Dinners at which a sommelier pairs a different wine with each course are common these days. But not long ago, I went to a tasting with a twist: The food was matched with six single-malt Scotch whiskies, each with its own fragrance and flavor.
The tasting took place in Pennsylvania Dutch country at The Farmhouse Restaurant in Emmaus. Bringing insider knowledge -- and a little poetry -- to the proceedings was the guest speaker, John Hansell, editor of Malt Advocate, a magazine for whisky aficionados.
Single-malt scotch is a curious thing. Most of it is distilled in a few villages in Scotland using ancient techniques. Each whisky is made in a single distillery from three ingredients: barley, yeast, and local water that picks up flavors by passing through heather and peat bogs. The water-soaked barley -- or malt -- is dried in a kiln over a fire that includes peat, giving the whisky a smokey flavor. It's aged, sometimes for 21 years or more, in oak barrels that previously held bourbon or sherry. The names of the distilleries add to the mystique: Glenmorangie, Bruichladdich, and Talisker, to name a few.
While this style represents less than 10% of all Scotch sold in the U.S., it has been gaining popularity over the past decade. Consumption of single-malt Scotch grew 7% last year, while overall Scotch consumption shrank a bit, according to Adams Beverage Group, a spirits market researcher.
FOR PEAT'S SAKE
At the farmhouse tasting, the whisky and food were extremely well matched. Pairings started with raw oysters and a couple of ounces of 12-year-old Old Pulteney, which had a fresh tangy smell and tastes of caramel and vanilla. Next came a puree of leek and potato with 10-year-old Auchentoshan, triple-distilled to make it more refined. A 21-year-old Glengarioch -- smokey to "almost leathery," said Hansell -- accompanied a chèvre tart.
For the main course, we were served salmon filet on braised leeks and mussel herb champagne sauce with 15-year-old Bowmore. Hansell pulled out the stops when describing the Bowmore, which comes from an island, Islay. Imagine, he said, that you go out on a fishing boat off Islay, fall into the net as you're pulling in a catch of fish, and dry out in front of a peat fire on the beach. "It's smokey, peaty, seaweedy, briny," he said. Dessert was warm chocolate bread pudding with 12-year-old Glenfarclas, which tastes of sweet sherry.
The Farmhouse plans to repeat its Scotch-tasting extravaganza next June, on the Friday before Father's Day (610 967-6225). If you go, make a weekend of it and stay at Heritage House, a bed and breakfast in town. It's a great getaway less than two hours' drive from New York or Philadelphia. Plus, your taste buds will thank you.
By Steve Hamm