Whisky and Spice with Glenlivet and Ghillie

 In Havering

Spice and whisky have to be two of my favourite things in life; each has its own story, a romance, a unique individuality. And while they’re not intrinsically linked, they are both similarly evocative on the palate, on the nose, in the ability to take the mind on a journey of reminiscence or adventure. Whisky and spice bring our senses to life.

I’m fortunate enough to have a day job in the spirits industry which brings me into contact with some of the finest whiskies on the planet. And I’ve used this previously to match the drams I enjoy with the foods that I love to cook. However renowned food writer Ghillie Basan has taken the science of whisky and food to a new level. By deconstructing the flavours and aromas of the spirit and matching to specific spices in a range of dishes which takes the palate on a flavour adventure far beyond the coasts and glens of Scotland.

This was a journey that began at Glenlivet distillery with Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve, a single malt whisky which is finished in Cognac casks, and ended by a roaring fire deep within the heart of the snow covered Cairngorms. Effortlessly  creating taste sensations of local produce matched with spices from Africa, South and East Asia, and beyond, constructing a food matching menu to go with it as Ghillie stripped the spirit right back for a guiding light on food pairings.

When creating the ideas for food pairing, I felt it was important to take people on a spice and flavour journey, just like the whisky takes you on a journey. So I stripped back the flavours within the Cognac as well as the ones in the water, cask and whisky and then created a flavour framework

That flavour structure Ghillie stripped back the whisky back to was….

Fruity notes of pear, apricots, orange, apple, grapes

Toasted notes of toasted nuts, toasted bread

Floral notes of orange blossom, coconut gorse, sweet heather

Spice notes of cinnamon, liquorice, ginger, vanilla

Sweet notes of honey, toffee, burnt sugar

Which then created a flavour framework of

Succulent fruit and flavour pairing for pears and apricots

Flavour spectrum of cinnamon, ginger and vanilla

Creamy nuts and toasted nuts to complement and contrast for taste and texture

Jaggery and Muscavado sugar to balance and enhance heat and spice with a fruity sweetness

Salty to balance and enhance sweet and spice

Seductive warming spices to marry with sweet and heat and to balance cooling ingredients

Chilli heat to lift and carry spices on their flavour journey without overpowering

Layered flavours to enhance and compliment the natural tastes in the whisky

Crunchy textures to contrast smoothness and emphasize ‘finish’

Creamy, velvety textures to complement and exaggerate ‘finish’

The result of all this was two menus. One of finger foods, and one of main courses. But first, if I can be permitted to set the scene. For this adventure of the senses there wasn’t an evocative journey through souks, aboard spice barges with the sun on your back. This started with cask dipping at Glenlivet distillery, dodging the autumnal sleet filled Speyside afternoon, transported along a single track road through snow to the most welcoming scene I can remember in a long time. A whisky barn, a roaring fire, a good dram, convivialite, and a meal that will live long in the memory.

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A starter roof slate of finger food, layer upon layer of flavour constructed to bring the palate to life, and shine a new light on the golden spirit. Warmed by the kitchen glow, this was food to bring a smile to your face and joy to the heart….

Sushi-style Cognac-cured gravalax with samphire grass and ginger-amchoor cream

Starting with the ‘finish’, Speyside salmon, cured in Martell Blue Swift and brown sugar, is smooth and buttery, contrasted by the salty flavour and crunchy texture of the samphire grass, brought together by the nip from the warming ginger and sour amchoor

Venison fillet cured in Captain’s Reserve, brown sugar and spices, drizzled with pomegranate and larch needle dressing

Celebrating Speyside once more with local venison cured in Captain’s Reserve combined with roasted cumin and coriander, a hint of ginger and cardamom, black pepper, allspice, resinous juniper berries and wild thyme to produce a smooth-textured meat with fruity-spice notes to compliment the whisky

Poached apricots filled with harissa and honey labna with toasted almonds

Continuing the spice journey in the mouth to contrast and enhance the fruit and sweet notes of the whisky, the apricots are poached in rose syrup, filled with light, creamy labna spiked with harissa, refreshed with coriander and mint, and lightly sweetened with honey

Glenlivet and Ghillie

Pickled black grapes with aromatic spices

Reflecting the Cognac influence, these sweet-sour grapes are tangy and aromatic with notes of cinnamon, red peppercorns, and star anise. They jolt the palette and refresh it before heading towards the creamy ‘finish’

Captain’s scallop marinated in Japanese ginger-soy sauce, seared with black garlic, cinnamon and dried lime oil

Travelling in a different spice direction with mellow ginger combined with the umami flavour of fermented soy, the balsamic liquorice flavour of fermented garlic, the sweet notes of cinnamon, and the sherbet zing of dried lime 

Saffron and cinnamon pear served with creamy Stilton

Embracing the French style of cheese before the sweet, the creamy texture and saltiness of the Stilton are complemented by the golden-yellow pears, smooth in texture with a slight grittiness, and the delightful floral note from the saffron fronds

A meal in itself this was merely the introduction. The main courses to follow were as delicate as they were complex, showing the whisky in a new light, while never losing their authenticity of origin.

Malaysian Laksa

Laksa – credit Jade Nina Sarkhel

Malaysian Laksa – creamy and packed with the heady flavours of lemongrass and coconut, with just enough heat to make the palate sing a little.

South African Bobotie – Highland beef mince raised to a new level with Zanzibar spice, the sweetness of raisins, warmth of harissa, and the delightful mouthwatering presence of lime leaves

South Indian Aubergine – far from my favourite vegetable, but cooked right down in spices and coconut milk to a dry street food I could’ve eaten these all night.


Bobotie – credit Jade Nina Sarkhel

This was food and spirit matching on a new level for me, the science of the senses stripped back and reconstructed, each pairing a new view on the whisky, and different outlook on the produce. And there was one final pairing for the night. The breathtaking short trip from warming by the Aga, to looking up on a clear star and moon lit sky as the snow crunched under my feet, to the barn. Oh that barn. For dessert. Baklava, whisky, and fire.

Creamy baklava in Cognac syrup with orange oil

With the light crunch of creamy pine nuts for texture, this velvety baklava is soaked in a light Cognac and lemon syrup and lifted with a drizzle of orange oil to compliment and enhance the smooth and luscious ‘finish’ of Captain’s Reserve


The taste sublime. The experience unmatchable. The finish perfect.


Photo credit Connar MacKay

Main course photograph credit Jade Nina Sarkhel



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