As locals, we are all pre-conditioned to place the caliber of food and beverage at a resort in a class just above that of a school cafeteria. For the most part, we are not wrong in doing so. You pay $9 for frozen chicken fingers and about the same for a sticky sweet, pina colada - both prices of convenience and, certainly, not of quality.
These are not practices unique to Myrtle Beach. Any all-inclusive resort, cruise ship or music hall has a pricing structure based on the setting. Not only that, but the swill that is dumped into the glass is in no way reflective of the price we pay.
In recent years, we have seen a significant turn in this trend. The public is demanding higher quality and resorts are slowly responding.
Mark Wagner, the Director of Beverage at the Hilton and Embassy Suites at Kingston Plantation (9800 Queensway Blvd., Myrtle Beach), invited me to the second annual Ben Arnold-Sunbelt Beverage Company Bourbon Dinner that was held on Nov. 7. You had me at bourbon, Mr. Wagner.
Vintage Twelve, the re-designed modern American restaurant at the Embassy Suites, was the location. When I walked through the doors at the Embassy Suites, it was hard to tell whether I was in the right place or not. It resembled more of a W Hotel than the place I had remembered from years earlier. Chic, stylish and, dare I say, classy. We were off to a wonderful start.
Upon arrival, Wagner greeted us with a splendid version of an Old Fashioned. Old Forester 100th Year Anniversary Bourbon, brown sugar, sage, saffron, apple cider and orange gave a nice wake-up call to the palate.
If you want to know how to judge a cocktail without tasting it, look at the ice. The ice is a dead give away as to whether or not a place makes good drinks. Some cocktails require crushed ice, as in the case of a Mint Julep, while others require big ice, as in this case. The ice was a perfect match. One large cube of chilly matter filled the glass. This set the tone in a most positive manner.
We were also honored to dine with the owner and creator of Virgil Kaine Bourbon and Ginger, David Szlam. He produces aged bourbon gently infused with ginger. Pairing his spirit with lemon and Creme du Mure, a blackberry liqueur, was a great showing. Simple and delicious. Again, using the proper ice for such a cocktail, Wagner hit it out of the park by letting the liquor shine. That is another aspect of using high quality spirits. You don’t have to do a whole lot to them for them to taste delicious.
The third cocktail, which echoes my point of doing very little to a fine spirit, used Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon. Woodford Reserve double-barrels this whiskey to give it deep flavor and rich aroma. Wagner mixed this with the only thing I can think of that would be acceptable. He mixed it with, wait for it... Nothing. He poured it in a glass and let it do its thing. Well played, sir.
It was at this point in the meal where the professionals and the amateurs around our table became apparent. If you are a bourbon person, you sipped and appreciated every drop of this whiskey. Some at the table were a little less enthused about the stiff stuff and fumbled at why this was a proper beverage.
Being that this was a dinner for all palates, Wagner pulled out a version of the overly-famed Cosmopolitan for the next course. Using Early Times Blind Archer Spiced Apple Bourbon and some lime zest, he spruced up the sweet sipper. While it wasn’t my personal preference in cocktails, the softer palates in the crowd were back on board with his vision and most glasses were empty at the end of this course. I will say that he paired this drink with roasted pork loin and sweet potatoes. That was a good pairing, even if you don’t like sweet cocktails.
We finished off the night with Jack Daniel’s Honey, Frangelico and green tea. Dessert in a glass. Again, not particularly my style, but it matched the dessert very well and had a nice balance to the drink. I can appreciate the structure and thought process behind the mix.
Just as I was thinking that we were going to end a bourbon dinner with a sweet cocktail, a bottle appeared with enough glasses to go around the room. My anticipation was high.
The bottle was Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Series No. 1. This highly limited first edition that will, eventually, honor all seven master distillers for Jack Daniel’s, was the finale. No ice, no citrus, no fluff. Pour it in the glass and let us sit with it. That we did. This was a great treat.
We all received our gift bags and the offer for a reduced rate on a room or a call for a cab should we need one. As I thought about the dinner later that evening, I thought about how it offered something for everyone. It gave us some great bourbon served the way I like it, variations on classic cocktails and some innovations for the more delicate drinkers. Finally, a resort that gets it and has the ability to pull it off.
On Dec. 5, Wagner and his Kingston crew are hosting their inaugural tequila dinner. Before you dismiss this as a spring break type of event, I assure you that you will think very differently about tequila after this dinner. If you like well-crafted, sipping spirits, high caliber food and some solid education about one of the finest spirits in the world, do not miss this event. To make reservations, call 497-7300.
Contat Kevin Hoover at firstname.lastname@example.org.