Whiskey and Chocolate?

The following is a guest post (our first one!) written by Australian Cacao researcher and enthusiast Grant Vinning. Please enjoy and email him to sign up to his regular newsletters and cacao price alerts.

I have just done something that I wasn’t really sure how it would turn out when I started but when it was finished it far exceeded my expectations.

The background is that I am a member of the Brisbane Sept of the Queensland Malt Whisky Society – the spelling alone will tell you which whiskies are our preferences. Back in September I suggested that we organize a chocolate – whisky taste-off.

I worked with Gabriel Myburgh (gabrielchocolate.com.au) from the Margaret River in Western Australia. Gabriel was one of the four judges at the September Bougainville Chocolate Festival in Papua New Guinea. When you are doing a chocolate tasting you can do it horizontally or vertically. With the former, you can pick cocoa beans grown in one region or chocolates made with the same percentage of cocoa and source your chocolates from a series of chocolate makers that fill that criteria. With vertical, you try the chocolates from the one maker (and thus the one consistent way of making the chocolate) irrespective of geographic origin or percentage. Tonight we went vertically with Gabriel. He supplied nine chocolates made from different varieties of beans from different countries. In addition, in Paris I purchased a 100 percent from Madagascar and in London last week, thanks to Suz Neave, I purchased a 100 percent made by Artisan du Chocolat in Notting Hill (artisanduchocolat.com).

The whiskies were chosen by the Sept’s Laird, Peter Johnston. Five were from Tasmania: Belgrove Rye from a Pinot Noir Cask, 57 percent; Trapper’s Hut 45 percent; Hellyer’s Road Pot Cask 10 yo 48.9 percent; Lark LD130 58 percent; and Redlands Private Cask 2 yo, 62.5 percent. The whiskies selected by Peter for tonight went from light and sweet, to heavier and heavier.

Tasmania is important to the Australian chocolate industry. By the 1920s Australia was such a big importer of chocolate that Nestle opened a factory in Sydney in 1918 and in 1926 the Cadbury Company opened its factory at Claremont near Hobart. Cadbury had located there because of the availability of cheap hydro-electricity and a plentiful supply of high quality fresh milk. As I found out tonight, Tasmania has more than 20 whisky distilleries with more emerging every day.

I taught the Sept how to eat chocolate. Basically, take a small mouthful and chew chew chew until it is all liquid that fills the mouth and then swallow. Look for flavours when the chocolate is in the mouth and look for persistence after swallowing. The latter criteria is common to wine, whisky, chocolate, coffee, and cheese (and probably other products as well!) Sept members would taste the whiskey, then taste a chocolate, say Gabriel’s milk chocolate made from Criollo bean from Java, or his Dark 65 percent made from Venezuela beans, and then try the whiskey again. All were amazed at how the chocolate changed the whisky.

Peter and I had worked on the finale for the last chocolate and the last whisky. From chocolate there were the two 100 percent. For these I told Peter I needed a strong heavy whisky. Peter’s choice was Lagavulin Feis Isle 16 yo 56.1 percent. Basically, Feis Isle is the competition on Islay for the best whisky made on Islay. I doubt if the whisky festival there has an opening ceremony that can match the Bougainville chocolate festival.

Lagavulin is a peated whisky. Sept members are split over the issue of peat. Some love it, some actively shy away from it. With the Lagavulin Feis Isle, some-one said it would have been cheaper to go to a recently laid bitumen road, dig up a couple of kilograms of the road, melt it down, and then bottle it.

But the reaction to the combination of the two 100 percent and the Lagavulin was universal. All dismissed the first 100 percent that was made by a French company using beans from Madagascar. Too bitter: some called it vegemite. The second by Artisan du Chocolat in London resulted in considerable astonishment. The two just worked together. The bitterness of the 100 percent was subdued and the peatiness of the Lagavulin just seemed to be ideal for the chocolate. The Lagavulin might not have worked with the softer chocolates but it certainly did for the 100 percent.

To me the highlight of the evening then followed. During the evening as I introduced each chocolate, I spoke about cocoa and my projects on Bougainville, on mainland Papua New Guinea, and other Pacific Islands. I told the members how their taxes supported the various projects I and others are involved with. I explained that Australia had a number of chocolate makers that actively purchase cocoa from the Pacific. These buyers pay well over world prices in order to get world quality beans. Achieving world quality is what a number of us – researchers and cocoa buyers alike – are trying striving for. This is real development work that uses price incentives and not hand-outs to achieve improvements.

As I said, the night exceeded my expectations.

Grant Vinning

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