The Perfect Irish Whiskey And Cheese Pairings

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With its ample rainfall and lush pastures, you would think that Ireland has a long history of making farmhouse cheese. Surprisingly, notwithstanding some 18,500 dairies that annually produce over 7.5 billion liters/2.1 billion gallons of milk, Ireland’s craft cheese industry is relatively recent.

The first craft cheesemaker didn’t appear till the late 1970s. Since then, however, the Irish cheese industry has flowered. Today some 84 cheese makers, most of them small farmhouse producers, produce over 500 different Irish cheeses.

In 2020, Ireland produced approximately 300,000 tons of cheese – enough to let it rank around 20th worldwide. Ninety percent of the cheese produced was exported, mostly to the United Kingdom and the EU. Unfortunately, very little makes its way to the United States. That’s a pity because Irish farmhouse cheeses are extraordinarily good.

Michelin star-rated chef and author of The Irish Cookbook, JP McMahon, from Galway, recently wrote a guide to Irish whiskey and cheese pairings for the Irish Whiskey Association. According to JP, “whiskey pairs well with Irish cheeses due to how the cheese acts as a foil for the robust quality of Irish whiskey.”

Before the 1980s, virtually all of Ireland’s cheese production was Irish cheddar. Since then, the range of Irish cheeses has expanded to include a broad range of cheeses, from soft to semi-hard to blue, which are based on milk produced from goats, sheep and dairy cattle.

According to JP McMahon:

If you’re tasting several kinds of cheese with several whiskeys, start with the lightest and work up towards the richest. Always finish with a blue, as the robust quality of this cheese tends to affect other cheeses. When building your cheese board, pick four different kinds of cheese (goats, cheddar, smoked, blue). Always allow the cheese to come up to room temperature before serving. The cheese should be the same temperature as the whiskey.

Below is a selection of outstanding Irish farmhouse cheeses. For advice on which Irish whiskeys to pair them with, we turned to some of the Irish whiskey industry’s most experienced brand ambassadors.

Goat’s cheeses, like St Tola or Galway Goat Farm, work well with many Irish whiskeys from single malts to lighter, sweeter single grains or blends. The tart notes in soft Irish goat cheese complement nicely the sweet fruity notes typically found in Irish whiskeys.

Lauren McMullen, Distillery Brand Ambassador at Bushmills Distillery recommends Killeen’s goat cheese. She notes:

The Killeen farm in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway opened in 1990 as a goat farm but only started producing cheese in 2004. Now producing a variety of both goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses, this semi-hard goat’s cheese is their original and the recipient of eight awards in international competitions. The cheese is clean & slightly floral with a nutty, fruity finish – perfectly matching the delicate notes of green apple & pear found in the Bushmills’ 10-year-old.

Mature cheddars, such as Hegarty’s or Coolattin, work well with both single grain and ex-bourbon barrel matured whiskeys. A light and sweet blend can also cut through the richness of the mature cheddar.

According to McMahon, “because of the subtly of most Irish hard cheddars, they work with a broad range of Irish whiskeys.” He adds that “it can be fun to line up four different whiskeys with the same cheddar and see how the cheese affects the essential character of the whiskey.”

Santina Kennedy, Food and Beverage Specialist, The Powerscourt Distillery would pair Coolattin Cheddar with Fercullen 18 YO Single Malt, noting:

As layer upon layer of rich fruit, creamy malt, cinnamon and syrupy caramel are delivered in this whiskey, the Coolattin Cheddar offers rich creaminess and deep nutty flavor to complement these layers. The fruity finish on the whiskey is enhanced as the cheddar crumbles revealing salt crystals that elevate the flavor and mouthfeel. An aged Fercullen 18-year-old Malt Whiskey is paired simply yet perfectly with this aged Wicklow Cheddar.

Classic Irish Cheddars also pair well with Irish whiskeys that have been matured or finished in casks that previously held fortified wines like Oloroso sherry or Port wine.

