Unusual Valentine’s pairings: chocolate with whiskey, gin and beer

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Be still my chocoheart. Photo by Simran Sethi. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“Drink is inseparable from food,” Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page write in  What to Drink with What You Eat “When what you’re drinking melds with what you’re eating, something magical takes place in your mouth.”

This is what I return to as we approach Valentine’s Day—the most cliché of holidays but one that celebrates my favorite food: chocolate. The average American consumes about 9.5 pounds of chocolate per year. I probably consume that in a month. But what I don’t do nearly enough of is pair my chocolate with other comestibles—a way to rediscover what I already love.

Pairing is both an art and science. There are parameters, but for the most part it’s highly personal, influenced by factors including cultural predilections , the kinds of taste receptors we have and the substances our mothers consumed while we were in utero . And while breaking out the box of chocolates and wine is tried and true (but not my preferred pairing because of tannins and astringency), this year I am considering something a bit . . . boozier. In search of inspiration and guidance, I reached out to experts from breweries and distilleries across the nation about chocolate pairings that enhance their offerings.

This listing offers a small sample of what is available. The guidelines are generalized, but they will set you on the path to better explore what your heart desires. So go where your curiosity takes you. Complement and contrast. Experiment and celebrate. And don’t be afraid to indulge just for you; after all, you are your best Valentine.

Whiskey: Chocolate’s Sexiest Partner

Whiskey and chocolate tasting in Colorado. Photo by Simran Sethi. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Chocolate and whiskey is an ideal pairing. When combined, they meet—but don’t mute—corresponding flavors, and offer a great contrast in texture, also known as mouthfeel. A few things to keep in mind when pairing whiskeys with food: proof (the percentage of alcohol in the bottle), age (the amount of time the alcohol spent resting in, say, an oak barrel) and mash bill (the grains—corn, rye, wheat, barley—that make up the alcohol). These factors impact both texture and aroma. For example, whiskeys with a higher proof work well with chocolates with higher cocoa content. (It’s a pairing of equals.)  

Also, consider forgoing the ice. A chilled drink, or cold mouth, makes it more difficult for the volatile aromas in alcohol and chocolate to release. “It’s essential to understand their respective broad flavor profiles as well as down to their subtle notes,” says R. M. Peluso, author of Deep Tasting Chocolate & Whiskey .

Whiskey, served neat, combined with a chocolate without inclusions is a great way to experience the depth of flavors in both substances without any distractions. But if that’s too intense, start with a cocktail. Meredith Meyer Grelli, the cofounder of Wigle Whiskey , a family-owned and operated craft distillery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, explains that pairing whiskey with chocolate and other foods is all about balance. Contrast sweeter Manhattans with bitter flavors and drier cheeses, and boozier Old Fashioneds with sweeter tastes like candied nuts and dried fruits.

You can also try amplifying flavors inherent in the spirits. Generally speaking, rye whiskeys known for flavors like black pepper, oak, clove and leather pair well with chocolates from Papua New Guinea  that offer smoky notes (a result of processing). Wheat whiskeys reveal pear, baked apple crumble and maple notes and pair well with more delicate flavors, such as those found in chocolates from Venezuela made from Criollo cacao. If you want to dive into chocolates featuring additional ingredients, start with wheat whiskeys. “[They] are such easy-going delights,” Grelli says. “Drier than a bourbon but more nuanced than a rye, they provide a beautiful canvas for the widest food pairings.”

But bourbons are, possibly, the most approachable option when pairing. The caramelized component of bourbon, owed to time spent aging in oak barrels, lends itself well to sweeter, caramelized flavors, like those found in milk chocolate and cocoa from Nicaragua , as well as in bars that feature grains . “Bourbon just wants to be your friend; it doesn’t make you work as hard like spicy rye and nuanced wheat whiskeys to uncover its charms.”

Gin: A Relationship You Work For

“Gin is tough, but rewarding,” says Davy Lindig, head distiller at Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, Colorado. The company builds its beverage on local Rocky Mountain juniper, fresh lemon and lime zest—plus a range of botanicals, including coriander, licorice and angelica roots and cinnamon. Lindig says their version “offers less intensity than a heavy-duty London gin .”

