A scotch tasting doesn’t usually include a meal. Maybe some dry crackers between sips, but hunger sharpens the senses, so purists avoid a big feed with their single malts.
But in the frost bitten, spirit-riddled mountains of Northern New Hampshire, when it’s so cold the radio’s announcing school closings, and the night has draped itself like a leaden blindfold over the crags and precipices, and you’re pushing on up to Littleton to do your drinking, your thoughts depart from protocols of food and formality. And finding a Scotch tasting paired with a tapas-style six-course dinner north of the Notches in the middle of January is not as surprising as it seems like it ought to be.
Littleton is north of Franconia Notch, in the White Mountains. It’s gaining the reputation of a Renaissance town, a community steeped in arts and culture and a landscape rooted deep in New Hampshire’s history. The town boasts some notable attractions, including the candy counter at Chutter’s, recognized by Guinness as the longest in the world, and a bronze statue of hometown author Eleanor H. Porter’s most famous character, “Pollyanna” on the front lawn of the town library.
The night I arrived at Littleton’s Beal House Inn, the thermometer was down around 20 below and sightseeing was not on my to-do list. I was there for Scotch and food.
Jose Luis and Catherine Pawelek bought the Beal House about three years ago, migrating north from Southern Florida to translate a more-than-two-decade marriage and career in Florida and Caribbean hospitality into a life of New England inn keeping.
Jose Luis, an Argentine with a lilting accent, a ponytail and a vigorous grin, met me at the door. He’s the inn’s chef and chief handyman. His wife Catherine, who was born in the Netherlands, makes the desserts, and handles the books and the media.
Between the two of them they speak about seven languages, and perhaps another private language of affectionate quips and old jokes. It’s clear after talking to them only a little while they really like what they do, and each other.
In a dining room rustic with rough wood beams and boards, elegant with white linen and legions of glittering glasses filled with generous pours of fine single malt Scotch, Catherine introduced me to our head taster, Nigel Manley, who with his wife Deb, manages the Rocks Estate just up the road in Bethlehem.
Nigel is from England, and was introduced to fine Scotch at 16. He loves to hunt, fish and sip whiskey. He tells very funny stories about all three. Bearded, gimlet-eyed and endowed with an expansive laugh, he seems like a character invented by a travel writer specifically to host a Scotch tasting, which is probably why Catherine and Jose Luis recruited him.
They’d been running wine tasting dinners for a while, and the events had become so popular they sold out sometimes before they were officially announced. Even in the shoulder seasons, the Beal House does good business. It caters to locals with as much energy as it expends on tourists, and the locals in Littleton are a sophisticated bunch, well-traveled, cultured and eager for this sort of diversion.
I was at the table with Nigel, Deb and a few of Nigel’s pals. This meant I got first-hand tasting notes, as well a stories about moose hunts gone awry, suicidal birds and the foibles of Christmas tree farming.
The dinner got under way with a slide presentation in which Nigel toured us around the distilleries of Isley. He then explained some of the basic characteristics of the single malt. For one, it’s made with malted barley, no corn or wheat added. Another key trait: “Single malts don’t get better in the bottle — so once you’ve poured them, you might as well drink them!” I’m still not sure what this means, but the raucous and approving response to the quip indicated well the mood of Nigel’s audience: ready to imbibe. And drink we did; and we devoured six delicious courses cooked up by Jose Luis to complement the professional tasting notes of the six whiskeys.
By the way, Chef Jose Luis is quick to reject the South Florida fusion label. His cooking, he says, “is global cuisine, without boundaries.” It’s a style that’s working for him: the inn was rated one of the “Top 15 Inns with Chef” and “Top B&B with Best Evening Cuisine” by Arrington’s B&B journal.
Our first whisky was Laphroaig, tasting notes include salty, seaweed and oily. Jose Luis served us smoked duck slices drizzled with a sweet Vidalia onion and fig confit. We moved on to a dry, spicy, smoky Dalmore Cigar Malt, paired with lollipop lamb chops, wood-grilled and finished with a Cointreau apricot glaze over creamy polenta. Then a smoky, raisin-sweet Glen Garioch tasted against a smoked trout cake in balsamic plum glaze. Jose Louis used bok choy tossed with raisins to bring out the fruit in the whisky.
By the halfway mark, several things were becoming clear (others slightly fuzzy). The pours were generous. The professional tasting notes often included some flavors so subtle or so weird that I couldn’t have discerned them, or even imagined them, without the cheat sheet: melon balls, tarry rope, boiled sweets, burnt sticks, Lapsang Souchong tea. Nigel’s reasoning as to why the heresy of tasting Scotch with a meal was a good idea was sound: the conviviality, the opportunity to linger over each glass, the unique character of Jose Luis’ dishes and their potent effect on the palate when combined with a hugely complex liquor ... I would choose this sort of experience any time over the more staid (and hungry) atmosphere of a traditional tasting.
We tucked into the fourth course, Arborio Risotto blended with fontina and havarti cheese topped with a trio of wild mushrooms, paired with a cedary, malty, woody Highland Speyside called Ardmore. Then an amazing Balvenie Single Barrel Limited Edition (one of only 350 bottles) with notes of chocolate, cocoa, toffee and sherry. This Jose Luis matched with red deer venison slices in an espresso, Kahlua reduction over a jalapeno infused sweet potato mash. The sweet undertone of the Scotch teamed up with the Kahlua and head-butted the spicy sweet potatoes. Like the Bolshoi Ballet playing rugby in my mouth. Heaven.
In that contest between spicy and sweet, sweet won as the meal climaxed in a beautifully wrought homemade caramel Mascarpone cheese flan, served with ginger caramel ice cream, paired with Auchentoshan, a rare lowland Scotch noted for its gingery finish.
The night had crept away as we ate, and it was after ten when the last glasses were drained and pictures were snapped and the company began to depart, to their cars, to cabs or to their rooms in the inn. I was neither overly full nor overly drunk, but felt just perfectly comfortable regarding both conditions. It was the sort of mood in which you could linger a long time, and I was tempted to sit at the bar and try one of 252 martinis on the Beal House menu (they’re hoping for a Guinness Book record), but discretion, valor, blah, blah, blah. I went to bed instead, in a warm little suite in the 171-year-old house, and if the alleged resident benevolent ghost tromped up and down the stairs in the night, I never heard a thing. NH
The Beal House Inn and Restaurant, Littleton
This article appears in the March 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine