AS SOMEONE WHO believes there’s no better way to wind down late on a Friday or Saturday night than to pour yourself a finger of whisky, I have often wondered what the best gastronomic accompaniment to my favourite tipple might be.
Invariably I opt for some form of potato chips. I’ve found cheese and onion goes well with a single malt, while the synthetic meaty umami flavour of BBQ can act as a blunt force instrument in offsetting the glorious bitterness of some of my favourite drops, many of which are Scotch whiskies.
But as great as chips and whisky is in my book, I’ve been vaguely aware that my choice of nibble is probably an affront to the hallowed liquid nectar, which deserves a far better dance partner with which to waltz on my palate.
Well, the whisky gods have heard me and taken pity on my poor, wretched tastebuds, for tonight they’ve sent in the big guns. I’ve been invited to a dinner at Sydney’s award-winning Quay Restaurant, where Australia’s most celebrated chef, Peter Gilmore, is teaming up with the country’s finest luxury single malt whisky, Tasmania’s LARK Distilling Co. In sporting parlance (my preferred tongue), this superstar pairing is akin to LeBron James joining forces with Novak Djokovic. The result is a winner. Heck, if I may flog my sporting analogy for all it’s worth, it’s an ace followed by a dunk with my palate acting as a court.
Over dinner, it is announced that Gilmore, who as well as being executive chef at Quay, also runs Bennelong across the other side of Circular Quay—surely two of the most scenically blessed establishments on the planet—is now an official brand ambassador for LARK. The plan is for the acclaimed chef to match his innovative and meticulous gastronomy with the depth and complexity of LARK’s range of luxury single malts. Tonight, he’s giving us a taste of what’s in store.
The evening’s carefully curated menu features iconic Tasmanian ingredients, fused with modern Australian and Asian flavours, carefully matched to a selection of LARK whiskies. Highlights include Tasmanian rock lobster, uni butter enriched koshihikari rice, baby cucumber, pinstriped peanuts and umami broth matched to LARK’s award-winning Rebellion Chinotto Citrus Cask Single Malt Whisky. That’s right, Chinotto: that delectable little drink in the funny little bottles you see in Italian restaurants.
As we greedily chow down, Gilmore explains that in order to meet the robustness of LARK’s single malt range, he has doubled down on rich flavours and ingredients. The results are lip-smackingly good, something I almost catch myself doing, forgetting for a perilous moment that I’m not alone at home on the couch with my potato chips and instead in the presence of a gastronomic luminary in Gilmore, who is sitting opposite me.
Heading up the chef’s stupendous line-up is LARK’s first Lunar New Year single malt, Year of the Wood Dragon Release, aged in 100 percent first-fill sherry and port casks and finished in Seppeltsfield tawny casks. No less than sixty-five per cent of the character of a whisky comes from the barrel it’s aged in, a piece of wisdom I owe to none other than Bill Lark, LARK’s founder, who’s sitting to my right, a point that underscores the whisky’s link to the ‘Wood’ Dragon.
Gilmore matches this exquisite dram with an entrée of smoked eel cream chocolate osciettra caviar tart and from the moment this startling combo lands on my palate my tastebuds begin to writhe in something approaching carnal ecstasy.
Almost as impressed is Lark, who immediately proclaims the pairing the best he’s ever eaten. He would know. He goes on to tell the table that the Wood Dragon release sought to capture the excitement of Chinese New Year.
“We’ve brought the level of alcohol up to excite the palate. For me this whisky does that very nicely. It’s still got all these lovely rich characters from the port casks, but it’s now got an excitement that drives that around the palate and around the tongue and it sits long before it finishes. The excitement of the dragon chasing its tail.”
A gifted raconteur, Lark gave up a successful career as a land surveyor to launch his own whisky on his kitchen table back in 1992, becoming the first Australian distillery to produce single malt spirit in 154 years. It was a bit of a lark, pardon the pun, but the enterprise took off, eventually becoming Australia’s preeminent single malt. Lark is currently writing his memoir and I cannot resist suggesting ‘A bit of a lark’ as the title, to which he chuckles obligingly: I suspect he’s heard it before.
As we make our way down the dazzling menu, I can’t help glancing ahead to the whisky that will accompany the dessert, the famed ‘Rare & Remarkable, LARK 1911 Para Vintage Tawny Cask Single Malt Whisky, a quick google of which reveals a retail price of $5,250 a bottle.
How will Gilmore choose to match such a formidable drop, I wonder. Of course, the master chef rises to the occasion, using morello cherries, sabayon of Lunar New Year Wood Dragon Single Malt, panettone and pulled butter toffee.
It’s difficult to capture in words just how enjoyable this combination is without pulling on the most purple of prose, so I will spare you of that and instead offer that tonight, after the way my tastebuds have been spoilt, or excited, as Lark says, I will never be able to pair whisky with potato chips again. Lesson learned.
To learn more about Peter Gilmore and LARK’s partnership, visit: larkdistillery.com