Billy Leighton, Master Distiller, Irish Distillers would match Gubbeen cheese with the Redbreast 12 YO Single Pot Still whiskey. He notes:

Redbreast 12-year-old and Gubbeen cheese work well together. The contrast of the initial pot still spices are contrasting with the rich creaminess of the cheese which in turn compliments the creamy character of the whiskey. The sherry influence of dried red fruits, raisins and sultanas works beautifully with the rich flavors of the cheese.

Also, consider Irish Gouda-like cheeses. McMullen recommends pairing Bushmills Black Bush with Coolea Cheese:

Made in 1979, Coolea is a cow’s milk cheese produced on the farm of Dick & Sinead Willems in Coolea Co. Cork. This Gouda-style cheese when young is mild & buttery, with the flavors intensifying with further ripening after 12 months, giving the characteristic toffee taste. The cheese is renowned for its creamy & rich mouthfeel, with hints of honey & caramel. These notes are complemented by the deep fruitiness & sherry sweetness of Black Bush.

According to McMahon, sheep’s cheese, such as Rockfield, pairs with lighter, sweeter single grains or blends. Consider pairing sheep milk cheeses with any number of Jameson expressions, especially the Triple Triple or the Black Barrel.

Brie-style cheeses are extremely popular in Ireland and pair well with a range of different whiskeys. Cheeses such as Ballylisk, per McMahon, pair well with both pot still, single grain and Irish single malt expressions.

Santina Kennedy would pair the Fercullen 10 YO Single Grain Whiskey with Wicklow Bán. This is a soft, brie-style cheese that has extra cream added to it. According to Kennedy:

Our 10-year-old Single Grain pairs beautifully with Wicklow Bán Cheese from Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese. At this Wicklow coastal farm, salty breezes from the Irish Sea wash over the pasture, giving a rich flavor to the full-fat milk and double cream used to make this cheese.

The creamy Wicklow Bán complements the honey and vanilla notes in the 10-year-old Single Grain wonderfully. To complete the ‘taste of place’ we serve it with Powerscourt Summer Blossom Honey and Pollen, from hives in the orchard that adjoins the distillery. This pairing offers layers of sweetness and creaminess complementing the taste and mouthfeel of this whiskey.

Smoked cheeses, such as Gubbeen or Knockanore, according to McMahon, also pair well with sherry-finished single malts or pot stills and with peated Irish whiskeys. Smoked cheeses are unusual in Ireland but are becoming much more common. Try Ardsallagh, a smoked Irish goat cheese, or Carrigaline, a semi-soft cow milk cheese produced in East Cork.

Blue cheeses such as Cashel Blue, Ireland’s most popular cheese, as well as cheeses like Crozier Blue, Young Buck and Kearney, pair well with Irish whiskeys – particularly single malts that are either sherry-finished or peated.

They will also pair nicely with peated or sherry-finished pot still whiskeys. The richness of the sherry notes cuts through the deep flavor of the cheese and provides a beautiful pairing that complements both cheese and whiskey.

Denise Heslin of Kilbeggan Distillery notes that:

Guests at Kilbeggan distillery can participate in an Artisan Experience which includes a Whiskey & Cheese pairing and one pairing that guests adore is tasting Connemara peated single malt whiskey together with Cashel Blue cheese. Cashel’s rich, creamy tanginess is a wonderful foil for Connemara’s delicate smokiness and smooth sweet malty taste, it’s a perfect combination of two of Ireland’s most famous products.

John Quinn, Global Brand Ambassador, Tullamore Irish Whiskey and Chairman of the Irish Whiskey Association would pair Tullamore D.E.W. 18 YO with a good brie of Cashel Blue, noting that:

The depth of flavor of these cheeses is not allowed to dominate as the whiskey asserts itself with its bold fruit and wood notes following its long-time aging in 4 different wood types. Be prepared for an unforgettable and powerful taste experience.

Irish farmhouse cheeses and Irish whiskeys are both world-class. Together they make an unbeatable combination – one well worth exploring!