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An expert view of whisky's perfect tablemates

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By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

On Friday, at WhiskyFest in the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker, Compass Box's U.S. brand ambassador Robin Robinson will accept an award on behalf of John Glaser, the company's founder and whisky-maker. 2010's Malt Advocate Scotch Whisky: Blend of the Year Award is being given to Compass Box for The Peat Monster, a smoky, sultry blend.

If you're ever lucky enough to attend a whisky-blending workshop led by Robinson, then you'll discover that he knows his booze and his business - and while it may be bad form to tap another person's whisky barrel, it's fine to tap a good resource for knowledge.

What's Robinson's advice on choosing whiskies for specific settings? There are no fast rules. As Robinson observes, "Things like this are subjective." He is, however, willing to give some tips and recommendations. Here are the results of a sippable Q&A:

As an aperitif:
You're looking for something lower in alcohol, around 40 percent, with notes of light malt, citrus, honey and toffee. Consider bottles from the Speyside District or the Highlands.

Grill-side, to go with a slab of meat:
High spiciness is what you're after. "There are some wonderful Highland whiskies," Robinson says, "that have some nice spicy notes. I'd also recommend something that has a bit of peatiness to it, because that matches up very well, but nothing with overly heavy peat." (Trivia note: peat is measured in parts per million.) Look for bottles from the Isle of Islay. Pressed for specific recommendations, Robinson suggests Springbank, Oban and Compass Box's Spice Tree.

With chocolate:
"Surprisingly, peaty whiskies work quite well with chocolate," Robinson says. "Laphroaig and chocolate is superb." So do some of the larger, more full-bodied Speysides; Robinson recommends Aberlour a'bunadh. Go Irish, with Clontarf or Connemara. Want something different? Compass Box makes Orangerie, an orange-infused whisky. Your guests will never expect that - and it's gorgeous.


After dinner:
Think big. "I'd have to go back to a good peaty whisky - there is such a variety." Robinson's voice warms. "Here's a good after-dinner drink: a Bunnahabhain 18-year-old." For after-dinner tipples, he has quite a list: Aberlour, The Dalmore, Glenmorangie Signet or Sonnalta (the Sonnalta has a Pedro Ximénez cask finish).

Robinson also recommends Peat Monster Reserve, a whisky to delight any peat junkie's heart. "It's almost hard to pick a whisky that would not go well after dinner," Robinson says, grinning. "Typically, you want it a little higher in alcohol strength and something a little richer and fuller-bodied." It's almost the opposite of aperitifs.

What's Robinson's desert island whisky? Compass Box's Flaming Heart Limited Edition. "It's one of the most exquisite whiskies I've ever tasted," Robinson says, and adds that it's no longer on the market - but that's okay. "If I'm going to get stuck on a desert island, then I'm going to get stuck with a whisky I can't find, 'cause both of those are going to be unlikely."

On the subject of islands, Robinson ends with a seductive kitchen tip. Take oysters on the half-shell and drizzle them with peaty whisky: Laphroaig or Ardbeg. The peat and the oyster, combined, will take you straight to the sea - or, better still, bring the ocean to your inland plate. "The perfect pairing with oysters is Talisker," says Robinson, "because Talisker has that real, wonderful sense of maritime adventure in the palate."

Chef Mark Steuer suggests going to Dirk's Fish to get your oysters. For whisky, take yourself to Binny's. Shuck a mollusc, shimmy some single malt across the top, and pour a glass - or two, if you have company. Slàinte!

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Whisky and oysters ... now there's a salt-air pair. Once I'm off the meds, sounds like something to try.

Seductive piece, this.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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