Whisky and cheese are an odd couple somehow. Their tastes have very little in common. Even though in some very rare cases distinctive cheese aromas may manifest themselves in whisky, in general the salty and savoury character of most cheeses is not very akin to the fruity and sweet flavours that many whiskies display. And also the taste of smoky peated whiskies is not really comparable to the few varieties of smoked cheese that exist, like the Italian scamorza.
But nevertheless many whisky lovers have learned that some cheeses and some whiskies can actually harmonize very well together. In fact, the pairing of whisky with cheese has become fairly en vogue nowadays, as it has with other foodstuffs like chocolate, coffee or even entire dishes. I had a take on this myself a while ago, when took the famous Stilton and Port combination and replaced the wine with port matured whisky.
But cheese and whisky don’t only show some surprising team spirit in pleasing our taste buds. Looking closer at the production processes we can find some similarities and analogies that make them look like cousins in a way.
Both whisky and cheese are products of fermentation. Micro-organisms work their magic during production and create a plethora of flavour components in both. Of course the fermentation of a mash of malted barley with yeast is an all different thing than the bacteria causing simple and bland quark to turn into somtimes strongly flavoured cheese.
Actually both types of fermentation are quite opposte to each other. Cheesemakers try to avoid any yeast getting into the milk becaue it will affect the maturation negatively. Whisky makers on the other hand generally don’t want malolactic fermentation taking place. But there are exceptions like at Glenturret who do want to add those additional flavours to their whisky, albeit in a well-controlled manner.
Whisky and cheese other than cream cheese both are aged for a certain period of time, the difference between the two being that in cheese fermentation happens during aging while whisky reacts with the cask wood and the atmosphere. Evaporation of water during the aging of cheese plays a major role in its development, while for whisky evaporation is mainly a necessary evil caused by the desired interaction with air.
3. Few ingredients, big variety
A key parallel between whisky and cheese is the fact that they are both made from just a few basic ingredients. Grain, water and yeast for whisky; milk, salt and rennet for cheese. But the making of both can be tweaked in countless ways, resulting in a seemingly infinite variety of final products.
In The 50 Basic Parameters of Whisky Making I have outlined factors that can change the character of a whisky. With cheese it is just the same. It should well be possible to create such a list for cheese making as well. The temperature at which the milk is set with the rennet, how finely or coarsely the curd is cut, how strongly it is drained or even pressed, and so on…
4. More Analogies
But that’s not all. Just as different grains give you different types of whisky, milk from diferent animal species (cow, goat, sheep or buffalo) gives distinctively different cheeses. And grain types as well as milk types can be mixed to achieve even more variety.
At the beginning of the production process, you could compare the coagulation of the curd with the mashing of the grain. The vessels in which cheesemakers let the curd set look not unlike mash tuns, and in both cases heat supports the process. And here we have an inverse analogy: For cheese the solid curd is used while the whey is drained (I am neglecting cheeses made from whey like ricotta now…). To make whisky, the liquid is used for fermentation while the draff is discarded.
Some cheeses are made with special varieties of mould like camembert (white) and roquefort (blue), or they have a orange crust from special bacteria like munster. As these all grow during maturation, it is not too far-fetched to draw an analogy to the maturation of whisky in diferent cask types. Different cask types add different flavours to whisky, just as different cultures do so with cheese.
It is even possible to find a cheese analogy to the ever-popular wine cask finishing of whisky. The French call it affinage, and it is done by regularly rubbing the cheese with wine or spirit. A well-known exaple is the Époisses which is treated with Marc de Bourgogne. Wouldn’t it be a nice idea for a Scottish cheesemaker to create a whisky finished cheese?
Of course the parallels and analogies between whisky and cheese outlined here are not complete, and there are still big differences in production. But maybe they can help to explain why the two get along together so surprisingly well.