Washington, DC is a town for whisky lovers, whether you spell it with an ‘e’ or not. That hasn’t always been the case, however. Not so long ago, it was better known as a steakhouse and politics town, and embodied the era of cheap drinks and blended whisky during the 1980s. Gradually, though, it shed that reputation to become a mecca for lovers of high quality whisky from all over the world.
“DC transitioned from a small Southern town to an international city over the last 25-30 years,” says Bill Thomas, owner of SMWS partner bar Jack Rose Dining Saloon. He says that a resurgence of cocktails and mixology helped the city move from sugary club drinks to classic cocktails, with quality ingredients at their heart.
Whether you want to wind down in a quiet members-only lounge, bring some energy to Happy Hour, or enjoy single barrel selections at a classic neighborhood haunt, DC offers a place to match your mood or personality. Tonight, myself and some fellow members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society are on a mission to explore what this resurgent whisky city has to offer. In the thick of DC’s rush hour, we make our way to the first stop.
It’s early evening when we arrive at Scott’s Restaurant & Bar, which provides the perfect setting to escape from the hustle and bustle of DC’s ambitious grind. Scott’s opened in late 2018, with an elegant bar and a restaurant sporting fun takes on Americana and Scottish-inspired cuisine. It’s the second major SMWS bar in the city, with a members-only lounge known as “The Club”, where it showcases top shelf malt whiskies and other spirits, primarily from the Society.
At this time we have the place to ourselves, and the conversation naturally turns towards whisky. I throw out the question of what makes DC a special city for whisky lovers. Kelly points out: “If you’re in the mood for bourbon, Scotch, Irish whiskey, a dark and romantic location, a lively bar bustling with people, or snuggling up to a bar geeking out about whisky with some of the most educated bartenders, there are more than enough options to choose from.”
Kelly’s passion for the uisge beatha and her vicinity to North American whiskey led her to start the DC chapter of Bourbon Women.
“That has allowed me to meet so many amazing women from all walks of life with a common appreciation for whisky,” she says. “Luckily, we live in an amazing town that understands and appreciates the growing number of women who enjoy whisky. I personally have grown to love Scotch, and the Society, because of the ready access, after meeting some great friends here in the District who have educated me and provided great direction on what and where to drink.”
After our opening drams at Scott’s, Brian leads us out into the city’s foot traffic, and we make our way through the chilly evening. The surrounding cityscape is in flux, with new construction and neon lights surrounding historic buildings and the foundations of America. The Penn Quarter area is in the stages of growing up to accommodate the growing population of young professionals looking to make their mark in this world, and is the setting for our second stop of the night.
The Dirty Habit is a beautiful, modern bar housed in the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington, DC, mixing swank modern design together with timeless urban decor. The Hotel Monaco itself is a beautiful historic landmark, built in the 1840s as the General Post Office. Inside the bar, ambient lighting welcomes us with pulsing electronic music. It’s a modern bar with classic tendencies, and it sports a fun selection of spirits to choose from. Perhaps more importantly, it happens to be one of the bars that has taken cues from other successful DC establishments and stocked its shelves with a mix of superb whiskies from Scotland, North America, and Japan.
Dirty Habit is busy and exemplifies the urgency of DC’s culture. We figure our palates are warmed up enough to go after some less gentle drams and end up with a mix of barrel proof bourbon, cask strength Islay whisky, and some hard-to-get Japanese whisky that has been swept off the shelves years prior.
We joke about how spoiled we are with the selection of whiskies we have available: Tim has Hibiki 21 in his Glencairn while James has Bruichladdich Octomore 8.3 in his. Meanwhile, several of us have opted to go with George T. Stagg from 2016, a stout bourbon from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.
Brian offers his thoughts on the DC whisky scene: “This is the epicentre for whisky enthusiasts in the United States,” he says. “It’s still a bourbon town, but folks here appreciate all kinds of drams. And, as they are getting more and more into their whiskies, they are looking for the fun, the unique, and the obscure.”
When we talk about the selection available in the city, he says: “It’s what makes drinking here so much fun – not only are the bars and restaurants catering to all of us, but the people… you’ll learn more from the person next to you at the bar, or behind it, than from any blog, book, or Google search. It’s the people of DC that make this town amazing and the same holds true for whisky drinkers!”
Back outside, it’s cold and wet, so we grab a cab to head across town. We pass through the 14th Street Corridor, which has seen unbelievable growth in the last decade with restaurants and bars, cut through the Dupont Circle area known for upscale dining and embassies, and make our way to Adams Morgan for our third stop.
THE LOCAL JOINT
Rebellion is characterised by several of the group as “a neighbourhood bar with a whisky problem”. This quaint haunt is home to a great North American whiskey collection and boasts its own single barrel selections. As we wait for our table, we take a look at the drinks menu and are pleasantly surprised to see several private barrel selections to choose from, including a Maker’s Mark private selection and a Knob Creek selection.
While Rebellion has a selection of Scotch to choose from, its North American whiskey selection is the focus, and we decide to take advantage of its private barrel selections to complement our gastropub food.
