Pairing wine with cheese (and everything else under the sun) is a pastime that seems as old as the wine industry itself. While doing the same with bourbon isn’t entirely uncommon, it’s certainly substantially less common than with wine. Max McCalman, author of Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager, picking on behalf of the French Cheese Board — a new cheese-centric event space (!) and pop-up market dedicated to promoting European cheese — sat down with Stephen Schuler of Proof Positive Beverages, a New York based marketer for Four Roses, to match the distillery’s three expressions of bourbon with three cheeses.
For McCalman, bourbon and cheese make excellent partners. “It is very common to pair cheese with Cognac,” McCalman explained, “and Cognac and bourbon are very closely related.” Bourbon, then, makes an equally natural partner for cheese — especially when one takes into account just how many different flavors there are in the cheese world. The results of their research were presented to us on September 23 at the French Cheese Board. I went in knowing a fair amount about bourbon and Four Roses but knowing almost nothing about cheese other than the fact that I like to stuff it into my mouth as often as possible and in quantities that would turn the stomach of most people.
First up was Mimolette, a shocking bright orange cow’s milk cheese produced near the French town of Lille. Originally commissioned by King Louis XIV (oh for the days when world leaders decreed it was time to make a new cheese) as a replacement for Dutch Edam, the cheese that became known as Mimolette was colored orange with a natural additive called annatto to make it stand out and let everyone know this was no weak-willed foreign Edam! For a year recently, Mimolette was banned in the United States because someone who gets to make laws discovered that part of the cheese’s flavor is derived from interaction with mites that are introduced to the rind.
Possessed of a nutty, buttery, almost caramel flavor and a texture softer than parmesan but harder than, say, a cheddar, the Mimolette played very nicely with Four Roses Yellow Label, the foundation product from Four Roses (a good “entry level bourbon with an entry level cheese,” McCalman explained). Yellow Label is a vatting of whiskey made from all ten of the mash bills the distillery uses, and though it carries no age statement and is remarkably cheap, it is one of the most solid bourbons on the market. It comes on strong, young but mature, with lots of bourbon’s signature characteristics: vanilla, oak, brown sugar, a bit of cinnamon spice, and of course, corn sweetness.
Second was Comte and Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, paired together because McCalman felt they shared a rich vanilla characteristic. After the bold colors and flavors of the first round, this was a decidedly more reserved second course, though by no means unmemorable. Comte is the most heavily produced cheese in France, made in the Alpine region of eastern France from unpasteurized cow’s milk. It has a smooth, nutty character with a hint of hazelnut. Pleasant without being particularly bold. Its partner for the night, Four Roses Small Batch is, like the Comte, a subtler bourbon made by blending four of the distillery’s whiskies. The spice and white pepper taste of rye is more pronounced, balanced nicely by the familiar vanilla and corn that fades into a nice toffee and oak finish. As a pairing, Comte and Small batch didn’t make my top hat pop off or anything, but it’s the sort of get-together that could go late into the night.
Wrapping up with a shocking climax, Four Roses Single Barrel was paired with Epoisses, a stunningly aggressive cheese that McCalman described as having come to him like a naughty child in need of a bath — although in this case, the bath was a wash of white wine belonging to French Cheese Board Manager Charles Duque (“A very expensive white wine,” he laughed). This pairing was delayed slightly when McCalman, in explaining the cheese to us, tasted a bit and lost himself in a blissful reverie for a few minutes. When he returned to this plane of existence, he warned us that the initial taste and smell of Epoisses contains ammonia. For me, that’s mostly what it contained, along with a bit of butter and salt. As far as cheese goes, this was less like relaxing with a laid-back bourbon and more like grappling for your life with a burly, boisterous Islay scotch. It was all Four Roses Single Barrel could do to keep up.
In fact, I needed the higher proof of the Single Barrel to help me out, because the gooey Epoisses proved rather too advanced for my palette. Bottled at 100 proof and possessed of a character that begins with a hot, spicy attack that gives way to a warm, pleasant blend of oak, grass, vanilla, and caramel, the Single Barrel, rather than pairing with the Epoisses, helped me deal with it, like an old friend who knows you’ve gone a step too far in something and has to talk you back down to Earth. It was a worthwhile experience, to be sure, but not necessarily one I’d rush out to repeat.
I can’t say the event convinced me to pair cheese and bourbon more often. That’s a bit like saying I was convinced to breathe. It was going to happen regardless, but it certainly taught me more about appreciating a food like cheese in the same way I already enjoyed analyzing and thinking about whiskey. At the end of the evening, it turns out my favorite pairing was the entry-level. Four Roses Yellow Label is just such a pleasant spirit; and Mimolette let me expand my cheese horizons without propelling me into the madness of the Lovecraftian beyond, where Cthulhu gleefully stuffs Epoisses into his tentacled maw.