Angry Rant from a New Yorker: Why go to tastings for things that taste bitter?

By Ben Adler

I’m not a fan of hard liquors. To me vodka, gin and their brethren taste like a cross between some dangerous acid from chemistry class and, well, that’s about it. My one exception is whiskey from Ireland or Scotland. Of course it’s got that bitter alcoholic burn, but it also has the complex, often oaky taste that, with a seltzer to wash it down, warms me up on a Washington winter night.

So when my fellow IFAers proposed going to a Scotch tasting, accompanied by a regional tasting menu, at Commonwealth, an over-hyped, over-priced American yuppified impression of a British gastro pub, I had to go try it.

In some ways the night was an unqualified success. The food, which was soggy, bland and heavy the last time I went to Commonwealth was surprisingly good. The “stuffed olives” were actually battered and fried olives. Who knew warm olives were so delicious? “Frogs in a puff,” is apparently British for pigs in a blanket, and I do love pigs in a blanket. The English cheddar was sharp but soft. The blood pudding was disgusting, but that’s not the restaurant’s fault. The risotto cake was surprisingly scrumptious. Normally I don’t much care for risotto, but when you bread and fry anything it is good, apparently. The main course, steak and oyster pie, was delightful. A puffy pastry on top, tender steak, seemingly fresh oysters and mashed potatoes at the bottom, what’s not to like?

But the scotch tasting itself was a disappointing revelation. We were supposed to be taught how each scotch’s flavor differs by locating it on a flavor matrix with light to rich as one measurement and smoky to delicate as the other. The problem is that I never would have correctly guessed what each one is. Even after asking the instructor I’m still not sure why smoky and delicate are even considered opposites. I did learn a little bit about which scotches I do and do not like. Oban tastes too much like straight alcohol to me, for instance.

The most perplexing part was when we were instructed to ruin our dessert — an extremely sweet lemon trifle — by drinking scotch with it still in our mouth. The sweet plus alcohol to me tasted like cough syrup. Objectively the $80 per person that it came to with tax and tip was a good deal, but I think I’ve learned my lesson: don’t invest in becoming a real scotch snob, because you’ll never really know what you’re talking about.

15 responses to “Angry Rant from a New Yorker: Why go to tastings for things that taste bitter?

  1. I really can’t identify here since, bizarrely enough, Scotch was the first hard alcohol that I developed a taste for. Additionally, I am really surprised about your thoughts on Oban. To my mouth, Oban is one of the smoothest and most pleasing Scotch’s I have ever had (outside of an amazing 40 year Glenlivet that someone gave my parents as a gift years ago). Anyway, to each his own, obviously, sorry you weren’t into it.

  2. (Scotch and Commonwealth = Bad) like (Author = Good Writer)

  3. I enjoyed the scotch, but I have to agree with Ben: I can’t really recommend this tasting program. The scotch selections explored varying levels of smokiness but mostly ignored the question of peat. And the food pairings came off as a stretch: the dessert was the only such combination that didn’t seem like wishful thinking, and it frankly wasn’t all that pleasant. Bombarding your tongue with lemon and sugar, and — surprise! — all you’ll taste from the scotch is bitterness. Great. Remind me why I’m not drinking wine again?

    This was my first time eating at Commonwealth, and probably my last. I part ways with Ben on a few of the items we had. The risotto cake seemed pretty flavorless to me, and I thought the black pudding/cheddar pairing was one of the better parts of the night. But his overall point is right on. There was too much reliance on frying things, and not frying them well. And the entree was pleasant but appetizer-sized. Only two of the five courses were at all memorable, and some of the others were downright bad.

  4. Huh. Sorry to hear you guys came away disappointed. I bailed on last night because I’ve decided it’s finally time to just admit that I can’t tolerate whiskey in any of its various forms, but both of the previous times Matt and I have been to CommonWealth I’ve found it surpassingly delicious. I think the best results may come from concentrating your British pub fare in the appetizer courses and going for their excellent free range organic meats in the entrees. Dishes I have enjoyed there include: Scotch Eggs (love!), the deep fried olives mentioned above, sweetbreads (from the charcuterie plate), roast beef (really excellent quality meat, and served with amazing golden-browned turnips), and deep-fried bacon (this wasn’t marketed as a dessert but was the best dessert substitute ever).

