Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pacari's Day Of Triumph

Francisco X. Vivar pairing Pacari chocolate & whisky
This is a post about pairing chocolate with whisky. Chocolate, at the high end, offers a range of different flavors via different cacao varieties, growing regions and plantations with clear terroir and a powerful set of flavors with fermented winey notes, a whole series of complex alkaloids, creamy luscious fats, vegetal compounds and tannins, the flavors of roasting or baking (unless raw) wrapped up in a rich seductive mouth feel. The flavors can persist on the palate in a long finish and pair well with a variety of beverages:  classically wine, and coffee. More recently the craze for fine whisky has led to an explosion of interest in chocolate-whisky pairing. Whisky and chocolate are both extremely flavor dense foods and their pairings can be uneasy, discordant or deliciously complimentary. Sometimes, mysteriously and excitingly, certain whisky chocolate pairs combine to form dramatically new "emergent" flavors. This startling effect takes on an aspect of "flavor tripping" - joyriding the palate through gastronomic stunts.

Piura 70% (front), Nube 70% (rear)
Recently I met with Francisco X. Vivar, the voluble and incredibly sweet and elfin North American importer, evangelist, and human face of Pacai chocolate in the USA. Vivar and I were planning a tour of The Morgan Library & Museum, some lunch, and a bit of chocolate-whisky pairing. As it turned out, Francisco had just received the news that Pacari had been crowned the champion of the world finals of the first International Chocolate Awards - winning 5 Gold (including the overall) and a Silver (see addendum and link at bottom). Feeling expansive, we dined exclusively on Pacari chocolate that day, taking in most of the upcoming Fall line-up including the rare lauded Piura white cacao bar, the extremely rare Nube varietal bar (limited to 2000 bars worldwide), and pre-release prototypes of a Pacari Fig bar, a bar made with a traditional pulled sugar cane toffee-caramel called "Melcocha", and much of the core line up to boot. We paired these extraordinary chocolates with a selection of whiskies representing a broad flavor gamut: Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or, Oban DE 1995, Elijah Craig 12, Douglas McGibbon Provinance Port Ellen 23 1982/2005, and Balcones Brimstone. Some of these pairings were extraordinary, and will be described fully further on. But first, a bit of background.

I'm preparing a chocolate-whisky pairing event which will be held in January at The Morgan Library's beautiful Morgan House Dining Room and I figured Pacari chocolates would be ideal pairing partners for whisky. I already knew they were, actually. I was introduced to the topic by Mr. Vivar and Compass Box's Brand Ambassador, Robin Robinson back in April at a pair of tastings. Over the ensuing months I have studied the topic. Of particular value was Stuart Robson's article on whisky chocolate pairings. He discusses the concept, methodology, and lists a number of very very specific pairings that cover a wide flavor range. Here's the paragraph on the methodology of pairing whisky and chocolate, to give you an idea of how it's done, and how Robson writes:
  • Take the whisky on the palette, moving it around the mouth for awhile to let the flavours build.
  • Once swallowed, wait a few seconds before placing a very small piece of chocolate on the tongue. Allow the chocolate to melt slowly and experience the profiles of the Chocolate and Whisky as they come together.
  • Towards the end of the melt, take a little of the whisky back over the chocolate. This leads to greater intensity and often the development of some interesting and unexpected flavours.
  • Enjoy the finish as you normally would, only this time you will see some interesting variations in the profile of the whisky.
Robson is unusually situated to write about whisky chocolate pairings. He is the whisky reviewer at Connosr's Whisky Marketplace Blog:
There, he writes beautiful tasting notes - among the most poetic and metaphorically illustrative detailed and communicative tasting notes I've ever read. He also has worked in the sweets biz and is an active chocolate enthusiast and reviewer on chocolate sites including
This confluence of whisky and chocolate expertise makes Stuart Robson a pretty special person at the intersection of these two fascinating passions.

Judging at the International Chocolate Awards Semi-Finals

A few weeks ago George Gensler, one of the founders of the Manhattan Chocolate Society and a frequent reviewer on, who I had met at the Compass Box-Pacari pairing event, incredibly generously nominated me to be a judge at the International Chocolate Awards Western Hemisphere Semi Finals. I got to taste an amazing array of chocolates, meet an amazing group of chocolate epicures and play some small role in an important industry review of the stars of high end chocolate. At the conclusion of each judging session I pulled out a mess of sample bottles and did impromptu whisky-chocolate pairing sessions with the three Valharonha chocolate "palate calibration" selections: Guanaja, Manjari and Abinao. Importantly i got to do a one on one whisky chocolate pairing with Clay Gordon, the amazing impresario behind the Chocolate Life online community, the book "Discover Chocolate", and a host of other chocolate projects ranging from chocolate factory start ups to radio presentations on the Heritage Radio Network and the creation of a chocolate factory in Bushwick. These impromptu jam sessions were a total blast and taught me a lot. These experiences gave me the audacious ambition to make my first public whisky event a whisky chocolate pairing event.

