One of the events that will forever be etched in my memories is Diageo’s Spirited Dinner I attended at Commander’s Palace. Each year during Tales of the Cocktail, one night is reserved for spirits companies to have a dinner and spirit (or cocktail) pairing at a New Orleans restaurant. Several of these happen all across New Orleans. When the Tales schedule went up, there were a few Spirited Dinners I had my eye on. Some of these are invite-only, and some require a ticket purchase to attend. The one at the top of my list was put on by Diageo. They collaborated with Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory McPhail to come up with a dinner that paired with some of their 2015 Special Release Scotch Whiskies.
I recently sat down with Chef McPhail to talk about the dinner in a little more depth. Here are some highlights from our chat.
“For us, cocktails here in New Orleans are such a huge part of our culture. At Commander’s, it’s a big deal as well,” said McPhail. Food and wine pairings are common for Commander’s Palace, but this is their first whisky pairing. “To have an opportunity to do this with some top shelf, really rare Scotches is a thrill.”
McPhail told me he is normally a rum guy, but he enjoys all spirits. So when Diageo initially contacted him about a whisky dinner, he jumped at the chance. “They sent me 9 or 10 amazing whiskies (the 2015 Special Releases). Tasting some of the flavors, be it chocolate or leather or brine, or what have you, it was pretty neat to create a menu based on what I tasted at the bottom of the glass.”
We talked about the third course, a Cypress & Sugarcane Smoked Breast of Duck paired with Brora 37 year. “I found the Brora 37 very unique.” McPhail recalled. He wanted to pair those flavors with something special. He said of the meal, “We brined the duck breast in molasses, brown sugar, red chili flakes and salt, then smoked them in cypress that we had upstairs. A buddy of mine is a woodworker, and thinks the cypress was milled in the late 1800s.”
A twinkle hit McPhail’s eyes when the conversation turned to history. He gleefully continued, “Commander’s Palace was built in 1893 and that time NOLA was expanding very rapidly. They cut down the cypress forest in what is present-day Mid City, around Bayou St. John. A lot of that wood went towards building houses in the late 1800s. We estimate a lot of those trees to be around 400 years old when they were cut down. My buddy took that wood out of attics in Mid City after Hurricane Katrina. That wood’s been sitting in my buddy’s shop for 11 years drying. He saved me all the cypress from that time period specifically for Commander’s Palace, and that’s what we used to smoke the duck.”
Then I asked about the beef short ribs, and its Cuban tobacco infused sauce. “I knew I had the dinner coming up, and I had the unique opportunity to travel to Cuba,” he said. “I’m a geek for food history, especially love Spanish food. We had the opportunity to see the largest settlement outside of Spain in the new world. There were already 30,000 people living in and around Havana by the time the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. I brought back a bunch of Cuban cigars, and one was reserved for the sole purpose of being in the sauce for the short ribs for the Diageo dinner. So that was cool.”
Finally, Chef McPhail talked about the chocolate dessert paired with Dailuaine 34 Year. “I think whisky is so complex. There are so many nuances. It’s a really unique, artisanal product. Chocolate is the same. So I chose six chocolates from around the world from some of the leading chocolate producers. We did a tasting of all of them, and I wrote down the nuances like I did originally for the whiskies. We laid them left-to-right on the flavor profile. As you taste the whole thing and taste the different scotches that were left, I wanted people to really get a flight in the progression of flavor.”
When I asked about his overall feeling of the dinner, he smiled and said, “I walked away feeling very proud. We’ve never done a scotch dinner like this before. It’s Tales of the Cocktail! We have all these important friends coming in. For us to be able to do a menu like this plus have them bring very special whiskies is just really really cool.”
His favorite whisky of the night? “The Cally 40 year really stood out to me.” Good answer Chef… Good answer.