Is there a season for scotch drinking? Should there be? Maybe a national holiday, called, oh, I don’t know…National Scotch Drinking Day? Maybe just simply “Scotchy Scotch Days.” If there were such a celebration, the fest known as Scotch & Wild Game, held on April 28th, at the West End Tavern (Pearl, between 9th and 10th Streets), would be an ideal way to commemorate it.
For starters, the West End Tavern flat kicks butt. It was the reigning king of rooftop decks for several years starting in the late 80’s, offering unobstructed views of the Flatirons and sensational people watching. It was so choice that the line of folks waiting to sit on the deck snaked down the staircase to the first floor. Eventually, some million-dollar condos were built next door, obstructing most of the view, though a few tables on the southern edge of the deck retain jaw-dropping vistas. One good result; the lines are much shorter these days, and as a Big Red F restaurant, you don’t have to worry about quality or good times.
And they have great peeps: West End’s easy-going and charismatic bar manager, Caroline Johnson, a Tennessee native, has been at the West End for 4 years, and managing the bar for the last year plus. “We earned a reputation as a great bourbon and whiskey bar,” but scotch was yet to be fully tapped. In the last year, though, scotch consumption “has gone way up.” Likely, the boost was thanks in part to her passion and knowledge about adult beverages, and in part to events like this.
Which brings us back to the Hebrides Hooch; the Glasgow Gulp; the Peaty Punch…aka, scotch. Johnson made sure that all of us hungry, thirsty, spirit-seeking folks were comfortably seated in the covered deck on the north side of the tavern. Since Boulder’s weather is often monotonously perfect in late April, this day’s iron-colored clouds and wind gusts were a welcome change, and made the tasting of hearty game and ancient-ish scotch all the better.
Arrayed for our viewing pleasure were a gauntlet of bottles from Highland Park and Macallan, rows of sparkling snifters and…a dude in a kilt and pink shirt. What? That turned out to be Buz Dabkowski, who basically travels around making sure that folks know about scotch: history, recipes, legends and drinking techniques. He looks like a scotch expert, with his bushy walrus mustache, ruddy complexion and…well…the kilt. They make an odd team: Johnson, with her big smile, clear, blue eyes and ease with customers; and Buz, reminiscent of a country preacher with his fire, brimstone, and fact-filled scotch sermon. And yet, they share a passion for spirits, culture and history, and when they collaborate the results are something uniquely special.
The festivities began with a scotch cocktail, composed of Famous Grouse scotch and ginger beer, served with a charcuterie of cheese, olives and meats. The drink is light and only slightly sweet; well suited for the rich antipasti platters. When was the last time you drank a mixed cocktail with scotch? Me either, but I have to say: not bad at all. They even demonstrated the tank-like copper contraption that makes giant ice spheres. Why? It’s the way to maximize cooling while minimizing dilution, but regardless, it’s a pretty cool gizmo and conversation piece.
The next course was an opulent stack of maple brown sugar smoked ham, and cinnamon orange smoked duck. These amazing smoky slabs of toasted flesh were paired with a Blood & Sand cocktail, so lip-smacking that the recipe should be a guarded treasure. But Johnson not only shared the recipe she included her special take on the drink, which is to use Luxardo Morlacco Cherry Liqueur. Another successful pairing, and an even better scotch-tail.
Point of Order: if you drink out of sequence, Buz lets you have it. The man is evangelical about this sauce, what to know about it, what to think about when smelling it, and when to sip it in conjunction with the food pairings. There is a certain protocol to drinking scotch, one learns. Disregard his advice and you risk public censure. I was pretty careful to obey his plan…though after a few scotches, things like “protocol” and “sequence” took a back seat to mouth warming daydreams of nectar and craggy bluffs.
As the festive afternoon moved along at a comfortable, scotch-drinking pace, Buz’s lecture turned to his syllabus of songs. At first, the songs were slightly mournful and filled with Celtic sadness about the price of scotch, but eventually silliness prevailed—let’s not think of scotch too seriously, folks—and we sang the following: Ring ding diddley I diddley I Oh, Ring ding diddley I Oh. You can’t be overly somber and still sing Ring ding diddley.
Following the Ring Ding sing-along, Chef Chris Blackwood, the wizard behind the food we were devouring, spoke for a few minutes. Though clearly not one to seek the spotlight, Blackwood’s passion for food roils out of him like smoke from a barbeque pit. Speaking of smoke, he talked about the peat (he calls it dirt!), the game, and the smoker, which is one of his most effective power tools. The man is a smoke master, and the crowd dug it.
The serious tasting and concentrated thought came with the next 2 courses. The first paired Highland Park 12 year old and Macallan 15 year old with pastrami cured tuna and peat smoked salmon; and the last was a collection of two 18 year old (again, Macallan and Highland Park) scotches with boar ribs (recipe here) and lamb brisket painted with scotch whiskey barbeque sauce. A description of the sometimes subtle, sometimes intense flavors of food and spirit so incredibly refined and lovingly-made would fail to do them justice…and we all want justice, right? Just know that the boar ribs, rubbed with brown sugar, salt and whiskey and marinated for 5 hours, and the salmon smoked with real Scottish peat were not the work of someone who doesn’t care a great deal about you enjoying the hell out of your food. Same goes for the scotches: created from ridiculously special solitary barley, then mellowing patiently in sherry oak or bourbon oak barrels from the time your child was born until she graduated from high school. The chow and the booze were sublime, and fashioned by craftspeople at the top of their game.
Although the scotch butter ice cream sandwich sounded a little better than it was— it had an insanely delicious act to follow— it was still tummy-rubbing good. As the grey light slowly faded and the last happy scotch fan eased down the West End stairs, I looked back to see Johnson and her crew merrily chatting while restoring and restocking the upstairs bar. Yeah, there ought to be a national holiday devoted to scotch. And enjoying it at the West End would be the way to do it up right.
© Allan Parr, 2012, All Rights Reserved