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Some whiskies pair delightfully with hairy crab
By John H. Isacs

It’s the time of year when we collectively roll up our sleeves and dig in to the delicacy we call hairy crab.

Pairing wines with hairy crabs is a much-beloved annual endeavor for me. I’ve expounded on the beautiful synergy between Manzanilla and Fino Sherry with our beloved crustaceans and raved over how beautifully acidic whites like Albarino and Sauvignon Blanc work with hairy crabs.

Truthfully these wines along with the best of Chinese yellow wines are still the best partners for hairy crabs, but my problem is that I’ve been there, done that. So this year I’ll be trying something different.

My periodic ventures into the world of whiskies have significantly broadened my concepts on Scotch whisky and food pairings.

On my last trip to Scotland, I savored local smoked salmon and oysters with a variety of whiskies. This year in Shanghai, I’ve been experimenting with single malts from different regions paired with hairy crab.

My findings have been remarkably delicious, but before I get into specifics, let’s take a look at what distinguishes a single malt whisky from other whiskies.

Scotch whisky

In the world of whiskies there is whisky that usually means Scotch whisky and whiskey that refers to Irish and American whiskeys.

The vast majority of Scotch whiskies are blended, meaning they comprise whisky from many distilleries. While over 90 percent of the production of most distilleries is used in blended whisky brands, a small percentage is saved and made into single malt whisky.

Scotch single-malt whisky consists of only malt whisky that has been distilled at a single distillery. The result is a unique whisky. This style is influenced by the malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and aging in predominantly Sherry and Bourbon oak barrels. All good single malts have their own inimitable style and character.

Single-malt whiskies, like wines, have important regional distinctions. Lowland single malts from the southern Scotland on the border with England are slightly sweet with subtle fresh and grassy flavors and aromas.

Some may also exhibit herbal and spicy notes. Many of the best single malts come from Speyside, where approximately two thirds of Scottish distilleries are located.

Speyside whiskies are considered the most abundantly flavored and complex, offering an exciting array of malty, cedary, nutty, floral and creamy sensations.

The Northern and Western Highlands single malts are firm and structured with salty, maritime qualities. Northern Highlands whiskies tend to be heavier while Western Highland single malts are lighter and more delicate.

Finally, we have the Islands single malts that are sparsely situated among the nearly 800 islands in northern Scotland. These outwardly robust, peaty and smoky whiskies are powerhouses of flavor with rich and heavy textures. But which of these single malts goes best with hairy crabs?

Though I absolutely adore macho Island single malts like Talisker 10, 18 and 25 Year Old, they are too strongly flavored and tend to overpower the more subtle flavors of the crab meat and roe.

These whiskies are best enjoyed as a reflective digestif after your meal. I’ve had much more success with complex Speyside single malts like The Glenlivet 12 and 18 Year Old as the combination of fruity and floral qualities with vanilla hints work beautifully with the crabs.

Two Northern Highland whiskies also pair beautifully with hairy crabs. The Singleton of Glen Ord 18 Year Old with its slightly sweet stewed fruit, toffee and almond flavors combines very nicely with the delicate flesh and sweet pungency of the crab.

Likewise, the Glenmorangie Lasanta whisky that spends 10 years in Bourbon casks and is finished two years in Sherry barrels features creamy Sherry and nutty qualities that wonderfully accentuate the fresh and savory flavors of the crab. 

Another benefit of pairing single malts with hairy crabs is that whisky is not particularly sensitive to the vinegar dipping sauce. With white wines one must be careful to go light on the vinegar sauce as the two often clash in the palate. The strength and intensity of single malts carves right through the acidic vinegar, acting as a cohort in embellishing the natural flavors of the crab.

How to serve

Single-malt whiskies are served neat, with a splash of water or on the rocks. My friend Charles MacLean, a best-selling author, is one of the world’s foremost whisky experts and he counsels a splash of water.

Charlie claims that when the alcohol is mitigated to about 27 percent we are best able to taste the subtle complexities of whiskies.

I agree, but when pairing with seafood I feel temperature also plays an important role. Just as we favor chilled wines with seafood, slightly chilled whisky best accentuates the freshness and natural sweetness of seafood.

Therefore, when pairing with the classic steamed whole hairy crab, I favor a splash of well-chilled water or an ice cube in my single malt whisky. The only exception to this guideline is when you are served the roe of the crab by itself.

The rich flavor and dense texture of the roe go remarkably well with whisky served neat since the strong alcohol cuts right through the richness and facilitates digestion.

Glasses are also important. I’ve worked with leading whisky producers and glass manufacturers to find the perfect vessels for single-malt whiskies so the subject is quite dear to my heart.

Material, distilling and aging all influence the quality and beauty of single malt whiskies, and so does the glass.

The clarity of our glass best exposes the dark golden elixir while the shape and material help determine the impact, sequence and use of our nasal, taste and texture experiences.

Discard any thoughts about using a simple glass as crystal glasses with requisite girth are musts. When served with a splash of water or with a cube of ice, wide-bowl crystal whisky glasses are fine.

Whisky served neat works perfectly well in a Sauvignon Blanc wine glass. You can also splurge on high-end specially designed single malt glasses that are all the rage with fashion-conscious drinkers.

In most cases, it’s best to bring your glasses with you as restaurants that specialize in hairy crabs seldom have appropriate whisky glasses.

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