Back to the tasting at hand. Francisco & I toured The Morgan and then began the pairings in a private space. The Morgan is a very special place: JP Morgan's private library is one of grandest beaux arts residence spaces ever envisioned. It is alive with culture, beauty, history, and power. Surrounding it is an array of exhibition halls and scholarly resources jammed with the literary and graphic roots and fruits of human civilization. After the tour we were in a fit mental state for appreciation of a different sort.

A dozen chocolate varieties and five whiskies...
A word on methodology: we inverted the order described by Stuart Robson, above on many of the pairings.  We took the chocolate first, let it melt on the palate and then took the whisky.   The order makes a big difference.  When you have the chocolate first, the chocolate initially dominates the palate and the whisky's entry modifies the chocolate's finish.  When you take the whisky first and then let the chocolate melt over the whisky's finish you are putting the whisky's flavors first.  You generally end up in the same place, as you add another sip and another square - but how you get there affects the view.

Pacari Nube 70%
The following tasting notes represent some highlights from our rather extensive session:

Pacari Nube 70% varietal bar (limited to 2000 bars world-wide). Dark acidic blueberry, rich ivy & cilantro herbal notes, and aromatic smoky espresso flavors with a rich velvety mouth feel. This selection paired synergistically with Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or. Nectar D'Or is sweet, light, and intensely floral. I was anticipating an accentuation of the herbal qualities. Paradoxically, the combination was suddenly warm and vividly toffeed - brimming with butter and sugar browning in a pan Maillard reaction flavors.

Piura White Cacao varietal, 70%.  This chocolate is a lovely amber reddish-brown hue because of the white cacao from the Piura region (Pacari's first from beyond Ecuador).  Rich and heady with a potent raw cacao flavor punch: earthy, fermented, with vivid acids, honeyed toffee notes, and plenty of dark cocoa flavors.  This one did the toffee Maillard thing with Nectar D'Or too - even more than the Nube.  A stunning pairing.

Elijah Craig 12 with the Pacari Chili bar: peppery heat squared.  The big oak tannin hit from the EC meshed with the capsicum heat to form a potent mouth burn.  Maybe a bit too potent.  This was somewhere between a mesh and a clash.

We also paired the Elijah Craig 12 with the phenomenal Pacari Salt & Nibs bar (one of my favorite chocolate bars on the planet).  This one was a decent pairing with emergent big caramel flavors

We paired the sherried Port Ellen 23 with a number of bars but the stand outs were The Pacari Manabi 65% bar which meshed with the Port Ellen's lemon and chamois to produce a paradoxical huge caramel note with complex peat and citrus overtones.  Stunning.

When paired with Pacari's landmark 70% Raw bar, however, the same Port Ellen 23 popped out a huge oak wood flavor note that was as surprising as it was delicious.  Where in the world did that come from?

We finished the session with Balcones Brimstone (always put Brimstone last.  Experience has taught me that the titanic finish on Brimstone finishes you palate for anything else).  The killer combinations here were many:

From Pacari's tasty chewing "Fruit Harvest" line - the prototype of the upcoming Fig 60% bar produced an amazing smoky sweet flavor, reminiscent of sizzling bacon wrapped figs.

Brimstone also kills with the Piura bar - coiling sweet and smoke turned hauntingly toffeed.  I have been repeatedly impressed with how well Brimstone pairs with big chocolates.  It also makes an intensely memorable Old Fashioned.  I still prefer it neat, however.  I originally gave Brimstone 3 stars, but as my bottle opened up and I became accustomed to its dramatically novel flavor profile I fell in love and updated it to 4 stars and then to 5.  Now I view it as an indispensable bottle to have on hand at all times.

New in the "Flavors of the Andes" line (the line that includes Pacari's award winning Lemongrass, Chili, and the luscious Salt & Nibs bars) is Melcocha.  Melcocha is a traditional hand pulled caramel taffy made from raw sugar cane, cooked and pulled into ropes of densely chewy goodness.  Embedded in rich Pacari 60% dark chocolate it makes a rich flavor pairing all by itself in the caramel toffee flavor quadrant.  You must chew this bar and the textures are reminiscent of a Toblerone bar - although the flavors are far denser and richer.  This bar paired well with any sweet whisky.  It did particularly well with the Nectar D'Or.


