Despite a well-earned reputation for being old soaks, the Social Bitches are relatively new to the world of whisky. Looking to learn – and of course drink – a large amount more, we can assure you Usquabae is a fabulous place to start. Their six-course whisky-paired tasting menu: “Islands & Highlands” is, pun intended, utterly intoxicating.
Below the West End’s well-heeled streets, Usqabae [ which means “water of life” or of course, whisky ] is a destination that offers plenty of bustle, tweed accents, and more then 400 varieties of the nation’s favourite tipple.
We arrive, relatively sober for once, and find ourselves instantly charmed. The lovely Frida shows us to one of several dining alcoves. Its ambient lighting, vaulted ceiling, and many cabinets filled with whisky give an immediate air of romance.
The cheeky appearance of a Pear & Allspice cocktail only intensifies the feeling. We each take a sip, followed by a breathless and insistent gulp. This, we announce excitedly, is the very taste of Christmas!! High praise indeed, given it’s only October.
Much of this festive vibe is provided by our first whisky: a Highland Park 12 year old single malt from Orkney. Combining smoky peat with sweet heather honey, seville oranges and winter spices, its intense flavour is fabulous beyond belief.
It’s soon joined by our first dish. Collectively known as “Wee Scottish Bites” it’s a description that somewhat undersells the delights in store: Beetroot meringue, Arancini with horseradish cream & kedgeree, and Game & pear terrine.
They’re delicious of course, but even better when paired with our heavenly cocktail. Especially surprising is the beetroot meringue, which teases between being a savoury dish and a sweet one. Then again, we’re also desperately in love with the terrine.
Soon Frida returns with a bottle of Laphroiag Lore, a gorgeous single malt from Islay. Matured in a sherry cask, this wonderful drop is intensely peaty, incredibly smooth, and has a long sweet after-taste.
One sip and we feel instantly inebriated, which by the way, really isn’t a complaint. In fact, even just inhaling the Laphroiag makes the world seem a little fuzzier.
Paired with the Atholl Estates Highland game sausage roll, and served with piccalilli puree & pickled autumnal vegetables, our tastebuds are hugely impressed.
The pastry is wonderfully soft, the venison and pigeon rich, intense, but not too gamey. Meanwhile the pickled vege offers a series of sharp and sweet contrasts to this nicely balanced dish. We could easily eat another, or three [ #fat_bastards ]
Instead, we indulge in our next whisky: the Highland Park Valknut, which owes its name to Viking folklore. It’s said, those who died an honourable death were marked with the Valknut symbol, allowing them to be spirited away to the realm of Valhalla.
So in other words, this is a heavenly whisky. One sip, allowed to linger on the tongue, confirms the rumours are indeed true. With notes of toasted vanilla, cloves, and black pepper, we find ourselves both seduced, and just wee bit tipsy. Well, maybe a lot.
But the real triumph is its pairing: the Loch Duart salmon, which has also been cured with the Valknut whisky. Served with seaweed emulsionand a wonderfully tart cucumber relish, it’s bursting with rich flavours.
It’s followed by the bold, and rather inspired experiment that is cock-a-leekie deconstructed: Corn-fed chicken supreme, leek gratin, puffed wild rice, prune & bacon jus & baby leeks.
The chicken is wonderfully moist, it’s skin lightly crisp, while the prune & bacon jus is exquisite. Though let’s talk about the ingredient that really makes this dish sing: a glass of Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve, a classic Highland whisky 200 years in the making.
With notes of butter cream, vanilla and citrus, its waxy texture coats the mouth, allowing the whisky to complement rather overwhelm the delicate tastes of the dish.
The only thing a gorgeous glass of Glen Garioch can’t do is prevent the Social Bitches from lapsing once again into drunken debauchery. Oops. There’s even talk of where best to go dancing, this could be messy …
But despite the risks, we simply cannot refuse when Frida offers us a 14 year old Tomatin single malt. Finished in casks that previously held tawny port for 50 years, the effect is magic, delivering hints of red berries, honey, and toffee.
While it’s easily dessert in a glass, it also comes with what’s possibly our favourite pairing: a deconstructed cheesecake, boasting Crowdie Highland cream cheese mousse, almond crumble, Blacketyside strawberries with their own coulis, and sorbet.
Incredibly rich, sharp, and with hints of vanilla, this reimagined sweet is legendary, especially when met with a wee dram of Tomatin. It’s soon joined by a final course of Bramble flavoured pastilles & coffee, but our adventure is far from over.
Impressed by the endless tastes and possibilities of whisky, we want to learn – and of course drink – even more. Though right this second, well, let’s just say there’s a dance floor with our names on it …
Our warmest thanks to both Frida and Usquabae for a wonderful and inspiring night!
In a pre-theatre nutshell:
Rose Street Theatre 4 minute walk / Edinburgh Filmhouse & Usher Hall 9 minutes
Lunch / Dinner / Drinks
Six course tasting menu £26 / Whisky pairings £24
Usquabae Whisky Bar & Larder
2-4 Hope Street
0131 290 2284