The potato chip is one of those happy accidents of the culinary world. The story goes that chef George Crum was cooking his haute cuisine one evening in 1853 at Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York. Fashionably, Crum offered french fried potatoes on the menu. When a guest sent them back to the kitchen, not once but twice, proclaiming they were cut too thick, Crum had enough. He sliced and fried the potatoes thin and crisp in a fit of rebellion. As it turned out, the crispy potatoes were a hit and became a specialty known as Saratoga chips. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to begin bagging the chips, and in 2015 potato chips racked up an impressive $7.5 billion in sales.
The humble potato chip continues to set trends. According to food industry analyst Phil Lempert of Supermarket Guru, flavors are becoming more varied, exotic, and adventurous; witness the recent explosion of sriracha chips. Lempert predicts that while the popularity of spicy seasonings will remain high, consumers will seek greater balance and complexity, adding that smokiness will grow alongside spiciness. These bold flavors seem destined for bold drinks. “People are looking for different snacks and new experiences,” says Lempert, “And pairing with drinks is now a major part of that.”
While the combination of beer and chips has been extensively field tested, change the beverage to bourbon or Irish whiskey and the pairing becomes a little less intuitive, but no less delicious. With a basic potato chip, consider the addition of a bit of water or an ice cube to your whiskey. This mellows the punch of the spirit and refreshes the palate between bites, a must for any drink destined to accompany salty and fatty foods. The generally lighter character of many Canadian and some Japanese whiskies lends itself to basic potato chip flavors.
Dial up the seasoning a bit, to a barbecue or jalapeño-flavored chip, and the glass you drink from comes into play. Even if you add a decent dose of water to your spirit, a closed glass, like a snifter, will concentrate whisky flavors and aromas to the point that they will clash with the taste of the chips. A wide-mouthed tumbler will diffuse the whisky’s aromas and lessen the intensity of the drink.
As the chip flavoring gets stronger still, as in a Lay’s Flamin’ Hot, bourbon or straight rye become the superior picks. Add a drop of cola to the whiskey and the touch of extra sweetness rounds out and brings forward the spice-calming caramel flavor of the spirit.
Lempert also suggests that another hot movement is toward beet and other root vegetable chips, like those offered by the popular brand Terra, which he predicts will double in popularity by 2020. These tend to be less salty and somewhat sweeter than traditional potato chips, qualities that lend themselves well to peated Highland whiskies. Their dry but gentle smokiness contrasts with the sweetness of the chip in a delicious and palate-restorative fashion.
Finally, Lempert’s predicted popularity of smoky flavors bodes well for Islay whiskies, since the peatiness of a Lagavulin or Kilchoman, or even a relatively mild-mannered Bowmore will complement smoky chip flavors.
With a bounty of pairing options, whisky drinkers can be content to sit back and let the chips fall where they may.
3 Whisky and Chip Combos to Try
Suntory Toki + Ruffles Original
The light, floral nature of this blend blossoms when a little water is added, partnering well with the character of Ruffles Original and providing a refreshing counterpoint to the chip’s saltiness.
Oban 14 year old + Terra Sweets & Beets
An earthy chip with a fair degree of sweetness, the Terra mix of sweet potato and beet pairs well with fruitiness of the whisky, held in harmonious check by a whiff of smoke and a spicy finish.
Knob Creek Straight Bourbon + Kettle Jalapeño Chips
The moderate spicy heat of these chips means there’s no need for an ice cube or drop of cola here; just a wide-mouthed glass and the pleasing combination of two bold and complementary flavors.