During the last few weeks, I’ve been reading two recently published books that provide interesting insights into wine tasting, even though they aren’t about wine tasting. The first is Canadian Whisky, by Davin de Kergommeaux (Mc Clelland & Stewart; 2012). The second is Janet Fletcher’s Cheese and Beer (Andrews, McMeel Publishing LLC; 2013).
I’ve read many books on wine tasting, of course, and a few on whisky tasting as well, of which de Kergommeaux’s book is the most sensible and approachable of all. He begins his discussion of whisky tasting by tackling the conventional imagery head on, telling the wince and gasp crowd “A little bit of flavor will linger on your tongue, but your mouth will be anesthetized, your eyes watering and you will have missed 95 percent of what you could be enjoying…It’s called sipping whiskey for good reason.”
The book is divided into three basic parts. The first focuses on the how, describing the components that go into the blend and the processes by which Canadian whiskeys are made. Its a good preparation for the second block, which concentrates on tasting—the why. Once he’s got you hooked, de Kergommeaux moves on to the longest part of the book, which goes into the colorful history of the Canadian spirits industry. We needn’t go into that here, but the stories are highly entertaining, as well as informative from a historical perspective, so I recommend it for your consideration.
The tasting process that de Kergommeaux describes for whisky is very similar to the process wine tasters use. Not as much attention is paid to evaluating the color of the whisky as one might with wine, although the differences in color can provide hints into the type of wood and the length of time the whisky was stored in it, as well as the components of the whisky. With wine, however, color can provide clues into the level of alcohol and also the degree of breakdown in the acids. With the substantially higher level of alcohol in whisky, however, a jump of even 5% (which would be enormous for wine) can be hard to detect.
Interestingly, de Kergomeaux recommends adding a little water to the whisky to bring out the flavors, in essence making it more like wine. His tasting notes (which are spread throughout the book as interesting inserts rather than being clumped together as if only for reference), show an extraordinary range of different tastes that are reminiscent of various higher alcohol wines, such as sherry, port and Madeira, including candied fruit, toffee, coffee, spices and nuts.
As the ”Whisky Advocate”, de Kergommeaux seems to be consciously emulating with whisky the approach Robert Parker has taken with wine. His tasting notes use a format similar to Parker’s wine tasting notes and show the same kind of rigorous approach. He speaks approvingly of the practice of Canadian distillers (and indeed beverage makers worldwide) of using a tasting panel, rather than a single individual to evaluate their product, noting that this recognizes the fact that individual palates vary greatly and tend to be idiosyncratic. But he is not afraid to evaluate whiskies on his own and share his singular appraisals with the world.
A Different Approach
It’s interesting to note the differences between de Kergommeaux’s approach and Fletcher’s, which are in many ways what you would expect from a male in a country with limited wine production and a woman living in the heart of wine country. His tasting notes are authoritative; boldly delivered to a presumed male audience accustomed to vigorous exchanges of assertions and counter-assertions. By contrast, Fletcher (who often writes with co-authors) avoids such assertive micro-analysis, reports on a more generalized consensus, often citing from other sources. While she provides a wealth of information about the taste of different styles of craft beers, she is careful to note that her comments are only generalizations that may not apply to everyone and her focus is directed at how the tastes of the beers interact with food, in this case various cheeses, rather than on how they taste on their own.
Fletcher’s book shows us how much one can learn by concentrating on the differences resulting from the style choices of the brewer as well as the rewards that can be gained by paying attention to food pairing issues. Wine and cheese are often erroneously thought of as natural companions. In fact, only a limited number of the myriad possible wine and cheese combinations make great pairings. These are simply such outstanding exceptions to the rule that they obscure the fact that, in general, the vibrant flavors and creamy consistency of most cheeses interfere with the ability to taste the subtle flavors in a great wine. (They can also mask the flaws in lesser wines, which can make them useful in another way.) Beer and cheese, on the other hand, are more natural companions because the carbonation in the beer helps to refresh a palate by scrubbing away the creamy residue of the cheese and prepare it for the next bite.
Beer and Cheese Matching
Craft beers, with their distinctive flavors, provide more opportunities for outstanding matches than their blander mass market counterparts. But there is also more risk of a jarring mismatch, so it’s helpful to understand the factors that make some combinations work and others fail. Fletcher, who is the cheese columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and a prolific author and coauthor of many books on food, wine and sustainable living (including a companion book on pairing cheeses with wine), is an ideal guide. In this lively and eminently readable book, she gives us the tools to make good everyday pairings as well as find the surprising and extraordinary matches that make a bit of experimentation worthwhile.
Although Fletcher describes many proven pairings, her objective is not simply to catalog these consensus match-ups. Rather, as she states in the introduction, it is to “equip you to continue the journey on your own” so that everyday brings the possibility of a new discovery. The benefit of this is underscored by sound advice she passes on from Adam Dulye, the proprietor of several popular San Fransisco gastropubs: “Do not miss your own taste experience by trying to find someone else’s…what you taste, smell and feel is unique to you.”
In making the effort to help her readers learn how to discover great tastes for themselves, Fletcher moves beyond the typical pairing guides that simply consist of a list of recommendations by the author or from other experts that the author has reached out to. To enable her readers to make their own pairings, she makes a special effort to familiarize them with the characteristic tastes of various styles of beer, so that (to the extent possible in a dynamic and creative environment) they will be able to predict what they’ll taste like. As a preliminary step, she identifies seven taste characteristics common to beers and provides four “guidelines” for beer and cheese pairings, described as “suggestions, not rules”. She acknowledges that there are many happy marriages that defy expectations, but understands that her readers will be more likely to discover these happy marriages if they are looking in the right places and understand the dynamics at play than if they simply try combinations at random. In essence, she follows the same approach with craft beers that I recommend my readers take with single varietal wines in The Persistent Observer’s Guide to wine.
She also recognizes that it’s important to understand how to store and serve cheeses and beers, so a perfectly good match isn’t ruined by an easily avoided mistake. In this regard, she is not obsessive. Her advice is pragmatic and succinct and her suggestions explained with the kind of good sense that makes them easy to remember.
Fletcher follows this brief introduction with detailed descriptions of sixteen styles of ales and five styles of lagers. Together with the lavish photographs that fill the pages, her evocative descriptions make it difficult to sit still long enough to read them. It’s definitely a good idea to plan ahead and stock some examples of the beers and cheeses you’ll be reading about so that you’ll have them on hand.
At the end of the book she provides a handy two page summary chart that gives specific suggestions for cheese and wine pairings according to the style of cheeses. Copying these two pages will save you the trouble of carrying the book with you as you begin your forays into cheese and beer pairings, but as you become more and more familiar with the experience of making good matches, the need for this will disappear and Fletcher will have achieved her primary goal in writing the book, giving you the tools to think before you drink, so you can enjoy it better.
Ultimately, the differences between Fletcher and de Kergommeaux are in focus. While de Kergommeaux shows how diverse Canadian Whiskies can be, he is ultimately drilling down, providing more and more layers of information about a narrow topic. Fletcher, on the other hand, is trying to convey the essential pieces of information you need to know in order to explore a wildly diverse and exciting world on your own. It’s interesting to see how much we can learn from each of the very different perspectives that de Kergemmeaux’s and Fletcher’s books represent and how much more we can learn by comparing them. Vive la difference!