In their splendid 1975 philippic The Taste of America, John and Karen Hess condemned the longstanding American practice of taking cocktails before dinner. They singled out Scotch whisky for particular scorn, maintaining that it “smells like crushed bedbugs” and would “coat the palate with a lingering taste that quarrels with the food to come.”
One wonders what the Hesses would have thought of the Compass Box Whisky Dinner held Wednesday night at the Old Village Post House in Mt. Pleasant, which not only served Scotch before dinner but paired each course of the meal with a different Compass Box whisky.
Of course, the Scotch that the Hesses so loathed in the 1970s is nothing like the carefully crafted blends created by Compass Box’s master whiskymaker, John Glaser. These latter spirits, the London-based firm maintains, will surprise not only whisky lovers but food lovers as well.
To prove it, they teamed up with Forrest Parker, the Post House’s Chef de Cuisine, and Patrick Emerson, the Wine and Beverage Director for Maverick Southern Kitchens, to craft a five-course, scotch-paired menu.
The evening started with a classic highball: Great King Street whisky on the rocks with a generous amount of soda. It was a refreshing sip after coming in from a warm Mt. Pleasant evening, and it was also the opening argument in Compass Box’s case in defense of whisky as a versatile spirit that should be served and enjoyed in many different ways.
The first course brought a pair of tasty bites: a light, crispy fried oyster atop a spoonful of aioli and a piece of smoked trout resting on a small buttermilk Johnnycake, topped with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of blood orange-infused trout caviar. You would think such light preparations would be totally overwhelmed by a sip of Scotch whisky, but the Asyla pairing — a golden blend of grain and malt whiskies — was soft, sweet and perfectly accommodating, especially against the subtle smokiness of the trout.
That set the stage for a tour through the full range of flavors possible from different blends of whiskies. Chef Parker, who’s been on board at the Post House for about nine months, really stepped up with all four courses, creating dishes that mingled and bonded with each of the different whiskies, so that food and spirit built upon and enhanced each other’s flavors.
The second course’s boiled peanut soup tucked whole red peanuts into a rich, smoky ham hock broth with a big shard of crisp candied ham floating on top. It brought out a beautiful progression in the paired Oak Cross “vatted malt” blend, with the sweetness of the whisky emerging first then a rush of spice following in behind.
For the third course, Parker drew inspiration from two legendary Tennessee fried chicken joints — Prince’s in Nashville and Gus’s in Memphis — to create a chicken duo, one piece hot and spicy, the other extra crispy. They were served over a spoonful of sweet, tangy sorghum baked beans laced with bits of burnt ends and a sprinkling of “oysters” made from battered and fried sweet corn kernels. The paired spirit was the warm, complex Hedonism, a blend of grain whiskies made from corn, wheat, and barley and aged between 13 and 28 years each.
The last and heaviest course was paired with Peat Monster, a bold blend of three single malt Scotches that has every bit of the powerful peat-smoke aroma of a Lagavulin or similar single malts, but with more layers and complexity. It came alongside a pork course that layered a dry-rubbed baby back rib and a slice of pork belly over a bed of creamy pencil cob grits and okra ratatouille with a red eye reduction spooned over the top. The big smoky flavors of the pork and redeye were a fine match for the whisky’s earthy peat notes and a nice finale to dishes that ran the gamut from light and crisp to dark and smoky.
Each of the courses was introduced by host Mark Pruckner, Compass Box’s American rep, who explained the story behind each pairing and, in the process, took diners through a crash course on Scotch whisky. He covered the basics — such as the difference among blended, single malt, and vatted grain whiskies — as well as more advanced subjects, like why Compass Boxes’ offering is paler than most Scotches (no caramel coloring) and might look cloudy when served on ice (because it’s not chill filtered).
For dessert, a tulip glass of Orangerie — blended Scotch infused with orange zest and spices — proved that whisky could take the place of an after-dinner liqueur, especially when served with a superbly creamy icebox pie with a steel-cut oak crust as thick and rich as an oatmeal cookie.
All told, it was an eye-opening and palate-pleasing event. I was a little skeptical going in that Scotch — even good, hand-blended artisanal Scotch — would have the depth and complexity to enhance instead of just accompany a five-course meal. But the Compass Box whiskies displayed a remarkably broad range of flavors, and Parker and Emerson showed a deft hand in matching them with complementary Southern ingredients. And it may have convinced a few diners to consider forgoing the wine and breaking out the bottles of good whisky for their next dinner party.