At French wine-centric K&L, we as a store tend to fall into the camp of folks who would advise you to start your meal with a bottle of white, transition into the heavier red, and then finish with a glass of something brown. It's the classic way of doing things (even though we're all Americans with absolutely no traditional way of doing anything as it pertains to eating). A bottle of bubbly to start, some Claret with the meat course, and a glass of whisky to help with digestion when all is said and done. Orderly. Logically. By the book.
While we're definitely following Western Europe's protocol, I'm one of the few K&L buyers who has business outside of that highly-conservative zone, so I've had my horizons expanded just a bit further when it comes to drinking with one's meal. When David and I travel through Cognac and Armagnac country, we never, ever stray from the above discipline. However, in my journeys to Taiwan, Japan, and Mexico—where Western wine culture is much more minute in stature—I've found that hard drink is quite often consumed with dinner. Whereas we might open a bottle of Napa Chardonnay with our salad here in California, in Japan they give you a glass of whisky with soda. Then they put the open bottle on the table, just like we place the wine along with the rest of the food.
In Taiwan we almost always double-fisted. We were given four glasses with every meal: one for wine, one for water, a large shot glass for the basic whisky, and a smaller shot glass for the really expensive whisky. Various bottles were placed on the rotating Lazy Susan and we consumed full bottles of both wine and whisky with each course. I thought it was absolutely fabulous. Who in the U.S. would bring a bottle of Kavalan whisky over for dinner? We might give it as a hostess gift, or take a little nip when we finish eating, but we would never think to place it along side the Sauvignon Blanc, the water pitcher, and the ketchup—right smack in the middle of the meal. Is it really all that crazy?
The purists will tell you that hard spirits don't pair with most foods. The high alcohol of hard liquor overpowers any sense of delicacy, so those who care about the inherent flavors of their cuisine don't want to pulverize their palate in between bites. But that's why the Japanese add water to their whisky. You could argue that Japanese food is the most delicate cuisine in the world, with many raw ingredients meant to add subtlety and nuance to each plate, but that doesn't stop them from going brown mid-meal. When proofed down to 15%, a glass of Nikka Coffey Grain on the rocks is surprisingly refreshing and complementary alongside a plate of local Hokkaido sushi.
In Jalisco, while dining with my friend Enrique Fonseca, we paired tequila with toasted bread and locally-produced goat chesses. When the carne asada was served and the rice and beans plated, a few bottles of Cimarron Blanco were placed in the center of the table along with mixers like Coca-Cola, Squirt, and sparkling water, so that we could create our own cocktails while we ate. I have to say I've never looked back since that experience. That's how I eat at home on most occasions these days, and I'm not alone here. There was a guy in the store on Saturday who was purchasing an entire shopping cart full of different whiskies, of all types from all places. I asked him what the occassion was, and he said: "Each time I have friends over we eat dinner and we go through a different bottle of whiskey. Each time we talk about it as we eat, and each bottle creates a different experience. I'm addicted to it now."
"You treat whiskey like other people treat wine," I replied, "but it's a much more efficient way to move through your home inventory." I used to like serving three or four different whiskies to my friends when they came over for dinner, but these days I like ploughing through one entire bottle and really focusing on that unique singularity. Why not go through an entire bottle in one night? Have an experience, talk about it with friends, and move on to the next one. It's not weird. People are doing it all over world.