It's Valentine's Day, and you went out of your way to find delicious chocolates for your sweetheart this year. But wait...you didn't think of something to drink? Don't have ruby port or barleywine on hand? Never fear: the answer's in your liquor cabinet. I can't think of a better way to celebrate than to sip some delicious spirits with equally delicious chocolates. Today, I'll offer a few tips to help you make it work.
Go High Class
Folks, Valentine's day (or any date) is a special occasion, worth a splurge. Start with the best stuff you have on hand—the highest quality (in both spirits and chocolate) that you can afford. Sure, you can pair Early Times with a Whitman Sampler, if that's what you insist on, but would that really be worth the calories or liver damage?
Give It a Little Ice
Don't be afraid to lightly ice down your spirit—a couple of sturdy cubes in a rocks glass would do the trick. Some spirits are so big and brawny, they might overpower chocolate if served without ice. It's up to you, of course. I'd be more inclined to ice down a bourbon or a rich rum than I would a more subtle cognac.
If you'd rather not use ice, you can achieve the same effect by adding a few drops of a neutral-tasting spring water prior to tasting.
It's All About the Wood
Now, before I discuss pairing ideas, let me first review what it means to be barrel-aged.
The barrels used for aging spirits start off as oak trees, usually. (There are some exceptions—especially for French brandy—but let's generalize.) The trees are cut, carved into barrel staves, and then weather-aged to remove tannins and undesirable odors. The staves are then formed into barrels and charred to produce a layer of charcoal on the inside. The charcoal contains chemicals that contribute caramel (both flavor and color), vanilla, and a soft smokiness to an aged spirit.
Bourbon, as I've explained, is aged in new charred-oak barrels. Aging in freshly charred barrels gives bourbon the pronounced hints of caramel and vanilla that characterize the spirit. Other spirit-makers generally prefer used oak barrels, in part because they're less costly, but also because used oak provides more subtle flavors and aromas than you find in bourbon.
Nevertheless, when you sip an aged spirit, you'll note the smell and taste of caramel, vanilla, nuts, and fruits. In spirits such as Scotch, those flavors might be quite subtle, whereas they're more pronounced in bourbon, but regardless of that, you'll taste them if you're paying attention.
But think about those flavors: caramel, vanilla, fruits, and nuts: don't they sound like the perfect pairings for chocolate?
So my first general pairing note is this: chocolates with caramel, vanilla, fruits, and nuts go well with aged spirits.
Here's a fun idea for a bourbon-chocolate pairing: do an Old-Fashioned. No, I don't mean pair chocolate with an Old-Fashioned, although that might be tasty. I mean try to duplicate the experience of an Old-Fashioned by using chocolate.
Here's what I mean: although I prefer the most old-fashioned of Old-Fashioneds—one with spirit, sugar, bitters, a splash of water, and a twist of lemon—consider the more common Old-Fashioned, the one with muddled cherry and orange.
Now think about this: how would an orangey or lemony chocolate taste next to a glass of bourbon? What about one with cherry? Give it a try.
I's a little tricky to speak about Scotch in general terms, since the world of Scotch is so broad. An assertively flavored truffle that pairs well with a smoky peat bomb would probably overpower a more floral and delicate dram.
A good bittersweet chocolate, especially one with no sugary or strongly flavored fillings, should pair nicely with a mildly smoky Scotch.
French brandy—Cognac, Calvados, Armagnac
Fine French brandies are just the thing to pair with nutty truffles—reach for these when your chocolate is filled with hazelnut ganache.
Try, too, a Cointreau-infused truffle here. After all, what's a Sidecar other than cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice? Consider it a deconstructed cocktail.
This might be a fun time to try something unusual, too, such as a floral truffle, with violet or lavender. The subtleties of French brandies wouldn't overwhelm a flowery chocolate the way, say, bourbon might.
When pairing chocolates with rum, take a cue from Tiki drinks. What flavors are common in Tiki? Tropical fruits, lime, warm spices such as ginger and nutmeg, the almond syrup known as orgeat, and Caribbean liqueurs such as allspice dram. Chocolates with any of these flavors would be lovely with rum. Try aged rum with chocolates filled with marzipan.
I've talked about pairing chocolate with aged spirits, but there's no need to stop there. Chocolate is also great with tequila, whether it's an unaged blanco, a well-aged extra añejo, or anything in between.
Chocolates with fruity flavors—such as cherry or strawberry ganache fillings—work well with all sorts of tequila. Mint and tequila are also a classic pairing, with the bright, grassy heat of the tequila emphasizing the coolness of the mint.
Finally, take a note from the bitter wizards at Bittermens, who produce a delicious chocolate mole bitters. Chocolates that have notes of cayenne pepper, cinnamon, or both can also pair well with tequila.
Moving on to liqueurs, pairing is almost too easy. Fruity liqueurs such as Cointreau, Cherry Heering, and Chambord, or nutty ones such as Frangelico, amaretto, or Nocello (walnut liqueur) are naturals with chocolates, especially bittersweet versions without competing fruit flavors.
Have you tried pairing spirits and chocolate? Gonna crack open your liquor cabinet and give it a try?
About the author: Michael Dietsch is barrel-aged for 15 years, filled with almond ganache, dipped in caramel, and delicately scented with a dash of bitters. He lives with his wife, son, and cats in Brooklyn. Find on twitter at @dietsch.