Last night, Bookstore Bar tentatively revived their spirits tasting events, staring their new season with whiskies from the Kilbeggan Distilling Company. Bartender Damien Lynch greeted us thusly: “Welcome back to Third Mondays, on this first Thursday. And if that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry about it, because it won’t be on the third Monday anymore.” The bar itself was packed, elbows jockeying into position in the small space, but tasters were ushered into one of the conference rooms at back of the Alexis Hotel. Seated at long, narrow tables that formed a perimeter around room with office-bright lighting, one feels somewhere between a business conference attendee and a judge on American Idol.
Bookstore didn’t promise anything more than “food,” and $45 didn’t seem that exorbitant for four-plus pours of quality whiskey, so I expected to be fighting over a couple appetizer platters. Surprise! We were served a five-course dinner. I’d missed lunch that day, toiling in the intern mines, and I still left full.
The "Irish stew."
The “whiskey expert” David Beams was late (he’d been teaching a class on the perfect Manhattan at Ivar’s—no, really) so Lynch introduced the opening cocktail, a chilled tipperary with byrrh instead of vermouth: mild, medicinal, with no burn in the mouth and a deep burn in the belly. The first whiskey, the flagship Kilbeggan, with an unmistakable chocolate flavor (actual chocolate, not the “chocolate” regularly used to describe flat bitterness in liquor), was paired with a barley and pea shoot salad. The salad was plain and pleasantly hearty—the meaty heap of barley reminded my companion of vegetarian ground beef—as were all the dishes that followed. At first, it struck me as a little boring, but I came to see it as a perfect backdrop for the whiskies: The food bolstered, refreshed, and never vied for center stage. The braised lamb shoulder in the “Irish stew” (quotation marks theirs), paired with the Tyrconnell—a whiskey-drinker’s single malt that sets your nostrils on fire even in a tapered glass—just tasted like good lamb, simple and unadorned, floating in a comforting potato-parsley broth that left a light gloss of grease on your lips.
Beams arrived in time to explain the corn-based, single-grain Greenore—honey-sweet and “basically an Irish bourbon”—served with glazed pork, a delicate, lacey layer of fat over fortifying black-eyed peas. A few spoonfuls of sweet tea granita cleared the way for dessert, though the tea was too weak and amounted to a martini glass of sugared ice; it really could have used some other, balancing flavor, some tartness. The apple galette wore a hat of melted aged sharp cheddar, another down-home, not-too-rich touch; everyone made enthusiastic noises at its pairing with the peaty Connemara, like smoking a cigar at the end of a meal.
It’s a perfect event for a certain kind of personality, namely, mine—stick-in-the-muds who occasionally want to analyze their food in stark lighting and hear effusive, academic descriptions of their drinks with a minimum of “WOO!”s. The crowd skews older and power-suited—a downtown location and $45 price tag will do that—and there’s a sales-pitch air to the whole thing (we were given T-shirts, soapstone whiskey rocks, and Kilbeggan pins), but it was clear people were having a great time. Beams gave a lively history of Kilbeggan since 1557, as the oldest continuously operating distillery in Ireland, and every time he mentioned Prohibition, several people loudly hissed and booed. He wandered the room, answering questions and pouring everyone extra glasses from a display bottle. Bookstore/Library Bistro’s new-as-of-February chef, Chris Lobkovich (formerly of Poquitos and Mill Creek Country Club) was forced out of the kitchen near the end of the meal. Lynch announced that it had been the first tasting event under Lobkovich, who smiled nervously, still in his apron. We applauded.
Bookstore intends to have a spirits tasting about every three months, though they’re still hazy on the scheduling. Lynch hinted that the next one would be bourbon-themed; keep watch on their Facebook page.