In the 1920s-styled cocktail bar of the acclaimed Connaught Hotel in London's swanky Mayfair district, black-tied staff serve drinks to business travellers and those from nearby offices who have wearily sunk into the bar's leather chairs and lounges and general air of refinement.
At every table except one, small plates of olives and peanuts accompany the drinks.
In front of me are three petite hand-made chocolates served with a dram of 12-year-old Lavagulin, a Scottish single malt whisky. Accompanying them are the assurances of Agostino Perrone, the Connaught's highly regarded chief of the bar, that they will complement each other perfectly.
Whisky and chocolate matching was introduced at the Connaught some 18 months ago. "We wanted to create something which engages the non-whisky drinker into whisky, and takes the whisky drinker to another level," says the Italian whose business card describes him as "director of mixology".
The Connaught's bar stocks 85 whiskies – the focus, not surprisingly given the hotel's lofty reputation, is more on exclusivity than size and some of the whiskies are served nowhere else in the UK - but Perrone has selected just six whiskies for this exercise.
A Dalmore Castle Leod Vintage 1995, a 17-year-old Balvenie Double Wood, Woodford Reserve Aged Cask Rye and New Cask Rye, and an 18-year-old Johnnie Walker Platinum are the others. I chose the Lavagulin for its big peaty flavour. But even as I do so, I'm concerned its earthy and smoky notes may be the exact nemesis of chocolate.
With typical Connaught style, my drink is served on a bespoke tray made from a sherry butt (cask). There is an opaque snowball of ice in the glass. According to Perrone, the snowball will balance the dilution and temperature. "You don't spoil the drink," he says.
However, Perrone will wait until the ice becomes translucent before pouring the measure of Lagavulin. He takes the few minutes for this to happen to explain more about the matching of whisky and chocolate.
The sweet accompaniments before me include a honey ganache (the honey comes from hives in nearby Regent's Park), an Earl Grey ganache, and a mandarin and Tonka-bean caramel chocolate. Each, Perrone assures me, shares some of the notes of the whisky.
"Citrus, aromatics and fruitiness are characteristics found in all good whiskies," Perrone says. But given the Lagavulin's other more up-front qualities, will it be a match for chocolate? "You will experience a different aspect to the whisky," Perrone suggests in answer to my puzzled question.
As the ice ball clears, Perrone pours my dram into the glass. "Can I suggest you eat a chocolate first?" he asks, as I eye the whisky. He recommends that the honey ganache lead the show. According to him, the chocolate will cut my palate, the whisky will become more gentle, and I'll be better able to taste the flavours of the whisky.
After biting into the soft chocolate I wash a small amount of the cask-strength Scotch around my mouth. It is a search for answers as much as flavours. At first I don't know what to make of this marriage. My mind is overruling my palate and screaming that this is about as natural as a cheap polyester suit.
Mind over matter
The chocolate is as silky smooth as it is sweet. But the whisky has clout, all its most obvious flavours pushing around and ultimately dominating the sweetness. The intuitive Perrone tells me that mindset is a big part of this voyage of discovery.
My host encourages me to next try the Earl Grey chocolate. "This, I think, is my favourite," says the man who considers creativity vital to his profession. "A variety of flavour is more playful, isn't it? It is entertainment, no?"
Perrone has mixed cocktails for Madonna, Pierce Brosnan and George Clooney. Looking around, that isn't too much of a surprise. The Connaught's bar - a serial inclusion on various World's Best Bars lists - has the countenance of an exclusive club. But visitors, even those like me who don't stay at the hotel, need not feel intimidated. Tradition is important at the Connaught, but so is joie de vivre.
As I reach for the final chocolate, two women on a green leather lounge cackle raucously over their cocktails and nuts. Their good cheer would be infectious if I wasn't so concerned about my seemingly unrefined palate. Two chocolates down and no real connection with the whisky.
"The Tonka, this is very sexy," Perrone says as I bite into the final chocolate. My hopes are buoyed, but I notice there isn't much Lagavulin left in the glass.
A matter of taste
The caramel that oozes from the centre of the chocolate smooths my palate and connects with the fruity notes of the whisky. The chocolate's texture, its creaminess; I feel it in my mouth as well as subtle and perfectly smooth flavours of the whisky. I sense harmony - but have I just been caught up in the ambience of the Connaught? I'm not sure.
What I am far more certain about is the urge to order a second whisky. The Connaught stocks a 50-year-old Macallan single malt. The bottle retails for £30,000 ($52,460) and at the Connaught a nip costs £1000. It'll go well with chocolate, surely.
The Lavagulin whisky and chocolate tasting at The Connaught Hotel costs £50 ($87.50). The price is for one drink.