Secret's Out: Japanese Whisky Pairs Well With Filipino Chocolates
Some things go together categorically: peanut butter and jelly, Harry and Sally, “Numb” by Linkin Park and frustrating days in the office are just a few.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to know numerous pairings revolving around alcoholic beverages—and I’d like to think there has been some sort of maturing process involved here. What began with greasy, salty McDonald’s fries and crisp yet rich San Miguel Pale Pilsen, slowly morphed into decent, toasty vanilla whisky and cheap, sweet convenience store chocolate.
The latter pairing, though charming and evocative of memories (or lack thereof) marking my first journeys into the workforce, was long due for a sharpening.
Enter The Tasting Club
In 2016, Paris-based Kévin Charuel and his wife Adrienne founded The Tasting Club in Brooklyn, New York as a way to “share our passion about liquors and food pairings and also meet new friends in a new city.” This passion has been shared since mid-2019 in Metro Manila as the couple started hosting in-person tasting events in the Philippines.
Rolling lockdowns and numerous liquor bans later, the couple now operates the no-membership-required club virtually with the ubiquitous aid of Zoom. “The virtual format allows [guests] to be more open about their feedback and questions as compared to a physical tastings where some people tend to be shy to interact,” Kevin explains.
Seated on the apartment floor, my eyes fixed on the five small bottles of whisky in front of me, my fingers already smudged with chocolate, I clicked the Zoom link and so began The Tasting Club’s most recent event in partnership with LIT Manila and Malagos Chocolate: “The Flavors of Japanese Whisky & Filipino Artisan Chocolate.” I had attended food pairings and whisky events before, but never in runner’s shorts (neatly hidden from view). Never had I been this comfortable at one such event.
“Japanese Whisky is Whisky in HD”
Francis T. Hasegawa, Japanese whisky specialist, co-owner and Whiskey and Spirits Concierge of Lit Manila, began with this quote from whisky and spirits writer Dave Broom. Unlike scotch, or even champagne, Japanese Whisky lacks a legal definition, allowing skilled Japanese distillers to piece together flavors and expressions of whisky unshackled.
The first bottle, a Suntory Kakubin (blended, 40 percent), had already been poured into a highball, swirled around with soda water, and roughly garnished with a lemon by the time Lit Manila’s resident Japanese whisky specialist had gotten to discussing the godfathers of Japanese whisky: Kiichiro Iwai (founder of present day Mars Whisky), Shinjiro Torii (founder of Suntory), and Masataka Taketsuru (organic chemist and founder of Nikka Whisky Distilling Company).
The distinctive square-cut Kakubin bottle has been around since Shinjiro Torii first created it in 1937, and for this event, would be the palate-whetting, fruit-peel, sparkling highball to sip throughout the evening.
From there, we squares in the tiny universe Zoom had compressed us into, were guided through four delightful drams of Japanese Whisky, all the while scribbling down notes from Hasegawa’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter. As we sipped on the first whisky, Hasegawa, glancing at his tasting notes dispelled any notion that we should specifically taste this or that, “palates are all subjective and I’m sure you’ll all have your own impressions.”
Without any pairings, we sampled four whiskies, which Hasegawa instructed us to nose slowly, swirl around the tongue, and sip gently:
Mars IWAI Blue (blended, 40 percent)—a yummy dried raisin, cherry tasting whisky, which Hasegawa recommends on its own or in a highball.
Nikka From The Barrel (blended, 51.4 percent)—with expectations of it being strong, I was surprised by its pleasant oily mouth-feel and toasty butter sweetness. Hasegawa calls it “a classic of Japanese blending. Very delicate, yet very bold, yet very versatile.” For those inclined to tone the strength down, Hasegawa suggests the “twice-up” method whereby one has a drink of equal parts whisky and water.
The Chita (Single Grain, 43 percent)—a light whisky (perhaps more emphatically so given I’d just had the bold Nikka expression) that had a gentle pear taste to it.
Matsui Sakura (Single Malt, 48 percent)—the only single malt of the night, made with small Sakura casks, and imparted with a pleasant floral sweetness.
Award-winning tree-to-bar single-origin chocolates from Davao
Rex Puentespina then introduced himself. “I’m a farmer and chocolate-maker at Malagos Agriventures,” he said. This company houses a farming operation, a resort, and of course the globally decorated tree-to-bar artisan chocolate producing Malagos Chocolates, which was commercially launched in 2013.
I shifted around on the floor, adjust my shorts–the way you do when you’re trying to get comfortable with the numerous highballs you’ve helped yourself to. Be it palpable even through Zoom, or just a function of my being gently boozed up, there’s a hint of excitement beaming off my computer screen.
The pairing was about to commence.
As we sampled the chocolates, we were advised to check their appearance. “It should be shiny,” says Puentespina. Rather than to our mouths, we then raised the chocolate to our ears, ushered on by our chocolate expert as he says, “A well made chocolate should have a snap.” We then smelled it, and allowed it to sit on our tongues until it dissolved into nothing; whatever flavor-residue then remaining was allowed to blend with the designated whisky.
These were the pairings
Dark Chocolate 56 percent with Mars IWAI Blue. The sweet and fruity chocolate bounced off the cherry sweetness of the whisky.
Dark Chocolate 65 percent with Nikka From The Barrel. With less sugar than the 56 percent, it’s a bit more vibrant and floral. One participant commented, “The Nikka whisky makes the 65 percent chocolate even brighter.”
Dark Chocolate 72 percent with The Chita. A notch darker for the chocolate and a tad lighter for the whisky highlighted the differences in flavor between the two. It’s as though the pear of The Chita had been allowed to soften in sugar and then burnt slightly like caramel.
Dark Chocolate 85 percent had with Matsui Sakura. “The reason I chose the Sakura cask [for this pairing] is, the whisky has a short finish, but with this chocolate, the finish is longer” explained Hasegawa. Indeed, the floral notes of the whisky, which quickly evaporated at first sip, floated on the bitter notes of the chocolate and remained on the palate for a longer period of time.
As the session concluded, we found ourselves on a brief search for the Philippine word for “cheers.” We squares on the screen began typing away as “tagay” appeared in a flurry throughout the chat-box. And then the screen vanished. Where smiles had been plastered, the Zoom customer experience form remained.
I hopped up off the floor, slightly dazed with my eyes readjusting to normal lighting away from a screen. I stood confused, trying to come to an emotional understanding of how this was an experience of something new with people I hadn’t met, but in a room completely familiar.
And so, I supposed that within our familiar spaces, in all our meals, be they rushed work lunches, slow dinners at home with loved ones, or delivered food in front of whatever series we’re watching, there did lay a possibility of something new. While not every meal allows us a pairing of “Louis XIII Cognac with a Mango Crepe Samurai,” (a favorite memory of Kévin’s), it allows us a moment of mindfulness, which I find a tone of in each of these pairing events.