Whether you’re hosting a party or just want to entertain a few friends, stray from the typical and host a chocolate and whiskey pairing. It’s got some more flair than a traditional wine and cheese pairing, though the sheer number of options means it can be just as daunting to set up. So we spoke with Christopher Curtin, master chocolatier of Éclat Chocolate, and Bryan Nolt, founder and CEO of Breckenridge Distillery, to find out precisely what you need to know before you host.
First, some ground rules for making perfect pairings.
Order Matters (Sorta)
“When you’re pairing things or doing a flight, you typically go from subtle and dry to sweet,” says Nolt. “If you’re just tasting spirits, we’ll do it that way but it’s a little bit different with chocolate. When we do a full flight where you’re gonna taste six pairings, I actually start with our Breckenridge Chili Chile Vodka and blast your palate to smithereens right off the bat to clean it.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but chocolate has such a unique richness and mouthfeel that it can take right back over once you’ve shocked your taste buds. That said, when it comes to the pairings, you want the flavor of the chocolate to dictate order. Start with the simplest of flavors first so you can experience it au naturel. In this case, a coveted truffle sets the stage so there are no other flavors competing.
Know What Flavors Complement One Another
“I’d probably start with a bourbon or an aged rum that has some body to it, then go through a couple different levels of cacao in chocolate,” Nolt says. “Start with a milk chocolate, then do a medium cacao dark, and end with a high cacao dark.”
“There’s a high residual sugar in alcohol—more so than wine,” Curtin adds, “which is why rum and all those distilled products work so well with chocolate. You’re matching the sweetness levels, even though it’s not so obvious to the palate.”
Focus on the mouth feel, too, with your bottles. You don’t want anything too dry or stringent. Opt for spirits with a huge mouth feel and a long finish.
“I’ve never tried a port cask finish bourbon that wasn’t amazing with chocolate,” Nolt says. “It gives you a little more sweetness on the back end. You can’t mess it up.”
Be Choosy, But Inclusive
You might’ve blacklisted white chocolate a long time ago, but you should reconsider.
“I think it’s unfortunate that white chocolate gets a bad rap, and find it a bit cliché when people say, ‘I don’t eat anything less than 70%,’” Curtin says. “White chocolate is a great medium for pairing and bringing out delicate flavors that you can’t do with dark chocolate.”
What’s more, it’s the perfect complement to gin, a spirit that’s notoriously difficult to pair with any dark chocolate. Try to find one with candied orange or chili picante. Citrus and gin are obviously a stellar combo.
Now for Curtin and Nolt’s top pairings.
1. Éclat Chocolate Peruvian Nacional Truffles + Breckenridge Whiskey PX Cask Finish
Why not start with one of the world’s greatest truffles? Éclat Chocolate’s Peruvian Nacional truffles are deceptively simple—they’re really just chocolate, cream, and butter—but its the quality of the cacao and the traditional technique with which they’re made that render them irresistible. “Peruvian National is one of the rarest harvested beans in the world at the moment,” Curtin says. “What’s remarkable is almost 70 percent of the beans’ insides are white, which doesn’t mean that it’s white chocolate, but that it gives it more of a nutty flavor—almost like a ground nut.”
Curtin and his team use an old horizontal conching method to create a silky, melt-in-your-mouth texture. The machinery consists of a scraping mixer and an agitator that incorporates cocoa butter into chocolate. “It rolls back and forth and sort of polishes the flavor,” Curtin explains, “but it’s a much longer process, taking over 70 hours.” Once the ganache is made, the truffles are cloaked in the Peruvian Nacional cacao, then hand rolled in cocoa powder from Venezuela.
“Most rum and sweeter-styled whiskeys would pair well with the truffles as long as they don’t compete,” Nolt says. “But because the truffle has a subtle nutty character and finishes a little dry—I chose our PX Cask Finish whiskey, because it’s also defined by those two traits.”
It’s aged in barrels shipped from Spain’s Andalusia province that once stored a saccharine dessert wine made from raisins—more specifically, the Pedro Ximenez (PX) grape. Breckenridge Distillery’s spicy bourbon whiskey more or less marinates until it takes on jammy flavors, like fig, orange marmalade, and black licorice—perfect complements to its sweet oak and vanilla character.
Peruvian Nacional Truffles, starting at $26; eclatchocolate.com
Breckenridge Whiskey PX Cask Finish, $54.99; caskers.com
2. Éclat Chocolate Peanut Butter Mondiant + Breckenridge Aquavit
“I was hoping to show people some flavors they normally wouldn’t put together—open their minds,” Curtin says.
And few flavors are as unexpected in a spirits and chocolate combo than peanut butter, mostly due to the fact it’s such a hard thing to pair.
“But if you think about the peanut itself, it’s earthy, savory, and balanced with sweetness and an almost umami flavor,” Nolt says. It has that signature mouth feel, too. So Nolt chose aquavit. “It’s like a savory Norwegian gin, where you pick up notes of caraway and dill.”
They weren’t sure if it would be a hit, but the two complement each other strikingly. The mondiant is a model of simple ingredients executed indulgently, comprising 39% milk chocolate with a perfect balance of peanut butter. The aquavit has a sprightly mix of eucalyptus, dried orange peel, licorice, and caraway. It’s a little spicy and complex.
Mondiant Assortment, $5.50; eclatchocolate.com
Breckenridge Aquavit available for $35 at the Breckenridge Distillery and Tasting Room
3. Éclat Chocolate Coffee & Cardamom + Breckenridge Port Cask Bourbon Whiskey
“There are a few things that pair magically with bourbon,” Nolt says. “Even though we call this a whiskey—we have to declassify it to a whiskey because we’re aging it in another barrel—it’s a bourbon. On that list I would put things like apple, curry, brown sugar, pepper, and cardamom. Cardamom is absolutely magic with bourbon, so this coffee and cardamom chocolate was a no-brainer.”
The notes are just as you would suspect. Dark roasted coffee melds with rich cacao and floral cardamom in the bar, while the bourbon has hints of raisin and maple syrup to soften its spicy finish. This one’s a surefire crowd-pleaser.
Éclat Chocolate Coffee & Cardamom, $9.50; eclatchocolate.com
Breckenridge Port Cask Bourbon Whiskey, $46.99-$91.99; drizly.com
4. Éclat Chocolate Green Tea & Roasted Rice + Breckenridge Spiced Rum
“We finished with this combination because I wanted people to end on a sweet note before they finished the tasting,” Nolt says. “And the best sweet pairing I have for any dark or milk chocolate is spiced rum. Green tea tends to be a bit bitter, and it really pairs well with some of the holiday spices like kola nut and cinnamon. They sweeten up that bitter impression.”
The chocolate is reminiscent of Japanese genmaicha: green tea mixed with roasted popped brown rice. That sweet toastiness from the roasted rice balances out the sharpness of the tea.
Éclat Chocolate Green Tea & Roasted Rice, $9.50; eclatchocolate.com
Breckenridge Spiced Rum, $19.99-$40.99; drizly.com