Pacari's medals at the International Chocolate Competition World Finals 2012 are:


GOLD: Pacari Chocolate (Ecuador) – 70% Raw – Organic and Biodynamic

SILVER: Pacari Chocolate (Ecuador) – 70% Piura-Quemazon

Special awards

GOLD – Chocolate Maker: Pacari Chocolate (Ecuador) – 70% Raw – Organic and Biodynamic

GOLD – Growing Country Chocolate: Pacari Chocolate (Ecuador) – 70% Raw – Organic and Biodynamic

GOLD – Directly Traded Cacao: Pacari Chocolate (Ecuador) – 70% Raw – Organic and Biodynamic

GOLD – Organic: Pacari Chocolate (Ecuador) – 70% Raw – Organic and Biodynamic

GOLD – Best cacao source: Piura-Quemazon


  1. This should be in some kind of whisky/chocolate academic journal if there is such a thing. Very informative, very enticing and very jealousy-evoking.

  2. Rob! A whisky academic journal! What a fabulous idea. But first we need whisky academics. That means a degree granting institution. I love the sound of that. Thanks for the kind words. Kudos, too, on your successful Kickstarter campaign for your book's final edit. (Here's the link for anyone else who wants in):

    (Also, If you don't know Rob, check out his blog too):

    The trouble with pairing is that the results are so unexpected. Each "hit" is a random success. I never know how to proceed except with trial and error.

  3. Sounded great fun Joshua! I'm not a sweet tooth ordinarily, preferring savoury food pairings and have been working on Thai food and Whisky, however with friends coming round this weekend, I'm going out to get some quality chocolate to try. Would love to come to your event next week, but just a little too far away for me, and beyond my budget! I'll be there in spirit and look forward to reading all about it later!

    1. Dave, brilliant that you pair whisky with Thai food. That's one I would never consider trying because spicy interferes with palate - but with pairing that's often the whole idea. I don't know why I'm skeptical of Thai food (which is sweet and spicy) - because in the US we often pair sweet woody Bourbon with sweet wood smoky BBQ. That kind of thing is traditional in the lower Mississippi valley and lower Great Plains.

      Meanwhile, Chocolate isn't necessarily sweet. Like coffee, it can be taken "light & sweet" or black and strong. 60% cacao chocolate is like the dark end of regular dark chocolate (i.e. it's still recognizably candy). 70% is intensely cacao and only a little sweet. 80%+ bars are off dry at best and 100% bars aren't sweet at all. They have no added sugar at all by definition. I bet if I had an hour with you I could convert you.

  4. Chocolate matching is something I've not had much success with in the past (other than the trial and error you mention above), but Salt and Nibs has been very much a saviour - it goes with pretty much everything. Which reminds me, I must search out some more...

    1. Billy - you aren't trying to pair milk chocolate, are ya? I agree about Salt & Nibs being a good pairing bar for many different flavors of whisky. I find it's very nice with Sherry Bomb (i.e. Aberlour A'Bunadh & kin). But the Salt & Nibs is such a clear flavor profile that it doesn't do the mysterious morph into the "emergent" new flavors. Some notable pairings that did that include the Pacari Lemongrass bar with Compass Box Hedonism, Great King St. Artist Blend with Goldenberries, Madecasse 72% and Balblair 89, and the aforementioned sherried Port Ellen 23 with the Pacari 70% Raw bar.

      The real question here is which whiskies pair with Marmite? Do you know that I gave you +K on Klout for expertise about Marmite (as well as whisky, blogging, web development, etc..)? If there is anyone on the planet who could make a go of whisky and Marmite pairing it would be you. How about Loch Dhu? Or maybe Isawa 1983? That might be aces.

    2. The use of Isawa should be governed by the Geneva Convention. I still think I want a bottle...

  5. I tried this in the summer with what I considered some very fine chocolate, but I did not like the experience at all, similar to Billy's observation. Then again, I don't really love chocolate. Thanks for the little lesson - I may have to try this again with friends, and hopefully we'll find a pairing that works well together.

    1. I suggest avoiding sweet chocolates (such as milk or white chocolate) and try ultra-dark and assertive high cacao level chocolate. The tannins and potent flavor compounds in this kind of chocolate has a much better ability to stand up to whisky and the lower relative fat levels allow it to integrate with the the whisky flavors better. I'm finding sherried drams work particularly well...

  6. I live in Seattle and am inspired to pair some of the great local chocolate here (Fran's, Theo, etc.) with whiskey from local distilleries. Maybe Theo Fig, Fennel, and Almond Chocolate with Battle Point. Thanks!

    Also found it interesting that it sounds like you only sampled South American Chocolate. In general, I much prefer the terroir of chocolate from Africa to that of South America. Why no African chocolate? You are missing out!

    1. I regularly eat Madecasse chocolate from Madagascar. But I haven't had success (yet) in pairing it. Can you recommend some specific African chocolate selections? I've been exploring South American chocolates in particular to familiarize myself with the flavors of Criollo versus Forastero and Trinitario. I was under the impression that Criollo beans are only commercially grown in South America.