With names like “The Garbage Pail”, “Gulch Poutine”, and the “Ramsey Bolton” burger, Rebellion takes inspiration from modern culture and comedic jokes to produce quintessential American pub food. While it is evident that the food is not exactly health-conscious, there are subtle hints of complexity and sophistication that is not normally reserved for neighborhood watering holes.
During dinner, we slow down and take in the soft lighting as we satisfy our hunger. As we finish up and start re-focusing on our whiskies, we turn our attention to the single barrel selections in our glasses. For readers who have not had the pleasure of drinking North American whiskey like bourbon or rye, you need to understand that in the parlance of such whiskies, we often comment on variations of intense brown sugar or caramel sweetness, lush and creamy mouthfeel, heat or balance from its strength, and the ability to suss out other characteristics such as the intensity of vanilla, peanut butter, chocolate, leather, and honey, to name a few.
Certainly, there are some Scotch whiskies that share some of those traits and indeed, many Scotch whiskies do inherit some of the character from the bourbon barrels they mature in. It’s hard to replicate the experience of drinking a truly exceptional bourbon, though other countries have begun producing brilliantly developed corn whiskey to the same legal requirements as bourbon, just as countries are now producing well-received and exceptional single malt whisky.
Our appetites satiated and the rain at a brief lull, we’re ready for the climax of our night. Any true whisky lover in DC knows where our mecca is, and it just so happens to be a short walk up the street on 18th. We all eye the slight uphill road and make our way to the final stop of the night.
In so many ways, the fact that DC has become a true whisky town is down to Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Owner Bill Thomas, original whisky advisors Harvey Fry and Roberto Cofiño, as well as many close associates to Bill, have played a key role in ensuring DC has enduring access to whisky from North America, Scotland, and the rest of the world. Jack Rose brought The Scotch Malt Whisky Society to prominence in our town, and is one of the largest whisky bars in the Western hemisphere. In DC, you cannot talk about whisky and not include Jack Rose in the conversation. It truly is the ultimate destination for our night out.
Jack Rose embodies the spirit of a lifelong journey to understand whisky and its nuances. With over 2,800 selections to choose from and growing at a steady rate, the upstairs outdoor bar and bottom saloon and dining area have bottles that are all for sale and consumption. This includes rare expressions of Scotch whisky (many of which are notably Society bottlings), bourbon, rye, and other whiskies from around the world.
At Jack Rose, Mike gets a little nostalgic. “What can I say? DC is for whisky lovers, or for lovers who love whisky,” he says. “I met my wife at a Scotch tasting in the basement of Jack Rose, not to mention several close friends.” When he and I have conversations, we often ask each other what makes DC different for whisky lovers and his answer is simple: “DC has an actual whisky community, not to exclude the enthusiasts, marketers, and novices, which makes discovering the next exciting dram all the more enjoyable.” He agrees with the rest of the group that “the DC whisky community is filled with a number of passionate and knowledgeable men and women who are willing and eager to share their knowledge and perspective with you.”
Chris Leung, one of the resident whisky advisors at Jack Rose, greets us with excitement as he knows he gets to have some in-depth conversations about one of his favourite subjects. Chris joined Jack Rose pretty much at the time he turned 21, the current legal drinking age in the US. Since then, he has become arguably their most knowledgeable whisky advisor, with an amazing ability to distill (no pun intended) what patrons are looking for when they walk through the doors, and take them on a journey for the night with a brilliant flight that can be as short as two drams all the way to… well, as long as the patron wants to keep going.
Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas is also one of the main reasons DC has the access it does to the whisky that can be found throughout restaurants across town. When we catch up with Bill, we ask him why he loves whisky. The answer becomes apparent when the conversation shifts into a 15-minute update on soon-to-come single barrel releases from old friends and new favourites. Distillery trips, in and around the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, are mentioned. Upcoming events are commingled during our chat. Bill’s passion is obvious and his love for DC’s whisky culture is apparent.
Bill sums up what makes DC special for whisky: “DC has the most educated whisky drinker compared to any other city in the US. We get unique access to a diverse number of whiskies because of the international presence with the political and other international figures that move through this town. With the growth of our town in the last two to three decades, people are willing to be adventurous.”
When we move on to the topic of the Society, Bill keeps it simple and to the point.
“The Society has always been the place that provides access to, and fills the void for, single barrel cask strength whiskies. The Society either led or met the demand for the true whisky drinker.”
TIME TO CALL IT A NIGHT
As we near the end of our evening, we reminisce about our individual beginnings with the wonderful spirit called whisky and how it serendipitously brought us together. No matter where we come from, no matter what our background is, we have become a close-knit group of friends over the years because of a single passion – the pursuit of quality and interesting drams in our glasses.
It’s late when we all get up to leave but we ensure we get one last hug or handshake with each other. The Society, beyond its whisky, is a catalyst to bring together people who habitually dive deep in their passions, who recognise quality, and can appreciate nuances beyond the ordinary. It exists for people who understand the worth of whisky’s fantastic voyage.
As Bill Thomas says: “I love whisky because of the depth and breadth. Whisky is a lifelong journey.”