On any given evening in Portland, especially the cold snowy kind, thousands of locals face an existential dilemma: What to drink with dinner? Put another way, wine or whisky?
In the last few years, even as the Portland-led craft beer craze surged past epic saturation levels, a sudden infatuation with craft whiskey took hold of the country, giving us yet another option.
Consider the context: Obsession with food is both a phase in the growth of a world class city and a stage in the downfall of empires. Think Portland, inside the United States. There is a certain stress involved with skyrocketing rents, mediocre wages, and the need to save a bit with a trip to Costco, while succumbing to the sheer decadence of amazing food and drink options available here.
Sometimes we want to pair the sous vide lamb chop with a perfect bordeaux and sometimes we want to incinerate the day’s hell in a shot of Gun Powder - with a lunk of coal tossed in - and feel it burn.
And could we have a beer, while we make up our minds?
We are not milk drinkers here.
Though wine is still the drink of choice with food at high end restaurants, three kick ass high end distilleries have opened in Portland alone since 2012, adding real gravitas to the whiskey scene and making inroads among drinkers: Maine Craft Distillery on Fox near Marginal Way, still the only one with a true Scottish single malt floor-malting process; Liquid Riot, with a new swanky distillery added to its Commercial Street brewery and tasting restaurant, and the New England Distillery, in a warehouse near Portland, kicking out an immediate homerun rye whiskey, GunPowder (70% rye, 30% Barley, no corn).
Today you can find a GunPowder cocktail on the menu at both elite craft beer bar, Novare Res, which carries 500 beers, 15 whiskey’s and only a few meager wines and an elite farm-to-table venue, Vinland, within a purist menu and organic wine list.
But a quick man-on-the-street survey shows a clear trend towards considering whiskey as a typical daily imbibe, even with dinner. So when wine versus whiskey duels inside your head like schizophrenic voices, here are a few aspects to consider: Taste, mood and lore.
Just last week during our “research” at David’s Restaurant, a man in a Botanicare (they sell hydroponics equipment) hoodie gulped down a wrap sandwich with a shot of Bulleit Rye Whisky and ginger ale. This not really the kind of food pairing we’re are talking about. Or are we?
It’s hard - maybe impossible - to beat pairing wine with food. If you need some valid “go to” ideas, however, Scotch and whiskey “go” with rich foods like blue cheese, sausage, macadamia nuts. Think of a Portland foodie Super Bowl party.
Bourbon, on the other hand, sweeter since made from fermenting corn, “goes” with foods like pumpkin or apple pie, chocolate, creme brulee, sweet potatoes, caramelized anything, ice cream and aged white cheddar.
Whiskey is not really something you want to match up with a spring salad or a plate of mussels. If drinking whiskey with food were really all about food, wine should win almost every time. A traditional strategy is cocktail before, wine or beer during, and whiskey neat after, a meal.
However, as it turns out, the choice between wine and whiskey is not not always about food pairing. Often it is about mood.
If you want your nice dinner to be nice, you can order the Bordeaux or the Pinot. Pop culture reflects this tendency; the heroine of Scandal, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), drinks red wine alone at home when her boyfriend, the president, is preoccupied starting a war - the kind of elegant dilemma that favors a bold red. She does not seem to eat at all.
But sometimes you don’t feel like a calm, Washington D.C. sophisticate sleeping her way to the top, while causing semi-accidental regime changes (whoops), but more like Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) of Homeland, who occasionally considers treason as an option, downs her lithium in a shot of gin, or goes off both to sharpen her instincts to the point of requiring electro-shock therapy. The kind of woman who trusts her gut and risks her life playing two sides of the game with no back-up.
We get this. Wine is sweeter and calmer, but probably too much so for your current... mood.
Duchess Kate, Lady Gaga and Rihanna drink whisky.
Some of us, it turns out, choose wine or whisky when simply bored by the other one. In the foodie version of ADHD, you cannot drink the same thing for many days. We may start out favoring whiskey, since many craft whiskeys and their cocktails are new. But then they get old.
Isaac Stroe, a “amateur” wine spirits expert and associate Maine Beer and Beverage, which carries whiskeys from all three local distillers in addition to an enviable selection of international wines, he says most people continue to buy what they drink consistently “at home” in the store, but explore other options while out on the town. In other words, we stray when prompted by opportunity. No surprises here.
