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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Wisconsin cheese hooks up with Tennessee whiskey at the 2012 Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival
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Three of the Wisconsin cheeses that were paired with Tennessee whiskeys at the Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Pairings, as I overheard at the fourth annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival, at Monona Terrace on Saturday, are hot. Certainly the concept is everywhere -- and it seems the more unexpected the pairings, the better.

Pairings are about more than this wine goes well with this dish. Pairing events are more focused on slowing down the tasting experience. It's not about eating per se. It's about using the paired food and drink to bring out the subtle flavors within each.

I was impressed with a cheese and sake pairing session at the 2010 Wisconsin Cheese Originals fest that revamped my impression of sake -- high-end, artisanal sakes taste more like wine than mass-market sakes -- and those featured at the tasting went well with the chosen cheeses. On the other hand, I have not had a sip of sake since that session two years ago. Old habits die hard.

At this year's fest, Barrie Lynn, "the cheese impresario," presented pairings of Wisconsin cheeses with Tennessee whiskeys.

Pairings, Lynn confirms, are "a Slow Food strategy." And although when she leads a pairing session she'll give plenty of hints for bringing out the flavors, her bottom line is to "rock out and have fun."

Tennessee whiskey is milder than bourbon; look for vanilla notes, Lynn suggests. Cows milk cheeses work well with these whiskeys.

The first pairing was of Marieke's raw milk and honey clover Gouda from Holland's Family Farm of Thorp, Wisconsin, and a Prichard's Double Chocolate Bourbon Whiskey. An interesting note about the cheese -- although there's no honey in this cheese, there's a distinct honey flavor that comes from a sweet herb from Holland called honey clover.

This is a particularly rich pairing, Lynn notes. She recommends first trying the pairing with a sip of the whiskey straight; then "blooming" the whiskey by adding 8 or ten spoon-drops of water to the whiskey, which tends to further bring out the vanilla notes. I found the cheese and whiskey pairing tended to work better, or at least I perceived more of the flavor notes I was supposed to be noticing, post-blooming.

The second pairing was of Red Rock, a cheddar-blue from Roelli Cheese Haus of Shullsburg, with George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky. The Red Rock, a new cheese from Roelli, has an edible rind -- and rinds, with their distinctive tastes, may not work with the rest of your pairing, Lynn warns. On the other hand, rinds may further bring out wood notes in the whiskey from barrel aging. Basically, try a little bit of the rind and see what happens. Rock out, have fun.

The third pairing was of Sartori Reserve Espresso BellaVitano from Sartori in Plymouth, Wisconsin, with a Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey. The Bella Vitano, which Lynn described as "Italian at heart with America in its terroir" is a rich, robust, nutty cheese. After blooming the whiskey, the fruitiness of the cheese tended to come to the fore.

The final pairing took more of a dessert-like approach, with a simple mascarpone from BelGioioso of Green Bay paired with a new small batch product from Nashville, Whisper Creek Tennessee Sipping Cream liqueur. Whisper Creek is created by a young couple who are "going after Bailey's," says Lynn, although the product is not yet sold in Wisconsin -- keep a lookout for it.

It's made with charcoal-mellowed Tennessee whiskey and Wisconsin cream, says Lynn. The Whisper Creek has notes of, well, chocolate milk and chocolate-covered cherry in it, and prominent vanilla. Pouring some of the Whisper Creek over the mascarpone created something like a very mild tiramisu flavor. Lynn recommended layering these two into a parfait; the distillery goes further by pointing to a Nashville restaurant that serves a "Whisper Creek Sundae, where a blondie, smoked pecan ice cream, dark caramel and whipped cream all get kissed by the designer whiskey."

And that, I think, could easily be filed under "Have fun, rock out."

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