A refreshing alternative to heavier, boozier whiskeys, gin pairs nicely with foods ranging from spiced meats and seafood to pickled peppers and almonds. When it comes to chocolate, it’s a great opportunity to explore the whole continuum of offerings. Try inclusions of, say, lemon and pepper in white chocolate , ginger or spicy chilies in dark —or single-origin bars from Vietnam .     

Lindig suggests thinking about what complements rather than matches these flavors. The foundational elements to explore are the piney, slightly peppery and fruity notes from juniper; the spicy, earthier flavors from the roots and other plants; and sour and bitter tastes from citrus. “Rather than meeting citrus with more citrus, I go for something like ginger,” she says. “Or with juniper, a great pairing is rosemary.”

Peach Street is known for its wide range of alcoholic offerings made from local fruit (such as pear gin and plum gin with hops) that also guide where he likes his pairings to go. “Including the savory side,” he adds. It’s the perfect excuse to whip up a complex, dark mole .  

Beer: Reminding Us Love is Bitter and Sweet

Domincan cocoa nibs blended into Aeronaut’s Cocoa Sutra beer. Photo by Eric Parkes. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Clean and crisp, malty and sweet, hoppy and bitter, tart, spicy and funky, beer contains a multitude of flavors and textures. During the brewing process, grain, hops and yeast combine to create varying degrees of sweetness, bitterness and effervescence, resulting in ultra-hoppy IPAs to sweet, nutty ales to sour, fruit-forward saisons. Because of this wide array of flavors and roasts, beer can be paired with buttered mussels and roasted quail as seamlessly as cheesecake and dark chocolate.

Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somerville, Ma., is the flagship business in a space that also houses Somerville Chocolate . Ben Holmes, the CEO and founder of Aeronaut, says the priority in pairing is
“letting the individual qualities of [both beer and chocolate] shine through.” I interviewed Holmes alongside Eric Parkes, the founder and chocolate maker behind Somerville, about how these two favorites can work together to create one unique sensory experience.

For starters, Parkes suggests focusing on chocolate with a good amount of cocoa butter . The fat gets cut by the effervescence of the beer, offering a great contrast. He adds that while subtlety isn’t a preferred option in beer and chocolate pairing, the edict “dark beer, dark chocolate” doesn’t always hold. “The chocolate can get overwhelmed,” he explains.

Holmes recommends asking, “What does this beer bring to the table?”—and then choosing chocolates that can stand up to those characteristics. You won’t have much luck separating out the nuances of a milk chocolate bar swirled with caramel, for example, if you are also drinking a hoppy IPA. But the floral and fruit aromas in those hops can be heightened by chocolates that include citrus or tangy berries .

“If a beer is particularly dark and malty,” Holmes says, “meet the roastiness with robust, dark chocolates .” There isn’t as much sweetness in a stout, so you can increase the sweetness in your chocolate. And, if you’re pairing with a mild, crisp saison that’s low in hops, a mild, spicy chocolate would be ideal, he explains, or one seasoned with hops. (Parkes makes dark milk and white bars that feature Mosaic hops.)

Aeronaut Brewing Co. Russian Imperial Stout paired with Somerville Chocolate. Photo by Lee Hatfield. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Parkes is a proponent of pairing beers with chocolates from specific origins, celebrating the flavors unique to place. In this spirit, he recommends contrasting a darker stout with a sweet, stronger chocolate from Ghana ; complementing an IPA with a milder chocolate from Peru or the Dominican Republic ; and pairing a sour saison with a bar from Madagascar , known for its own fruity acidity and brightness.  

Love Can Be Hard; Pairing Should Be Fun

No matter what you are tasting, try to keep an open mind and an open palate. “Pay attention to each element of the flavor trifecta: taste, texture and aroma,” says Los Angeles-based craft chocolate specialist Jessica Ferraro. “And have fun playing with balancing, however precariously, ingredients’ flavor elements.” Ferraro, who founded Bar Cacao , recommends balancing basic flavors when pairing to allow each taste to shine—and remembering that pairing is a low-stakes way to explore flavors you might not have experienced before. “Bottom line: If the pairing doesn’t work well, I do still have chocolate. And booze. Winning.”

This post was made possible with help from  KCRW’s Independent Producer Project .  Learn more about how to better appreciate and understand chocolate on Simran Sethi’s podcast  The Slow Melt , the Saveur Magazine editor’s choice for  2017 Best Food Podcast .