His own wine consumption has shrunk to about 40% of his total drinking pie chart, down from, say more than 50% five years ago, or down 2% year over year, since he “discovered a lot of great whiskeys and local options.”
Last weekend, he forewent a perfectly good wine selection of wine at Bramhall Pub to snuggle up with a whiskey and gingerale. He was just in the mood.
We also caught up with Maine Craft Distiller’s CEO and head distiller, Luke Davidson, who is uniquely qualified to weigh in on the wine versus whiskey dilemma, having grown up on a family winery in Jefferson, Maine before starting a whiskey distillery.
As a boy, Davidson fertilized, pruned and netted the grapes in the family’s vineyard. “I just liked whisky, better.”
After a stint building barns and houses, he even considered farming barley before settling on brewing whiskey “further up the food chain” for business reasons, while sourcing his ingredients locally.
The biggest factor for his preference of whiskey over wine, he says, is taste.
“There are so many interesting variants to whiskey.” Part of the flavor is the smokey bite and burn, which, though can ruin a palate, also adds dare we say potency to the flavor, “like smoking a pipe or a cigar.”
His first signature whiskey, a Scottish-style Fifty Stone Single Malt, is classically made, but he is also venturing into divergent fermented spirits. For the novice, grain fermented in wooden barrels is considered whiskey, including bourbon, rye and scotch. But Davidson also makes a smokey Black Cap vodka from barley (filtered through Maine maple charcoal), gin ( from barley distilled three times with juniper, coriander and other florals), Blueshine (barley, blueberries and maple syrup) and rum (basically sugar, fermented).
After someone gave him a container of sweet-tasting carrot juice, he recalled hearing about carrot wine and carrot schnapps and brewed in rural Maine and distilled a carrot-based concoction labeled Chesuncook, flavored with coriander, juniper, mint and cucumber. “Careful not to call it a whiskey, it’s a botanical spirit.”
For taste against wine, it’s hard to beat the brochure’s description of the signature 50 Stone, which “leads with pleasing wisps of vanilla and caramel, followed by a balance of dark fruit flavors and a robust spicy finish with whispers of campfire and the sea.”
Whispers of campfire and sea? Story and culture - the lore of the drink - it turns out, can alter the taste of the taste.
Maine and Scotland have similar terrains and stories, Davidson says, which adds to the lore of whiskey, along with, “I’d even venture to say a slight piece of masculinity.”
“Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of women who enjoy whisky in a non-masculine way. Portland Spirits Society [a social group of women whisky drinkers] had their inaugural meeting in the distillery. But, my point is there is a mystique to whisky not as prevalent in the wine world.”
The masculine allure probably attracts both sexes, but he’s right to add a few qualifiers; whiskey and bourbon along with cigars and pipes are part of male power-broker culture that existed in private clubs and salons which excluded women, along with races and religions. It was only in 1987, when Supreme Court law opened the first male-only club (Rotary, of all things) to women that the social borders of gentleman’s drinking clubs began to erode.
Today women are just as likely to order bourbon during a southern business meeting as on a senatorial night out. But a whiskey and cigar among the boys is stilled enjoyed in many a backyard, maybe even as an escape into a simpler time and place.
Kate McCarthy, who started Maine Spirits, says she still hears an occasional “story from friends about being out and ordering typically "men's" drinks - and then having the server place it in front of a man they are with.”
In reality 37% of current whiskey drinkers are women. The real throwback is marketing; a Google search on whiskey ads shows a lot of serious looking men sidelit on black backgrounds, like the fading actor (Bill Murray) making a whiskey ad in Tokyo during Lost in Translation.
Maine craft whiskey seems to be shifting its lore from male power brokering, to a farm to flask hardiness focusing on the strength of its terroit (careful on spelling, I once registered terroir.com which turned out to be German for terrorism), and hand-crafted puritism.
The idea that the earth and air or Scotland or Maine, are being, literally, smelled and eaten contributes subtlety to the bite of our whiskeys.
In contrast, Italy, France, Northern California, or even Oregon’s terrain and climes are effete. Maine’s rocky coasts and bitter winters are fiercest of all. Embedded in the subtext of the “Life is Good Here” motto, is a gender-neutral inner toughness required to continue to say those words to oneselves in the middle of a three snowstorm, eased only by a shot or two of Maine grown and brewed single malt. If we wanted to drink the pain and beauty of Maine it would be a whiskey.
