I have many times before tried to decide what food would pair well with a particular whiskey. Usually it’s scotch paired with a cheese or smoked beef, pork, or even chocolate. This afternoon though, I tried to pair the perfect whiskey with a food. This may seem a natural way to proceed for wine enthusiast, they do it all the time. They pick the perfect wine from a list of hundreds based on what they have already decided to eat. For me it has always been the other way around. I have always had the perfectly whiskey decided on first, then I try to think, “What food would go good with this?” So it was a different task for me tonight to pick the dram for the ham.
Okay, it wasn’t ham that I was having, but chicken doesn’t rhyme with dram. I had a farm fresh chicken in the fridge that I intended to do up on the grill. I have a way that I like to do chicken on the grill called Bullfrog-Chicken. It’s awesome; everybody I do it for loves it. I will never do a whole chicken on the grill any other way. While I’m thinking about that, I fire up the grill. I like to use some briquettes and a lot of real hickory wood, not hickory charcoal, but real hickory wood. I put it on top of the charcoal in the chimney lighters and start it all together. The briquettes give me the consistency in heat and the wood gives me the flavor.
In all the tastings and whiskey events that I’ve done I have never served chicken. It never really seemed like a good match to the featured whiskies, mostly scotch. I have always done smoked beef or pork or sausage or even lamb; meats that are more savory than chicken. So when I thought about a whiskey to complement chicken, nothing really came to mind. I thought a peaty, Islay and smoked chicken would just mush together. A highland or Lowland scotch would lose their delicate nuances under a mouthful of hickory smoke, I thought. And so my analysis went as I thought through my collection.
Then I spied a whiskey on my shelf that might just work. It was Catoctin Creek’s Round Stone Rye. Catoctin Creek is a craft distillery in Purcellville, VA. I’ve been down there and few times and had even hosted a whiskey tasting with Scott Harris, the owner, on Antietam Battle Field. This is one of my go-to rye whiskies and is an especially good choice when introducing new whiskey drinkers to rye. It’s a Monongahela style, 100% rye mash. This whiskey has a boldness to it, but with a subtle caramel tone and a rolling spiciness. It drinks very smooth and sweet but still has that nice rye-pepper spice. It’s not smoky so the hickory from the grill can speak, and it has a slight citrusy fragrance under the spice and rye that I think might work with poultry.
So now I get the chicken together. I use a method called “bullfrog-ing” the chicken. You basically cut the rib-cage along the side of the breast meat and unfold the chicken until the breast side in on the same side as the thigh side. It looks like a giant bullfrog when you’re done. I first saw this when I was working in the Caribbean. Then I slather it up with some olive oil, salt, paprika, and fresh ground pepper. The way I like to grill is pretty Mid-Atlantic style; direct heat and lots of smoke. In Maryland we like our pit-beef and that’s how we do it, over hot coals of real wood. So even though the butchering technique was from the Caribbean, the cooking technique was East Coast; So a rye whiskey already seemed to fit.
Now I set the coals up on the grill. It’s a good day for this kind of grilling. It’s just barely raining, not so bad that you don’t want to venture out, but enough that you don’t want to grill something that you have to babysit the whole time. A whole chicken gets lots of alone time with the smoke so I can come out once in a while and check on it.
Once the grill is hot and ready I grab the “frog” by his back feet and swing him forward up off the platter, flinging olive oil in the process, letting him swing up and then down in front of my waist once, and then back up towards the sky to plop down on the hot grate. He sizzles and the oil flares up the coals into an inferno. That’s what you want, but just for a moment. Let the hickory embers get one last breath of fresh air, turning orange red before I bring down the lid with the vent half closed. The embers then choke out huge gulps of thick gray smoke and pull their heat back to the right temperature. So much smoke that it forces its way out of the crack separating the lid from the kettle bowl.
I open and pour. The spicy smell of the rye to me fits into the savory smell of salted frying fat, deciduous hickory smoke, and the flowering cherry blossoms like final pieces of a puzzle. This is going to be good. The smoke is drifting into my face and the pedals are dropping here and there, on my head and into my glass. The rain has almost stopped and it’s great to just hang out here by the grill. I spend some time enjoying the moment.
After a while, and a few glasses, I check the “frog” with the thermometer, almost done. Another ten minutes, another glass. The peppery spice is starting to sink into my tongue and the top of my mouth. I check the temp again, he’s ready. I grab the “frog” with my welder’s gloves by the legs and fling him up off the grill, let him swing down once and then back up onto the platter ever so softly.
I take him inside, let him sit for a couple of minutes and then give him a slice. It’s perfect inside; it always is. I’m telling you, this is the way to grill a chicken! I steal a piece with some seasoned skin, close to the surface with lots of smoke and a nice swag of white meat underneath. I pop it in my mouth and chew it once or twice and take a big sip of the rye. The saltiness and the smoke and the sweetness and the spicy… it all goes so well together! I carve some more, bite and sip, bite and sip. So this is the match; the pairing for chicken. Hickory-smoke grilled Bullfrog-chicken and Monongahela rye.