Japanese Pair – Nikka Coffey Malt & Xiao Long Bao Dumplings

After a long break (I was on a strict whisky-only diet) we’re back with the latest instalment of our Japanese Pair series, a range dedicated to pairing the very best Japanese whiskies with delicious dishes. So far we’ve paired the Yamazaki 18 with some gorgeous Wagyu beef, the Hibiki 21 with nigiri sushi, and the floral Hakushu with tempura.

Today we’ll be venturing out of Japan and pairing the popular Coffey Malt from Nikka with Xiao Long Bao, the famed steamed soup dumplings from Japan’s bigger neighbour, China. Before we jump into the pairing, here’s a short introduction to both the whisky and the food.

Nikka Coffey Malt

Nikka’s Coffey range, which now includes a gin, vodka, and grain whisky, is one of the most popular Nikka ranges across the globe. The name comes from a man called Aeneas Coffey, who invented the column still, or continuous still, which is used today to distil vodka, gin, and grain whisky. In the case of malt whisky, pot stills are used throughout the world, especially in Scotland, as the regulations of Scotch whisky make the use of a pot still a necessity.

In Japan, where the rules surrounding whisky are more relaxed, there is more room for experimentation. Here, Nikka has produced a malt whisky in a column, something unheard of in most countries. The result is a light, sweet expression bursting with exotic fruits and creamy vanilla. The Coffey Malt was recently named the “2018 Japanese Whisky Of The Year” in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and has grown popular with drinkers, especially at its highly affordable price point, which Japanese whisky isn’t very known for.

Xiao Long Bao Dumplings

The small dumplings, filled with pork and soup, have grown popular across the globe, aided by expanding chains like Taiwanese Din Tai Fung, which now has stores in Europe, USA, Australia, and all around Asia.

The dumplings are named after the Xiao Long, bamboo steaming baskets, used to prepare and serve them. The thin skin makes the dumplings lighter than their thicker cousins. Within, the traditional filling is steamed pork along with some soup. When served, the dumpling is usually pierced, in order for the liquid to exit and cool, before eating them. The secret to getting the soup inside the dumplings is adding meat aspic to the skin along with the meat. When the dumplings are steamed, the aspic melts into a soup, resulting in the hot, juicy filling.

The Pairing

While the dumplings are usually dipped in soy sauce, ginger, or vinegar, you’ll want to have them plain for the pairing. Too many flavours can overwhelm the palate.

Grab a spoon and chopsticks, pierce the little bun, and take in all the rich, soft flavours. The silky, smooth notes from light skin, paired with the delicate umami flavours from the meat and soup, deliver a well-rounded culinary experience.

A sip of the Nikka Coffey Malt takes the experience further. The whisky brings a quality similar to bourbon, with vanilla, honey, and pastries, all of which help bring out the soft flavours of the meat and skin. The Coffey Malt features notes of pineapple, mango, and a hint of playful spice. Several dumplings in, the whisky helps cut the mouth-coating, richness of the meat and dough and freshen up the palate. Try adding some ginger and soy sauce to your dumplings and see if the whisky’s spice is complemented by the ginger or overwhelmed. Look for new notes and flavours through the pairing. Personally, I found the fruit notes in the whisky intensified with the dumplings as a platform.

There you have it, a fun, colourful pairing, bringing two great cultures together. If you can’t find a soup dumpling restaurant near you, look for frozen varieties, which should be available at most major supermarkets chains around. Enjoy!