Society Ambassador Phoebe Brookes and Unfiltered’s Richard Goslan hit the road in the latest issue, on a journey to the heart of the great American whiskey tradition. Here’s Phoebe’s day-by-day account of her adventure…
It might only have been 25 days but I managed to take in 12 flights; travel through seven American states and two Canadian provinces; visit 10 Society partner bars; set foot in seven distilleries; and covered 520 miles in an orange Ford Mustang. My first international trip as Society Ambassador didn’t disappoint.
The first stop on my trans-Atlantic tour was Fets Whisky Kitchen. I’d met with owners Eric and Allura Fergie came to Edinburgh back in May so I’d heard lots about Fets. However, nothing could have prepared me for the wall of whisky that awaited me, a huge proportion of which is made up of Society whisky (over 130 bottles).
I was lucky enough to spend my first Friday evening at Fets, meeting members; enjoying the famous Fets Southern fried chicken; and sampling some Society whiskies. Eric and Allura have created a relaxed environment where both connoisseurs and novices can learn about whisky the right way – through flavour. Needless to say, Fets set the bar high for the rest of my trip.
My next stop was Victoria, a mere 20-minute plane ride from Vancouver which offered spectacular views as I headed towards Vancouver Island.
I’d come to Victoria to visit Little Jumbo, the Society’s partner bar. I’d heard it was tucked away out of sight and therefore not the easiest place to locate. But this only added to the experience once inside – it feels as though you’ve stumbled across a secret drinking den. Little Jumbo’s Bruce Gillespie and Graham Taylor chatted to me about their passion for crafting great drinks. As I studied the menu, I was struck by their elaborate approach to describing their cocktails and couldn’t help but think Little Jumbo is a match made in heaven for the Society.
I was particularly excited to go to Calgary as it was my first time meeting Rob and Kelly Carpenter who run the Canadian branch of the Society. We met for dinner at One18 Empire, the Society’s newest partner bar in Calgary, and I filled Rob and Kelly in on the details of my trip so far.
The following day I went to meet Cam Dobranski, the man behind our partner bar Brasserie Kensington (http://brasseriekensington.com/. A restaurant first and foremost, Brasserie Kensington describes itself as ‘a low-key place to come for dinner or drinks…or both.’ The smell wafting out of the kitchen combined with the impressive list of local beers (not to mention the selection of Society whiskies) convinced me both was a good idea.
On my final evening in Calgary, I joined Rob and Kelly at Kensington Wine Market’s ‘Whiskies of Summer Festival’ where I had the chance to meet some of the Society’s Calgary members.
I touched down in Seattle to scorching heat – apparently the temperature reached a record-breaking high at 94F during my stay. The annual Seafair event was taking place while I was in town which meant the streets were filled with navy officers and the sky with planes. When the heat became too much for me, I took shelter in our partner bars. The low-lit El Gaucho on 1st Avenue was the perfect place to seek some shade in the sweltering heat.
Later on I headed to Fremont, a bohemian neighbourhood which is home to the traditional Belgian styled Brouwer’s Café, the Society’s second Seattle partner bar. I met with owner Matt Vandenberghe, and general manager Nat Pellman and we chatted about our favourite Society whiskies over Moules-frites.
I’d been to Chicago once before and had loved the city. It’s the sort of place that doesn’t make you feel like a tourist; it’s easy to find yourself adapting to the pace of the city and then not wanting to leave it.
I was there to visit our three partner bars and my first stop was the Union League Club of Chicago () – the venue where the SMWSA’s annual Whisky Extravaganza is held. Next up it was time to meet Aaron Zacharias, the man behind Fountainhead, our second Chicago partner bar. It’s much more than just a bar though – with its retail store (Fountainhead Market) next door, it’s a whisky drinker’s haven.
Finally, I headed to drumBar, often cited as one of America’s best whisky bars. I enjoyed a dram of 55.23 – ‘Chow Mein on a workbench’ with Beverage Director Whitney Morrow, while we discussed ideas for future Society events in Chicago.
I then spent a few days in Fort Lauderdale with the lovely team at SMWSA. After a couple of weeks on the road it was the perfect place to recharge. Before I could head to Washington DC to visit Jack Rose Dining Saloon, the final stop on my partner bar tour, I had a small detour to take…
Road Trip – Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas
I won’t lie, when the idea of a ‘whiskey road trip’ was first mentioned to me I was really rather excited. Being a die-hard country music fan and an avid road-tripper (I undertook the mammoth Route 66 with my Dad five years ago), it was a dream come true. Combine that with the chance to learn about American whiskey and all of a sudden I had drawn up a pretty brutal-looking itinerary!
Unfiltered’s Richard Goslan picked me up from the decadent Seelbach Hotel in Louisville (a source of inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald when writing the Great Gatsby) on Tuesday 11th August in the rather eye-catching Ford Mustang. It looked a little out of place parked outside the historical Seelbach.
I quickly recovered from the shock of the orange and began to feel pretty content as we cruised towards our first distillery in downtown Louisville. From the charismatic Freddie Johnson at Buffalo Trace to the candid Will Atkinson at Corsair, the people behind each distillery brought the story of American whiskey to life.