But then I’m in advertising.
Scottish Whiskey provides the “quintessential example” of how a community brand builds its story, Davidson says, serving up a lesson in how story affects taste and thus demand. The earthy lore behind Scottish Whisky is the product of years of organized messaging. 50 local whiskey distilleries in a country the size of Maine band together and pay dues into the Scottish Whisky Association (David Beckham’s Haig distillery is a recent member) which has a council dedicated to aggressive lobbying and branding, much like the American Dairy Processors, whose educational arm launched the visionary 20 year campaign, “Got Milk?” two years ago.
A Scottish whiskey council-produced video may show a rugged looking man standing in a murky river, “as if it were the most magical thing in the world,” then zoom in to a distillery on the ocean, describing how the sea breathes majestically through the malting barley.
“The Scottish will tell you how the salty wind coming in from the seahead filters through the peat and the smoke impacts the blah de blah. It’s wonderful and some of is true,” Davidson says.
Peat itself - a brown material trapped in soggy ground, consisting largely of decomposed vegetable matter - is cut and dried for use in whisky. It has also been burned as fuel.
The same slow-brew technology is used in the Portland warehouse to cook up Davidson’s whisky, though the subsequent lore is still, symbolically anyway, in the malting stages.
The barley used is purchased from local farmers and co-operatives, then spread on the floor of the distillery to sprout, building sugar and enzymes. This is the only such malting floor in the state; there may only be seven malting floors in the entire United States.
Some of the grain is then smoked with Washington County peat and seaweed from the Maine Coast, mashed to ferment in hand-built pine washbacks and distilled in a hand-built copper till, thus “capturing the beauty and complexity of the land from which it was produced” the brochure says, also suggesting drink recipes for Sin of Men, Prancing LumberJack and Mr. McGregor’s Medicine.
To see for myself if Maine’s mystique makes whiskey taste better, I visit the Maine Craft Distillery on a Saturday with a male friend, versed in Scottish whiskey drinking, and check out the experience. Seven of ten other visitors are well-dressed young women.
Whiskey is only fermented mid-week here, so there is no distillery aroma, though you can see the floor area cordoned off for malting. The place is clean and super industrial-cool-looking. Something about the idea of Maine barley in Maine barrels, with a mixture of locally produced meads, syrups and bitters, on equipment serviced by local mechanics, builds an expectation about the tasting - though adding more of a makerly than masculine mystique. You respect the makers’ thoughtfulness, labor and the local ingredients that have gone into each element. If nothing else it makes you want to slow down and pay attention to taste.
So, I am curious; will the actual taste of a Maine-crafted whisky measure up to my life-long love affair with great red wines. We sip.
It does. The 50 Stone single malt taste lingers through stages of smell, sensation and taste, like a four act play. If it were a movie it would be The Revenant. You can taste the bear’s breathe. It has a peppery start, staggering and toppling over into a clover-infused honey finish.
Onto the final wine versus whisky question, but do I really want to drink this stuff with food?
“I think the right food paired with liquor is as good,” weighs in Maine Craft’s tasting host, and former barista, Sophia-Bratt Graham. “Whiskey has a smokiness and sweetness, that, on the rocks, pairs well with grilled fish, meat or roast vegetables. It’s just as good as a Malbec.”
She goes on to suggest Bourbon, which works well both with meats and anything that has, say, a marmalade glaze. And to pair Scotch whiskey with a sandwich. A sandwich? I ask.
“Have you been to Maps?” she asks. They serve beer and sandwiches, and what she’d really like to drink there with her sandwich is a single malt.
As my friend and I leave the distillery and walk a few blocks down to the Back Bay Grill for a dinner of salad and stuffed chicken leg, the question arises again. What will it be, wine or whiskey? The chicken roulade is neither grilled, carmelized or glazed in marmelade.
“I don’t think whisky goes with food,” my friend says. “I prefer a cocktail before the meal.”
When the waitress comes over my friend glances down at the menu and easily orders a very nice pinot noir.
The waitress looks at me next expectantly, but I’m still head down, studying the options, leaning towards one of the bold reds but having also spotted a Chesuncook cocktail, made with grenadine, sweet vermouth and egg white. I only met that spirit two hours ago. Does it go with chicken?
I consider the pros and cons a few seconds longer, consider my mood and place my order.