiar, which was great. Tom and I have often discussed how great we have found all expressions of Glenfarclas, from the 10 year old to the amazing range of 40 year olds we had the immense pleasure of trying at the spring Midlands Whisky Festival. However, this was the first time either of us had had the opportunity to taste through the core range, all in one go, and take the time to think about each one individually. To be honest, I’d have gone to the tasting if it was just whisky, but the cheese gave the tasting another dimension. All of the cheese was supplied by local deli Anderson and Hill, and we were guided through this element of the tasting by Will.
Both guides were great in their own way. James was full of knowledge about Glenfarclas, as well as the whisky distilling process in general. He also had a number of great anecdotes about George Grant, sales director and 6th generation family member of the Glenfarclas dynasty. Having met George at the before mentioned Midlands Whisky Festival, we already knew what an amazing character he is, and the stories went down really well, keeping the tasting moving at a lively pace. He also came armed with a few props, which were packaged in a Glenfarclas tasting kit (developed after George caused a small fire in Taiwan, with some unlabelled bottles of new make spirit!). From this, we got to try the Glenfarclas new make spirit, which was hands down the most drinkable new make I’ve had the pleasure (or not, in some cases…) of trying: liquid marzipan.
Will had a real passion for cheese. He let the product do the talking and clearly knew more than I imagined possible about cheese. He had been given the task of matching the whisky to the cheeses and, as you will see, the job was done extremely well.
First up was Glenfarclas 10 year old. The nose had a lovely honey and oat flavour, like cereal bars. The palate was fruity, with pears and and toffee apples. The finish was light and dry, with a faint taste of raspberry. What let this dram down slightly is its 40% abv. It was matched with a Valdeon Spanish blue cheese, which was rich and salty. We both felt that the cheese slightly overpowered the whisky in this case, but the combination of the fruitiness and saltiness was perfectly palatable.
The second dram of the night was Glenfarclas 15 year old. Ramped up to 46% abv, this was more like it. The nose was full of cherries and ripe plums. The palate had medjool dates and chocolate covered raisins. The finish was much longer than the 10 year old, with a lingering taste of dark chocolate. The cheese paired with it was a cave aged cheddar. Like an Afgan terrorist, it had spent at least two years of its life in a dark cave. It really complimented the whisky, enhancing the sweetness rather than overpowering it.
Next up was my favourite whisky and pairing of the night: Glenfarclas 21 year old and Raypenaer Gouda. The whisky was incredible. Even more so when a quick internet highlighted its sub £90 price point, which puts many other distilleries to shame (fuck you, Dalmore!). The nose was more cherries (love them) and sugar coated almonds. The palate was thicker and more viscous, with caramel and strawberry cremes. The finish was summed up in three words: long, sweet, delicious. Before this tasting, my previous experience of Gouda had been floppy, tasteless, plastic cheese. This 2 year old Gouda was something else. Full of protein crystals (yeah, that’s a thing…the coarse, grainy texture of cheese) and just the right amount of saltiness, this was a great combination and one which I will be replicating in the near future.
The penultimate dram was the oldest of the night: Glenfarclas 25 year old. Whisky-wise, this was the biggest disappointment of the night for me. When you taste through a core range, and every on is better than the last, it’s like a theme park ride that keeps getting better. Yet, there comes a time when you have to get off the ride, and the thrills die down, and here it was. The nose had dark chocolate, but lacked the fruitiness of the younger drams. The rich caramel and Christmas cake palate was nice, but not as great as the 21 year old. The finish was long, with a slight menthol note to it, but it lacked the character of the previous two drams. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a great dram for its price (sub £100 on Amazon, at the time of writing!!!), once again making a mockery of some of its peers, but I preferred the 21 year old. The cheese to match this dram was a great smoked Gubeen from Southern Ireland. Not the shitty, smoke flavoured plastic cheese in a plastic tube you get from the supermarket, but an 8 hour, oak smoked cheese which was full of flavour. Unfortunately, in this round, the cheese out punched its partner.
Finally, we moved on to one of my all time favourites, and Tom’s pick of the night: Glenfarclas 105. At 60% abv, this cask strength behemoth is the perfect combination of everything that can make whisky great: a slight smokiness, sherry sweetness and cask strength balls! The nose was thick caramel and grilled pineapple. The palate was sweet, with the same ripe fruit running through the 15 year old. The finish was fruity and sweet, with a slight smokiness and taste of nut brittle. The final cheese was an Alpine cave aged Gruyere, again 2 years old and again, full of protein crystals. This pairing really ran the third one close, but as I have a bottle of 105 at home, I leaned towards the new and the 21. This was still a great pairing and a fitting way to end a great night.
Whisky and cheese done with, there was still time for me to turn chancer and ask James to get the tasting kit out again. Earlier in the night, he’d shown us a comparison between a first fill sherry cask and a 4th fill sherry cask and ever since I’d seen that little bottle of Glenfarclas with first fill sherry on the side, I knew I had to try it. Luckily, James was as keen to try it as I was as, amazingly, he’d never tried it. So, we shared a dram and it was delightful. Undoubtedly young, but still full of typical sherry character: dried fruits, marzipan, candied oranges and toffee crisps. A fitting end to a great night…and I even got to take a sample home with me. Next time, more cheese!!!