Unlike many European cuisines, Chinese food hasn’t had a long history of being developed to be paired with wine, or vice versa. Many dishes in the East Asian compendium of cuisine are, in fact, challenging to pair with wine. Spicy, mala, robust and umami-laden flavours — commonly found across the region — are all problematic, oftentimes clashing with the more desirable nuances like fruit and structure in wine.
What China has though, is a long history of grain-based liquors: rice wine, sorghum-distilled spirits, and even beer. To that end, whisky makes a particularly fair match for Chinese cuisine, especially given that the spirit comes in a wide range of styles that can go with everything from delicate Teochew-style steamed fish to fiery Sichuan cuisine.
Generally, the idea is to match or complement flavours without having one single element overpower the others — peaty, Islay whiskies, for example, work well with anything with a smoky flavour. Try smoked salmon or even baba ganoush. Complementary pairings, meanwhile, include using the sweetness in a whisky — all those chocolate, fruit, and vanilla notes — to act as a foil for spicy or rich, savoury foods.
For Chinese cuisine though, there’s another layer of consideration when picking the whisky for the food, the sauce. Unlike most European dishes where a single ingredient dictates the main profile of a dish (i.e fish or lamb), Chinese dishes can sometimes be dominated by the flavour of its sauces or seasoning. Fish, for example, while normally considered something with a lighter profile, can come in any variations of spicy, rich sauces that would dominate the dish’s flavour. Sichuan cuisine alone has over 20 different, canonised flavours that range from the familiar spicy-numbing to “strange” flavour, or “fish fragrance”.
“We try to pair stronger flavoured dishes with more robust whiskies, and we’re always cautious to ensure that the whisky complements the sauce as well,” shares Jamey Merkel, Southeast Asia’s ambassador for Beam Suntory — the spirits giant which whisky portfolio includes Auchentoshan, Yamazaki, and Bowmore.
Meat or heavier, richer dishes
Dishes like Cantonese roasts, red-braised pork, or even those with rich gravies like pen cai would work well with a more robust dram. Go for whiskies with mixed or sherry casks, like the Auchentoshan Three Wood which — despite the distillery generally putting out lighter styles — features a heavier-than-usual palate with plenty of sherry and dark fruits.
Naturally, seafood goes well with whiskies that have a saline quality. These spirits often come from coastal distilleries like Oban or Talisker, where the sea air permeates the whisky barrels during the aging process. Peated whiskies work surprisingly well with raw seafood. Something “fruity and delicate” also works with seafood — especially the lighter dishes like steamed scallops with soy sauce and garlic.
While sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves usually only appear in desserts for European cuisine (hence the whole dessert-with-whisky trope), these are commonly used — alongside others like star anise and fennel — for savoury dishes in Chinese cooking. Think meat braises, fragrant red oil, or Chinese five-spice. This helps to connect many Chinese dishes to very same whiskies that one would normally describe as tasting like Christmas pudding or fruitcake.
The bane of wine pairings as liquor makes spicy foods taste even spicier as capsaicin — the stuff that burns in chilli — is soluble in alcohol, which drowns out many of the nuances in wine.
Most schools of thought treat the liquor as a way to alleviate the heat, so wines recommended with spicy foods are often relegated to fruity, fresh, off-dry whites like riesling to soothe the heat — which, really, is just making the best of a bad situation.
Whisky though, is a different game altogether. While the heat might be elevated — which can be desirable — the higher ABV and bolder profile of a dram, as well its many sweet flavours, stand up well to spice. The key here, as usual, is balance.
Shares Merkel, “some of the spice notes in our whisky compliments strong flavours (like mala), and make both the Chinese cuisine and the whisky more rounded in taste…we’ve found that the nuttiness of the Auchentoshan 12 Year Old compliments mala quite well and elevates the dish in a very unconventional way.”
Looking to explore the marriage of whisky and Chinese cuisine?
Cantonese restaurant Famous Treasures will be hosting an Auchentoshan pairing dinner on 3 September with the 12, 18, and 21 year old expressions, as well as the Three Wood. Call 6881 6668 to reserve.
13 Stamford Rd, #02-28 Capitol Piazza