The trip wouldn’t have been the success it was without Jonathan Palmer and David Coyle, our brilliant photographers. Both Kentucky locals born and bred, I can’t help but feel that we ‘lucked out’ when Jonathan and David agreed to join us. Not only were their photographs fantastic, but it felt like we were on the road with a comedy duo. Every minute of the trip was filled with laughter, even when we were all exhausted.
D.C. was my final stop and what a finale it was. As soon as I stepped into Jack Rose Dining Saloon, I felt at home. For an ambassador, seeing hundreds of bottles of your precious whisky adorning the walls is a wonderful feeling.
I spent the evening at Jack Rose and talked all things whisky with owner Bill Thomas, Scotch Whisky Advisor Roberto Cofiño and DC whisky legend Harvey Fry.
A little later on, Bill Thomas and his girlfriend Brittany Garrison were kind enough to take me to some of DC’s best bars. Unsurprisingly, when we left Jack Rose there wasn’t a seat left, the place was packed.
I landed back in Edinburgh with a new found love for American whiskey and cars. I also returned feeling safe in the knowledge that we have an incredible network of partner bars in North America, all of which offer a truly unique environment for you to enjoy your whisky in.
It’s a good thing I already have itchy feet; I feel another trip coming on.
Find out more about the global network of Society partner bars here.
This interview forms part of a larger feature on US whiskey in the current issue of Unfiltered magazine. To find out more about Unfiltered and the many other benefits of Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership, click here.
You write about whisky and music with similar passion, and often using similar language. Why?
I firmly believe whisky is a drink you should enjoy with all your senses. Your taste, your smell, your vision – enjoying the beautiful golden colour and the tears that run down the inside of the glass – the sound of the cork popping and the spirit pouring into the glass. It’s all part of the experience, the anticipation. And when you taste, the experience doesn’t end on your tongue – there’s the warm feeling as the whisky goes down your oesophagus, explodes in your tummy and you get a tingling in your hands and feet.
Jazz in particular though seems to have a strong association with whisky. Why do you think that is?
The great clarinettist and band leader Arty Shaw once wrote “Jazz was born in a whisky barrel”, and he was right; there are particular links between whisky and jazz. Both were crafted by people under the suppression of a neighbouring majority that looked down on the craft as well as the craftsman.
The illicit stills of the Highlands paradoxically flourished due to the English suppression and eventually produced the most exceptional single malts. Jazz came out of traditional folk music brought by African slaves to the Americas and was at first considered a raw and uneducated form of noise by most of the white population, only decades later to be embraced by the same crowd.
Whisky and jazz have both proved to be survivors no matter what drink or style of music became the fad of the day. These two survivors met time and again, and whisky remains a favourite among many jazz and blues musicians.
So there’s also a spiritual connection between the two, if you’ll pardon the pun?
Yes, absolutely. When I listen to music, I like to contemplate. I don’t enjoy simple pop songs – I want to explore and be challenged, whatever style of music I’m listening to. I’m a bebop guy, but I also like Frank Zappa, who’s one of my heroes. To me, that’s a very similar experience to being a whisky lover.
I’ve always found I associate the character of particular whiskies with particular artists. So, for example, in my book Whisky and Jazz, I suggest some pairings, such as Miles Davis with Bruichladdich, because they’re both great innovators. Dexter Gordon I paired with Lagavulin, because it has that extreme long finish, and Dexter can play these long notes, plus he’s a big guy and this is a big dram – they’re gentle giants!
Music and aroma are also both hugely powerful anchors. There’s been research into dementia which suggests the some of the last memories to go are of music and smells. People who don’t recognise their husband or wife can still sing along to songs from their childhood – it’s remarkable. Similarly with smell… suppose I asked you if you could remember the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or of the library at your school, something will probably come into your mind immediately.
When you combine these things, it’s almost like you’re multiplying their effect. For example when I drink Lagavulin I hear Dexter playing because it’s an association I made and now it won’t go away. It may sound morbid to some, but I take comfort in the fact that great jazz and great whisky may be my last memories – they’re the good things in life!
This interview forms part of a larger feature on whisky and music in the current issue of Unfiltered magazine. To find out more about Unfiltered and the many other benefits of Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership, click here.
Some good news for our regular Australian snapper Peter Whyte, who picked up several gongs at this year’s PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris 2015 awards, including a silver medal for this superb portrait of Tasmanian distiller Peter Bignell. Well done sir!
We’ve featured a few recipes recently that used whisky as an ingredient. But how about finding the perfect whisky to pair with your meal (or, perhaps more likely, the ideal food to complement your favourite dram)?
Thankfully, James Freeman, the head chef at The Dining Room at 28 Queen Street, has shared ten of his pro tips for impressing your guests. Thanks James!
Alasdair Day, who first appeared in Unfiltered several years ago with his now-famous Tweedale Blend, has announced plans for his own long-rumoured distillery project. Since we first heard about it though, the distillery has moved several hundred miles north-west, from the Scottish Borders to the tiny Hebridean island of Raasay.
Along with business partner Bill Dobbie, a well-known Scots entrepreneur and co-founder of online dating site ‘Cupid’, Day plans to open the distillery and visitor centre in January 2017 and release its first whiskies in 2020. It is estimated the project would provide employment for 11 of the island’s 120 residents.
It’s still early days though, as planning permission cannot even be applied for until the project has been subjected to a protected species audit for bats, otters and the Raasay vole.
Good luck Alasdair!