  5. This is a matter of taste only. I love scotch!

    And f you buy a bottle of scotch or other whiskey ($30 +), it’s actually not too expensive a habit, compared to the average $10 a pop bottle of wine, which is usually done after a night or two. That bottle will last a lot longer.

    Bourbon offers “whiskey flights” of various kinds, and the staff are very knowledgable and easy to talk to.

    But if you don’t like whiskey….

  6. verplanck colvin

    seltzer to drink with your scotch/whisky? How can you appreciate the taste with all that carbonation in your mouth?

    While I concur that a food/scotch pairing dinner seems ill-suited (jumping on the bandwagon that wine and beer started), your comments seem more like an ignorant rant from a New Yorker, rather than angry. I agree with Jesse’s comment; if you think Oban is too alcohol-y, then scotch isn’t your drink. Oban is very smooth. If you’re ever in the mood to see what the other end of the flavor spectrum is, try Laphroaig (my personal favorite). Mmmm, iodine. Otherwise, stay with the mild blends of whisky, like John Powers.

    Final note: whiskey is Canadian. Whisky is Irish/Scots.

  7. I had to bail last night, but I love scotch and loathe — okay, don’t really like — Commonwealth. It’s not their fault, really, it’s just not my kind of food. Too heavy. Too impressed with its own proletarian exoticism. Too much of a mark-up because you changed the words “pigs” and “blanket” to “frogs” and “puff.”

  8. Is it because scotch isn’t made in New York City?

  9. I’ve often thought it funny that tasting courses do such terrible jobs pairing the foods with the drinks — whether the drink is wine, beer, tea, coffee, etc.

    I have never really been able to get into scotch — I just can’t deal with its peaty-ness. Give me a good Irish whiskey any day.

  10. off topic – I met DC Carla from Top Chef today at the Restaurant Show at the Javits Ctr. in NYC. She was there with Ariane. Carla was so nice and friendly. I just wanted to tell her that it really should have been her and not Josea. She was as sweet and kooky as she was on the show.

  11. Dear Ben,

    I am sorry to hear that you did not like your scotch, or perhaps your scotch vocabulary. That said, I have to ask: does your being a “new yorker” have anything whatever to do with the content of the post? Is this fact giving us readers some crucial bit of context by which to interpret the opinions you so eloquently express? If not, why do you feel the need to trumpet it in the headline of this (as every) post? Is the implication that such a socio-gustatory affront would never have occurred in your native city? Do you not realize that this empitomizes the sort of supercilious self-satisfaction that makes (stereotypical) new yorkers so irritating to the rest of us? I’m genuinely curious. I love this blog, but as far as I can tell your characteristic complaining doesn’t add a whole lot to it.

  12. Michael,
    You seem to misunderstand the title. The point is that everything I write is partially an angry rant (albeit often in a tongue in cheek way). And the joke is that I write angry rants because like many New Yorkers, I have a propensity to do so. Also, many of my posts pertain to the culinary inferiority of D.C., but there are plenty that do not.

  13. I second the Laphroaig vote. The 10 year old is my favorite, but if you like a little less fight in your whisky then the 15 year old might be more your style.

  14. verplanck colvin

    The 10 is my favorite, only because the 30 year is so ridiculously overpriced (I paid $30 for a couple fingers at a christmas party. I felt I could splurge because it was christmas and I just finished dewatering my flooded basement).

    The 30 year takes all of the flavor elements of the 10 and rounds them off. It’s all still there, the seaweed, the iodine, the smoke. But it’s just soooo mellow, it’s an amazing experience.

  15. Ben,

    Thanks for taking the time to explain your side of things. I can only say that I fail to see how exemplifying an irritating stereotype in a self-aware manner constitutes a ‘joke’. Consider how things would go if you applied this principle to stereotypes you weren’t on some level proud of (the sexist pig, the ignorant American, the racist Republican — I don’t mean to imply that you fall under these stereotypes.) There’s more to irony than pointing at the tongue in your cheek.

    And yeah, I think it should go without saying that harping on the inferiority of DC doesn’t provide a great lens through which to present your experiences (or, I would imagine, to experience them.) People come here to find ways to get more out of their culinary experiences, not less, and focusing idiosyncratically on a particular set of relative negatives doesn’t add anything to this.

    I hope you will take these comments in a constructive spirit.

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