I’ve never eaten haggis pakora. In fact I never knew such a delicacy existed till I visited the Gordon & MacPhail grocery store cum deli cum wine and spirits merchants in Elgin on Speyside in the Scottish Highlands. Gordon & MacPhail is an Aladdin’s Cave for food and drink lovers, its shelves stacked with oils and vinegars, Scottish beers, haggises, black puddings and Scottish cheeses. There’s a dedicated whisky room, of course, and then there’s a spirits room too, with an impressive selection of quality vodkas, Scottish gins and even Dutch genever.
Speyside is whisky country. It has over half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries, over 50 of them, and they come together every year for the glorious Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, a 5-day celebration of the national’s national drink.
What’s enjoyable about the festival, and why I’ve driven to the north of Scotland to participate, is that it isn’t simply five days of endless distillery visits and drinking sessions. There are tours of distillery gardens, art exhibitions, argocat tours across whisky estates along old-time smugglers trails, there are blending sessions, there’s good food and music, and there’s the kind of event that brings me to Gordon & MacPhail: pairing whisky with chocolate.
In an upstairs room Alastair Milligan welcomes us and tells us a little of the company’s history. Then we begin.
‘Before we do the chocolate pairing,’ Alastair says, ‘we’re going to have a sensory experience.’
He passes round sniff pots, and we each have to write down what we think we’re smelling. It proves surprisingly difficult, the most common response being, ‘Oh, I know that smell… oh, what is it?’ Can you tell lemon from grapefruit? Apples? Roses? Our senses duly awakened, we move on to the main event of the evening.
‘We use Iain Burnett‘s chocolates for whisky pairing,’ Alastair tells us. ‘You want the best chocolate to go with the finest whiskies.’
‘I suggest you start with a sip of whisky, followed by a bite of chocolate, then another sip of whisky and see what you find. By all means put a drop of water in your whiskies as that helps bring out the aromas and flavours.’
‘We’re starting with a Linkwood whisky from their distillery near Elgin. It’s a 15-year-old at 43% proof, and was in fact our number one best-selling whisky in the shop last year. We buy the spirit and mature it ourselves. It’s light and fruity, a bit of a Christmas cake smell. It’s a smooth, easy drinking whisky and I’ve paired it with a rose velvet truffle because of the floral notes.’
This first attempt at pairing is a revelation. The gently fruity taste of the whisky carries over and complements the aromatic and flowery truffle taste, which then turns the second sip of whisky into a subtly different experience. There are murmurs of appreciation around the room, as we discover that not only are the whisky and the chocolate superb on their own, there’s an added element when you put them together, like adding tonic to gin or pairing Laurel with Hardy.
‘Next we have a Mortlach, from Dufftown,’ Alastair moves us gently on. ‘Now this is matured in refilled sherry casks. You can smell the sherry sweetness in it. It’s 43% ABV but it tastes stronger as it’s a bolder whisky. I’ve paired this with a dark velvet truffle to go with the heaviness of the Mortlach.’
There are more orgasmic moans before we try a £55 bottle of one of their G&M Exclusives from the Ledaig Distillery on Mull, which is only available downstairs in the shop.
‘Only 334 bottles were produced,’ says Alastair. ‘It has a smoky, buttery nose and taste. It’s different from the first two and I’ve paired this with a mocha truffle, a perfect pairing with the smoky whisky: the coffee truffle.’
To break the routine of everyone saying how wonderful each pairing is, Alastair ends with a smoky Islay whisky from Caol Ila, which is also the strongest at 60.1% ABV. He matches it with a passion fruit and mango truffle, a pairing which divides the group. Some think they’ve died and gone to heaven, or at least Islay, while others think the truffle too sweet and the passion fruit flavour too overpowering to blend with the peaty Islay whisky.
Still, the whole experience has been a delight and an education, and as we wander slowly out through the shop I wonder what whisky would go with a haggis pakora? I’ve no idea but it would be fun finding out.
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival
The 2016 Festival takes place from April 28 – May 2. Information about the festival can be found on the website www.spiritofspeyside.com from 28 January, where tickets will be on sale from 2 February at 12 noon GMT. The Festival is also active on facebook.com/WhiskyFestival, Twitter and Instagram @spirit_speyside.
For more information about Gordon & MacPhail, visit their website.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.