We’re likely to make whisky dinners a habit after a recent event presented by Whiskies of the World and The City Club Whisky Society in San Francisco. City Club’s David Forsyth and WoW’s Douglas Smith hosted Ed Kohl of ImpEx Beverages who led the evening’s educational tasting of a magnificent selection of whiskies from the Ian Macleod Distillers’ Chieftain’s Range of single cask bottlings.
Now, you might be thinking to yourselves, “Whisky with dinner? That’s just crazy!” Believe us, whisky is a fantastic companion to many of your favorite foods. Pairing food and spirits takes some experience, but you already know that it works well with examples like tequila and carne asada or Grand Marnier and chocolate soufflé.
So, here’s the setup: each course of the meal is paired with two different but complimentary Scotch whiskies, each selected for its unique flavor profile and likely affinity to the flavors of the food it accompanies. As the meal progresses, our whisky expert explains the whisky making process while describing the flavors of the whiskies in front of us on the table. Diners have a unique opportunity to experiment with pairings that would never have occurred to them (who thinks to serve whisky with fish?) while learning quite a lot about a spirit category many Americans are rediscovering.
The City Club’s very own Chef Michael Munoz, formerly of Moose’s Restaurant in North Beach, put out a fantastic meal that began with a taste of pepper seared beef tenderloin, roasted peppers and blue cheese cream on toasted crostini. Our whisky experts from ImpEx paired the hors d’oeuvres with two fantastic drams – the first, an 8 year old Isle of Skye blended malt with its mellow smokiness, was the perfect start to the evening’s tasting; the second, a 31 year old bottling of Speyside malt Allt a’ Bhainne, was a spicy, warm and woody counterpoint to the rich flavors of the beef and blue cheese.
The pan seared Maine Diver Scallop dish that kicked off the sit down meal impressed us. Chef Munoz plated these beautiful scallops with Muscovy Duck Sausage Hash, Rocket greens and a delicate sauce béarnaise. The accompanying whiskies, an 18 year old Glen Moray from Speyside and a 25 year old Port Ellen from Islay were gorgeous on their own. The exquisite Port Ellen was jaw droppingly delicious and oh so fine! The Glen Moray was full of fruit and sweet oaky spice that lingered for a very long time. Both complimented the scallop and duck perfectly.
Our venison consumption has been limited to the wild variety – mule deer, elk and antelope from Idaho and Wyoming – so we were curious to taste Chef’s Denver Leg of Venison, which he plated with herbed spaetzle, a puree of English peas, an heirloom tomato sauce and black truffle jus. We were impressed by the kitchen’s expert touch with the venison, served nice and rare. Venison is naturally lean relative to beef and as such doesn’t hold up well to overcooking. Wild venison cooked well turns into shoe leather and once “ruined” must be cooked for a very long time to get it back to a point where it is chewable. This dish was delicate and perfectly tender! We loved the spaetzle, a treat we’ve prepared at home with good success but something we don’t eat often enough. If there was a disappointment in the dish, it had to be the pea puree. It wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t do anything for the venison and one of us thought it tasted as though the peas were old. We both agreed that while some preparations of greens might pair well with whisky, this pea puree did not. The flavor of the tomato sauce was barely perceptible. The course was paired with a 16 year old Linkwood, a Speyside malt of excellent character with sweet smoke and spicy cedar notes that worked beautifully with the venison. We also tasted a 14 year old Glenrothes that has been finished in a Burgundy cask (also from Speyside). We love Glenrothes whisky, and this one was fine, but the Burgundy finish was distracting and, for a few dinner guests we spoke to, confusing. They wanted wine with their venison and the Glenrothes disappointed because the wine finish is, of course, very subtle.
The evening meal ended with a dark chocolate pot de crème and chocolate dipped hazelnut short bread. The pot de crème was interesting – very buttery and dense. We thought it was delicious. The hazelnut short bread was awesome! Unlike many shortbreads, this one was crisp not sandy. We wanted a plate of them. Desert paired nicely with an 11 year old Madeira finished Dalmore that we thought to be perfectly sweet and creamy with just hint of chocolate and smoke. It’s a warm, sunny malt from the Scottish Highlands that works nicely with the added richness of the Madeira.
Our compliments to the Chef and the whisky makers! You’ve inspired us to think more broadly about food and beverage pairings. To those of you who are still scratching your heads, we say let go of your inhibitions and give it a try. How bad can a great steak paired with a great glass of Scotch taste? We think you’ll love them together.