There was a neat, compact, mostly bald man by the door, wearing black except for his Roman collar, pretty much under the elbow of the guy from the Glenmorangie distillery. Actually we were all under each other’s elbows, the place being about as packed as the fire marshal will let you get away with. We were at a place called Jack Rose’s in the Adams-Morgan party district of Washington DC, at a malt whisky tasting hosted by this bunch, about whom one of my clients tipped me off.
The Glenmorangie guy bent to say something to the guy in the collar, whose voice — professionally honed, no doubt — carried more powerfully. “Priests are tough,” he said, “hit me again.”
His companions were a fellow in a striped shirt and a yarmulke, and a beefy fellow in the kind of shiny suit you connect with amen-brother preachers in a tent. A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a whisky tasting.
I don’t do this kind of thing normally — go downtown and drink in bars, I mean — but for samples of cask strength whisky that sell for anywhere from $100 to $180 a bottle, I will slap down the price of a 45-minute client appointment and dare the Metro. My leg is still fairly dicky for long hikes or cobblestones, so I brought along my ashplant, which I figured could double as a cudgel if we were mugged. Adams Morgan used to be a little rough but they tell me it has gone upscale.
Cute little things in snug dresses were pouring the whisky, unless they were cute hunky things with sleeve tattoos. I picture the grandparents of a later generation trying to explain to little Yolanda and Samuel why they have blurry blotches of multicolored ink up and down their arms; I hear those things eventually kind of run.
Except for the Glenmorangie all the tastings were blind, though the baristas would occasionally mention the name of the distillery sotto voce. Here is how the “tasting notes” described one that I liked quite a bit:
“Pretty Woman” in a new Maserati. Apart from plum, dark cherry, and smoky ribs on beach barbeques — this nose was all leather and wood — the interior of a new Maserati, polishing rifles in log cabins — one panellist imagined cedar ball gags and Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” boots…
I’ll stop. You get the idea. We waded through five descriptions like this. One barista described his pour as “aggressive.” “Well, I’d say pugnacious,” I replied. You have to enter into the spirit of the thing. He made me write it down.
I didn’t realize until we had been pacing ourselves carefully for about an hour that you could go back to the stations and get as many samples as you wanted, and my client appeared to have done that. Cask strength whisky runs about 57 per cent alcohol. My client was wildly cordial to the Cute Engineer, at least so far as we could make out what he was saying in that din, and his friend, a florid character in a Hawaiian shirt named, I think, Shane, was just about as cordial to me. “If anyone gets rough just yell for me!” he said, “I know how to rumble.” “So do I,” I answered and threw him a bicep shot.
There was another Hawaiian shirt guy, sporting a white-gray ponytail and mountain-man beard, with suspenders over the long johns he was wearing for a first layer. According to Shane, he was the local expert, so steeped in whisky lore that he could barely come down to terrestrial level to explain what he knew intelligibly to the groundlings. Every time I saw him he was explaining something to one or another groundling of about twenty-five, bare-armed in one of the snug little size-four dresses.
We got through seven of the nine whiskies, including a Glenmorangie that had matured in a Sauternes barrel, Mother of God, before I decided I was not as tough as a priest, or possibly just not as certain of salvation, and we adjourned around the corner to wolf Ethiopian food, something for which the neighborhood is also known. No one molested us on the way back to the subway, unless you count the hefty rat that was cavorting in the tastefully laid-out front garden of one of the million-dollar townhouses along 19th Street. We had passed a sizable alley cat in the previous block so with luck, Ratwick met his match. If not tonight, some other night.
There’s a reason I don’t go downtown much, but that was worth it.