A Tea & Scotch-Tasting? Yes, and It Was Fantastic
A few days ago in Long Beach, an interesting and, perhaps, unusual combined tasting took place at the World Tea Expo. Entitled “The Leaf and the Grain”, Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis led attendees in a tasting of teas and Scotches. While this seems like quite the strange pairing, it worked quite well, as the Scotch and teas frequently complemented and enhanced each other, as Gascoyne put it, “sometimes, when you put things together, you can have harmony and sometimes, you can have conflict.”
For the tasting, we utilized a “sandwich method” whereby one sips the tea, then sips the Scotch and leaves it ones mouth for ten seconds, then sipping the tea again. Of course, it was interesting to start with the warmer, flavor profile of the tea, then the room temperature of the whiskey, and then back to the warm tea not to mention going from the warm, sweet liquid to the fiery burning of the Scotch and then back to the mild, yet warm tea. It was certainly a curious mouthfeel. Advising the participants to avoid guessing either what the tea was or what the Scotch was and to simply enjoy the visceral element of the liquids, Gascoyne directed us to look for flavor fusion, flavor contrast, aromatic fusion, and aromatic contrast. He also advised us to pay attention to the texture of the liquids first, then the “attack” of it (is it strong, harsh, soft, etc.?), and then to consider the persistence. He also framed the tasting for us that “sometimes, you get a parity where the flavor or greater than the sum of its parts.”
For the first of our three pairings, Gascoyne brought out two lightly-colored beverages, which was a good pairing, since they were two subtle drinks that come out quite nicely, as he noted, “a lot of the notes in tea we can’t really taste them, but what’s interesting in this pairing is aromatic harmony.” It turns out that the pairing was a Yunnan-White vs Glenmorangie. The tea was very nice with a rustic simplicity: “aromatics are not too bold, but once you put it with the whiskey, you get nice aromatics”, pointed out Gascoyne, with a very compressed flavor of the tea. It was fascinating to me that 2/3 of the way through holding the Scotch in mouth, I got some peatey/smokey flavors which were not initially present. Gascoyne pointed out that he likes using white tea to start off for its subtleness. Furthermore, the second taste of tea can seem enhanced versus the first sip.
The next two liquids to come out were significantly darker and much stronger on the nose. There was heat and spice popping from the Scotch and the oakey notes come through on the tea and spicey notes. It turns out that this pairing was Miaoli 1993 (Oolong) vs Aberlour A’bunadh (cask strength), which were both quite flavorful beverages. This was an interesting pairing, noted Gascoyne, because there’s an interesting struggle, yet some notes come out at the end that aren’t really like either of them on their own. I thought it was tough after having had the cask strength Scotch’s fieriness to then drink the hot tea on my tongue. Nevertheless, these were both two intense beverages. Interestingly, we then went back to the first tea, which seemed sweeter at this point, as Gascoyne pointed out, “we went back to the subtle-tasting tea and now it has bold flavors coming out”, with some dried fruit flavors emerging from the second tea on a return visit.
Moving on to our third pairing, which Gascoyne described as “one of the best pairings I’ve ever found”, featured an Islay for a Scotch and a really nice tea. It turns out we were drinking a First Flush Darjeeling Classic and Talisker 10, which is “one of the best marriages I’ve found of tea and Scotch”, said Gascoyne. It was harmonious, yet they were powerful flavors and, as Gascoyne described them, “not lazy, couchpotato flavors”, they had “torque”. The Darjeeling had a compressed flavor, meaning it doesn’t have a lot of big flavor points; it’s not big and expansive, the bouquet is tight. Also, Gascoyne mentioned, first flush Darjeelings have a lot of flavor, power, astringency, and briskness.
Then, Gascoyne had us mash-up the pairings. We started with the second tea and the first Scotch, which had an “interesting effect on the tea”: oakey, fruit, “concentrated ball of flavor”. Then the first tea with the second Scotch, which made the Scotch seem to go on forever, that even after tasting the tea, one still tastes it, although the tea tempers a bit of the fieriness. Then we tried the first tea with the third Scotch, which stops the burn and brings out the peat.
At this point, Gascoyne invited us to consider: “What if you try imagining it beforehand?” We then moved on to the second tea with the third Scotch, which allowed us to taste the peateyness/smokeyness still there even after tasting the tea the second time. We then had the third tea and first whiskey, with some spice of the Glenmorangie hanging around and some more green leafy-ness coming through on the tea. We then moved to the second tea and first whiskey, which was way more friendly/more flavor harmony: “flavors are enhanced, intertwined, but the aromas are quiet at this point”, pointed out Gascoyne. We then tried the first tea with the third Scotch: “a nice smooth wrap around it, a nice sweetness”, noted Gascoyne. And, finally, we had the third tea and the second Scotch, which, at first, seems like a wrestling match, but then they both come down. Amongst these six liquids, the Talisker and Maoli were clearly the strongest, no matter up against which else they matched. It turns out that the first tea works so well with the Scotches, which is somewhat paradoxical, since it is so versatile and subtle.
With tastings, Gascoyne pointed out, you find very advanced folks and some who are beginners, so a tasting can be a level playing field: tasting without knowing. With teas and Scotches, it is great to be able to allow the unlocking of the scotch and the tea, with each affecting each other. He also mentioned that, prima facie, white tea is not so flavorful, but different flavors emerge in its pairings. As to doing the sandwich method, Gascoyne said that he finds that if he does the tea first, it opens things up; whiskey first, then it numbs.
This presentation was a really fascinating experience and not just because we got to try some good teas and Scotches, but also because it was a seemingly unusual combination…that worked! And more than just what we were tasting, what also made it a great experience was, as one participant mentioned, that Gascoyne was a “very present teacher and set a tone, a mood of presence.” It was certainly a great experience at the World Tea Expo!