Whisk(e)y Tampa Foxtrot delivers an afternoon of the world's great whiskeys

WTF, indeed.

click to enlarge Our food critic's favorite whiskey of the afternoon? The unbelievably smooth Peerless rye. - Jon Palmer Claridge
Jon Palmer Claridge
Our food critic's favorite whiskey of the afternoon? The unbelievably smooth Peerless rye.

Come with me inside this fever dream. Imagine you’re thrust into a multistory display with 50 tables offering more than 230 of the world’s great whiskeys. You’re given your own Maker’s Mark specialty tasting glass and access to unlimited bottles of chilled Acqua Panna spring water from Tuscany, Italy.

To assure there’s a chance for sobriety, six of the best Tampa Bay restaurants are serving a duo of tempting gastronomic treats each. Do you take the haute road of aged Delmonico steak, lobster and foie gras, or opt for the lure of ribs, conch fritters, wings and Hoppin’ John?

How many drams can you taste in an afternoon and still walk away?

A strategy emerges as I peruse the second annual Whisk(e)y Tampa Foxtrot’s list of offerings at the Epicurean Hotel. I focus on sipping from the bottles retailing above $100. The lone exception is a surprise, at least to me. CL profiled NJoy Spirits in March, but this was my first chance to sample the local goods. The Weeki Wachee distillery’s Wild Buck American Rye Whiskey not only has a distinct bottle and label — it’s also the real deal, and the winner of an international gold medal.

Unlike wine, I have neither the sense memory nor the comprehensive knowledge to sort out all of these wonderful whiskeys. I’m an admirer instead of an aficionado. Luckily, that means, when I return home, I’m free to drink and fully enjoy less expensive bottlings from serious distillers. This past Saturday, however, it was shoot the moon.

WTF, right?

I manage to cover a wide range in the allotted time. I start in the Epicurean’s air-conditioned ballroom and head to Table 1. It’s there that I encounter the Peerless rye, which is unbelievably smooth and made from sweet (rather than sour) mash. As a wine drinker, I love the long finish without the usual burn that comes with much prestige whiskey.

At the Wild Turkey stop, I meet Bruce Russell, grandson of master distiller Jimmy and son of Eddie, who currently runs the show. My dad distributed Wild Turkey to the White House in the JFK Camelot days; Bruce’s guess is that Jimmy knew my late father. I just know that my childhood memories include lots of Wild Turkey china and decanters. Master’s Keep Revival, the bourbon aged 12 to 15 years and finished in sherry casks, is a knockout.

The Macallan 18-year Fine Oak at $300-plus is a wonder, even for a novice like me. I need more practice. My wine-tasting prowess only takes me so far. Glenmorangie’s 18 year is a Highland single malt, too, but it’s nearly half the price. I’m frustrated because they’re all special. It’s time to find the elevator and make my way to the VIP lounge on the fourth-floor rooftop bar EDGE.

click to enlarge Rooster & the Till chef and owner Ferrell Alvarez prepares his lamb neck tostada. - Jon Palmer Claridge
Jon Palmer Claridge
Rooster & the Till chef and owner Ferrell Alvarez prepares his lamb neck tostada.

Upstairs is where I discover the Maker’s Mark folks dipping the bottoms of our tasting glasses — emblazoned with their logo — into a 400-degree vat of their signature bright red wax. While I wait for my wax to set, I plan my approach for the second-floor terrace and the pool deck, where mainly big names with lots of age and hefty price tags await. The GlenDronach 21 year is the most expensive at $355, yet the big surprise to me is London-based Compass Box.

The company showcases a stunning spectrum of blended (as opposed to single-malt) whiskies in the Scotch style, from “sweet and unctuous to big and peaty.” Similar to how I’m in search of balance and the unexpected in cuisine, this range of bottling brings those same qualities to dark spirits. The black-labeled No Name is peaty like an Islay malt, but has a ripe core of cherry, plums and spice. My favorite is the signature, Hedonism, which launched Compass Box in 2000. It’s a blended grain described on the label as “rich, vanilla, alluring.” I can understand why this place is a six-time recipient of Whisky Magazine’s Innovator of the Year.

Another surprise is the brainchild of Haven’s bar manager, Hunter Bryant: a chicken and waffles Old Fashioned. The sophisticated retreat fries a bunch of chicken and dumps it into a vat of Colonel E.H. Taylor small-batch Kentucky bourbon to infuse for four days. Then, in place of sugar cubes, some maple syrup is added — plus the required bitters — before the whole thing is funneled back into the bottle ready to pour over ice. The crisp mini-waffle, an inspired garnish the size of a silver dollar, completes this unforgettable specialty cocktail.

By the time I finish my 16th pour around the first-floor pool, I’m sweating like a pig but happy as a clam. The Epicurean and Bern’s Steak House have once again proved they’re special event masters. I’m not a whisky nerd, but I’ve tasted $2,825 worth of artisan spirits while barely scratching the surface. The 400 or so other malt-o-philes are a happy, diverse group. The best part is that proceeds from Whisk(e)y Tampa Foxtrot benefit veterans through Operation First Response, America’s Response Monument and Southeastern Guide Dogs.

I return to the ballroom to revisit Table 1. Perhaps it’s the memory of first love, but the Peerless rye lingers in my mind. I want to taste it again to confirm the initial impression.

Yep, it’s my favorite.

Maybe I’ll upgrade and spring $133 for a bottle. After all, it’s peerless — just like the afternoon. WTF, indeed.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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