I have a distinct familiarity with wine and cheese couplings because I am an avid wine drinker. Sometimes a person doesn’t want wine, however. Sometimes she wants a little booze, a cocktail, perhaps. So last weekend, I set out to get educated on cocktail and cheese couplings. I gathered a tasting buddy who used to sling cheese with me, and we ventured into The Underbelly in Seattle’s Pioneer Square where I knew that the owners and their employees (consisting mostly of the owners’ offspring) are cheese fanatics. I requested a tasting with five cocktails: one sweet, one sour, one salty, one bitter, and one umami. I told them to run amok with creativity. I brought most of the cheese, and we included a few that they provide (they do cheese plates!). What ensued was to be one of my favorite tastings that I have ever conducted.
The cocktail line-up consisted of mostly classic cocktails with an Underbelly spin. The libations went as follows:
Scofflaw (sweet, though one of the bartenders informed me that they don’t really do sweet at The Underbelly; thus, subtly dulcet): Bourbon, dry vermouth, fresh lemon juice, grenadine, orange bitters.
Army Navy (sour): Dry gin, freshly squeezed lemon juice, almond syrup, chilled water and garnish with lemon zest twist—ours had extra lemon.
Spanish Plane (bitter, a take on Paper Plane, but they substituted Mezcal for Bourbon): Mezcal, Amaro Nonino, Aperol and lemon juice.
Industry Sour (salty): Classic gum syrup, Fernet, Green Chartreuse, lime juice. We loved this cocktail so much, we had to order a second one.
Midnight Delight (umami): The motherload. Angostura, grenadine, dry vermouth, lemon, dry gin, and Cappalletti.
The cheese board entailed an artisan all-star cast:
Mercer Road: A raw cow’s milk Caerphilly style, handmade from Merion Park Cheese Company out of Philly. It is dry, crumbly, delicate and lemony. It reminds me of a lemon chiffon Italian merengue.
Prairie Tomme: A raw sheep’s milk Paski Sir style, lightly washed goodie from Green Dirt Farm in Missouri. It is not as firm as Paski Sir, though it has as much personality, if not more. I brought it because I knew Maddi, one of our bartenders (also a former co-cheesemonger), would love it—she has an impeccable palate.
Beaufort d’Ete: A raw cow’s, summer milk alpine cheese from Savoie, France. This classic is, in barkeep Maddi’s words, a full-course meal. The flavors morph and linger for long after the cheese has been swallowed.
Shelburne Farm’s Clothbound Cheddar: A raw cow’s milk British-style cheddar from Vermont. This one is beastly, chock-full of vegetal, cavernous, earthen nuance. This cheese is not for the cheddar neophyte.
Willoughby: A pasteurized cow’s milk, pudgy, doughy, buttery washed rind from The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont. It was perfectly ripe (a point), and it provided nice variation to the tasting.
Black Betty: A pasteurized, extra, extra aged goat gouda from L’Amuse in Holland. This is a seasonal must-have, if you can even find it. It is laden with crystal crunchies and packed with umami, browned butter, and salted caramel flavors.
Rush Creek Reserve: A raw cow’s milk Vacherin Mont d’Or-style from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin. It is a seasonal gem that is washed and encased in spruce bark. It has notes of smoked bacon, beef stock, and a little dust, with a custard texture. It’s one that you should peel off the rind, and then stick a spoon in.
Monte Enebro: A pasteurized goat’s milk enigma from Spain. The rind is washed in Penicillium Roqueforti, but the cheese remains unpierced. The result is a clean, dense, fudgy goat’s cheese with a peppery encrustment.
Roncari: Another one I brought to titillate our barkeep’s taste buds. This is a pasteurized sheep’s milk blue from Spain. It is reminiscent of Roquefort in its piquancy, salt level, and blue mold fortitude.
This cheese situation had nothing to be improved upon. If we had only tasted the cheese, the three of us would have been completely satisfied. But the cocktails in their complexities strongly contributed to this extraordinary experience.
Texturally, Merion Park Cheese Co.’s Mercer Road was the most interesting. Being delicate and crumbly on its own, as it married with said elixirs, Mercer dissipated into powder, and then into nothing, on the tongue. I have never experienced a clean-up like that with a cheese. I kept asking myself, “where did it go?”
Rush Creek Reserve, as well, had an alluring mouthfeel. The astringency from the alcohol combined with the milk fat in the cheese made the custard paté grow even more unctuous. It coated my mouth like I ate a freshly fried donut. This was a cheese that I tried twice with each drink, just to re-experience that fatty glaze.
Though Willoughby by itself was supple and lactic, paired with alcohol it solidified, and the paste and rind broke up into dry chunks that stuck to the teeth. What remained was a sweaty suggestion and a need to floss. This is a cheese that couples better with beer or cider.
Some interminglings elated me to the point that I was literally applauding. One instance was when Mercer Road buddied up with Midnight Delight—it tasted like a zippy, melted dreamcicle. As the cheese dissolved, one was left with a breath of orange. Prairie Tomme tangled nicely with the Industry Sour. The mouthful was explosively punchy and under-the-tongue tingly, but with bite of rind, it grew docile and sweet as candy. Who knew that a rind would sweeten up a cocktail?
My tasting chums and I agreed the cheeses that generated the most pleasurable experiences with these creatively crafted cocktails were Beaufort d’Ete, Black Betty, and Prairie Tomme. There wasn’t a single combination in the palette that was aversive.
Beaufort d’Ete accompanied by cocktails ignited our senses with everything from cacao, musk, sugar coated nuts, and scrambled eggs, to grapefruit, thyme, and stew. Since Beaufort has such a range of aromatics, we discovered that it plays well with curious booze combinations. When intermingled with the Industry Sour, we got notes of Sarsaparilla!
Black Betty made everything taste like confection. This cheese LOVES a good cocktail. My notes indicated a range from lemon saltwater taffy, to peanut brittle to butterscotch. This is a sexy dessert cheese, especially with the Spanish Plane. The combo was downright lascivious.
Prairie Tomme had no scruples about sussing out the best qualities in a cocktail. Though it remained true to itself with a hint of lanolin evident in each taste, it buttressed the peculiar nuances in the cocktails as well. There was an even playing field. Midnight Delight mixed with Prairie Tomme felt like I was in a dusty cave, snuggling a lamb that was nibbling cherry licorice.
I do tastings on a regular basis. My admission is that I am usually the only participant in my cheese trials. Having an opportunity to sit in a bitchin’ bar with choice music, innovative, polished cocktails, a stellar cheese lineup, and most importantly, cronies who speak my palatal language, made this tasting glitteringly memorable. Taste is rather subjective, as we all possess individual, peculiar palates. Getting reliable feedback and alternative perspectives on cocktails coupled with cheese was tremendously educational. Such is why it is beneficial to taste in groups. As it is with microbes and most everything in nature, it all really comes down to strength in numbers, doesn’t it?
The Underbelly hosts an array of events, including First Thursdays Art Walk, burlesque shows, Psychedelic Sundays with an art d.j. and more. For more information and updates, follow them on Instagram: underbellyofseattle.