MARCO ISLAND — Initially, the whole idea seemed a little strange.
The “Gentleman’s Scotch Dinner (with the Ladies)” held Wednesday evening at Kurrents restaurant in the Marriott was dedicated to pairing Scotch whisky, primarily single malts, with appropriate food items to create a gourmet dining experience and perhaps, in the long run, build awareness and sales for Chivas Bros. distilleries and their Glenlivet brands. But for many, even dedicated drinkers of the Highlands’ distilled essence, Scotch is typically downed before the meal, which is then accompanied by wine. That is, if further alcohol is desired, and to be fair and accurate, it generally is.
Well, surprise. It turned out that Scotch whisky makes a great drink to go with one’s meal, if one has the right meal, and the right guide to lead one through the courses. The meal was six courses of exotic and savory dishes, unless you count the frozen “old fashioned” cleanser between the Dover sole meuniére with noisette butter and the bone-in prime strip with olive oil-poached porcini and green peppercorn sauce.
The guide was Glenlivet brand ambassador Craig Bridger, who flew in from his Manhattan base for the occasion. Although he apologized up front for not being a Scottish native, clearly this was a man who loves and understands whisky.
After an initial amuse-bouche of tobacco-infused-whisky organic Irish salmon with Devonshire double cream, which at about the size of a dice cube was tiny enough to inspire nervous glances toward the breadbasket, Bridger started the diners, and drinkers, off with a 12-year-old Glenlivet single malt whisky.
“Who here has tasted the Glenlivet 12?” he asked, and most of the hands around the tables at Kurrents went up. Bridger then invited them to take a new, second look at the whisky, starting with their noses. “Nosing” or sniffing is key to appreciating fine whisky, he said. “Eighty percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell.”
Diners were offered their glasses of Scotch either neat straight up or with ice, which consisted of one “ginormous” ice cube, as Eric Wall of Southern Wine & Spirits, the local distributor, put it. If one drank it neat, and despite Bridger’s statement that “it’s your whisky, enjoy it any way you want,” one sensed the real purists would eschew ice, he recommended adding a few drops of water to “open up” the flavors.
“Take a small sip, kind of chew on it,” he coached, speaking of “fruity, honey, vanilla notes, wood spices, an incredibly creamy taste,” rivaling the most flowery of wine-snob jargon. “Whisky nerds can be just as bad as wine nerds,” he said.
The 12-year single malt was paired with smoked quail and black truffles, accompanied by Highland cottage cheese and a diminuitive fried quail egg. The portion size on that and the braised lamb shank that followed, along with haggis and black barley soup, made it clear the diners would not leave hungry. This course was paired with a15-year-old single malt, also from Glenlivet. The food pairings were created by Kurrents executive chef Juan Martinez, chef de cuisine Tsvetan Vladimirov and senior sous chef Fernando Vazquez.
The whisky got darker and more intense as the dinner progressed. Bridger related how the spirits, containing nothing but water, malted barley, and yeast, are aged in oak barrels, previously used for American Bourbon whiskey or Spanish sherry. And the spelling, it turns out, is different only Scotch, say purists, should be spelled whisky without the ‘e.’
The piece de resistance was the 21-year-old Glenlivet, called the “Archive,” although the company does sell a 25-year version as well, some of which reputedly went down with the Titanic. The Archive and the buttery Dover sole were, as Bridger pointed out, “a match made in heaven.”
Preceding the last food course of English sweet black pudding and date gelato, the 18-year-old Chivas Regal blend was served in a Rob Roy, a mixed cocktail, leaving some asking why pour all that vermouth into perfectly good Scotch.
Afterward, diners were invited to enjoy, if they liked, handrolled cigars made on the spot by Corey Alvarez of Burn by Rocky Patel.
“Cigars and Scotch that’s why I’m here,” said Phil Dolcemascolo of Naples. Marco Islander Ron Jump, who came with his wife Linda, a non-Scotch drinker and said he drank her whisky as well as his, said the best thing about a dinner like this one is the camaraderie, savoring a shared pleasure.
Kurrents manager Dennis Rowley, despite not having had a drop of alcohol, got into the spirit and sang an a capella rendition of “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” to a round of applause. Bridger accepted in good spirits the good-natured gibes about “a hard day at the office” and the tough job he has, and replied he envies those living in Southwest Florida, away from the “polar vortex” weather he will be returning to, which was severe enough to keep some northern guests from being able to attend.