There is something wonderful about gathering a group of friends to taste whiskey. A tasting does not recall years past when similar activity was around a beer keg and an underclassman was the lookout; indeed, the result is far different. Whiskey tasting is all about the conversation and an analysis of the nose, the palate, and the finish, followed by the flavor camp. Experts talk about an incredible array of smells and tastes, from the fragrance of heather honey and vanilla fudge with dark fruits, to tastes of sherry oak, marzipan, cinnamon, and ginger. Whiskey tasters pore over a map of Scotland looking for distilleries in Speyside, the Lowlands, and the Highlands. Serious tasters plan trips to Scotland, not for the golf but for the whiskey.
Alcohol consumption has had a struggle over the years in America, from the experiment in Prohibition to local rules that prevent alcohol sales close to certain buildings, such as rules that require developers to count the steps from the door of a bar to the door of the closest school or church. Alcohol is easily abused and must be respected.
In 1874, in Aiken, South Carolina, a request for a license to sell alcohol on Richland Street close to the Aiken Hotel was opposed by a group of Aiken residents who listed the following reasons for asking City Council to deny the license:
It will do nobody any good but bring a great deal of evil to many.
It will draw a class of people who will be a disturbance and will disgrace our neighborhood.
It will be a temptation and ‘stumbling block’ in the way of many who would stay away from a less respectable street.
We ask this for the sake of these young children, who will see enough wrong and vice and evil without having it so near when they have to pass a liquor store on their way to and from school …
In 1952, a Mississippi legislator, Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., offered an argument that has become known as the Whiskey Speech. He was put on the spot as to his position on drinking alcohol. He stood and said:
If when you say “whiskey” you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation and despair and shame and helplessness and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But if when you say ‘whiskey’ you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm, to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
The word whiskey refers to a spirit made by mashing a cereal, fermenting it into beer, distilling the beer, and then aging the beer until it becomes whiskey. Whiskey is made and distributed from Scotland, Ireland, Japan, America, really anywhere, but the challenge for the distiller is to make a product that has a distinctive flavor that represents an area that is pleasing to the whiskey customer.
Whiskey tasting is best enjoyed with friends or family members. Many people will not drink alcohol alone; they consider whiskey drinking to be a communal event, an opportunity to converse, to relax, and to discuss. Some whiskey drinkers use tastings to get to know each other. What a great way for neighbors to break the barrier of back porches and decks! Rarely in the past 50 years have houses been built with a front porch to hold swings or rocking chairs for sitting and visiting with neighbors who walk their dogs or walk themselves for good health. Clearly, folks can sit on a front porch and just as easily taste wine, coffee, or iced tea, but this is not an article about iced tea drinking clubs.
So why do people, mostly men, form whiskey drinking clubs? It is about fellowship, about having an appointment on the schedule that is not business related, community service related, or church related. It is about making friends, connecting with neighbors, and enjoying family. When club members gather for a tasting, it means the work of the day is done.
Ride-sharing companies such as Uber, Lyft, and others have transformed travel. No more phone calls looking for rides, no more walking home, and thankfully, no more driving home; no, the easiest thing in the world is to “call an Uber.”
There is a Scotch-tasting club in Columbia that has rules patterned after a local wine-tasting club. Each of the six members has a job in the club, some more serious than others; a treasurer keeps track of the money, a historian writes the minutes of the meeting and emails them to each member, a quality controller qualified for his job when he considered one Scotch so bad that he named it Snorkel, and a parliamentarian wrote the rules of the club and enforces said rules. One member voted to exclude wives from the Christmas party; in recognition of his courage and lack of good sense, he was voted the wives’ liaison. The sixth member did not have a specific responsibility, so he was made president.
The members take turns hosting the club for dinner. Some members do the cooking themselves and some members ask their wives to help with the meal. The wives of this group quickly realized they do not want to stick around while the men sniff and taste whiskey, talk about the relative characteristics of each brand, then have dinner together, so they choose a restaurant each Scotch club evening to meet for dinner. It takes a year and a half for the six men to complete a rotation of a tasting and dinner at each man’s house. For the December meeting each year, whoever is the host for the night includes the spouses for dinner, which changes the dynamics of the event but brings everyone together for the Christmas season.
The treasurer is responsible for keeping the money. Each member gives the treasurer dues at each meeting, which pays for the Scotch. The host for the event buys four bottles of Scotch but has a maximum he can spend for reimbursement from the treasurer. He can get one very expensive bottle and three fairly inexpensive bottles, or he can buy four bottles roughly the same price; the main point is anything he spends over the reimbursement is on his nickel.
After every three meetings, the club has 12 bottles of lightly consumed Scotch that have been traveling from home to home. The men have a drawing to determine who takes home which bottles. The member who draws No. 1 will pick first to get the best bottle, but he also will pick last in the next rotation and will get the last bottle.
The meetings are simple. The host is responsible for opening each bottle and pouring a modest tasting amount for each member. He explains the origins of the whiskey and the ratings, and he reads the opinions of the experts as to the smell or nose, the taste or palate, and the aftertaste or finish. Each person then sips a bit, and they discuss.
After each member tastes the Scotch neat, he will add a bit of ice or water to “release the flavor,” as the books say. Each member then rates the quality of the Scotch as it relates to his personal tastes. After four bottles have been tasted, the men adjourn for dinner and either drink water with dinner, or wine, or sometimes a bit more Scotch.
Some clubs have far fewer rules. Brown liquor clubs indiscriminately taste Scotch or bourbon and then eat dinner together, and neighborhood clubs meet from 5:30 to 7 p.m. once a month to visit about whatever comes to mind and then head home for dinner. Some clubs meet after 8 p.m., after children are fed and in bed.
The goal of a drinking club, whether it is a Scotch, bourbon, wine, or iced tea club, is to be a friend, make a friend, enjoy a friend. Find a porch, front yard, or backyard; identify a few men or women you want to spend time with or want to get to know better; and try it out. Call it a drinking club even if you do not actually drink alcohol; it sounds better than an artichoke dip club.