Drinking In History
When Irish whiskey was filling out an application to be part of my memory, here is how it filled in the blanks:
Since deciding to approach whiskey as a drink, not a drug, I’ve had a real problem remembering the backstories of each strain. I’ve read history books, bartending guides, and Wikipedia, but for some reason when I hold a glass of Irish amber, the recollection centers of my brain turn to mush.
So as I approached Bourbon & Branch, the excitement of spending two hours learning about my favorite drink lit a fire. I’d be attending a course on Irish whiskey at the speakeasy’s Beverage Academy.
Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly going to Bourbon & Branch. I was going to give the password at the door and be led past the bar and through a back wall that opens into The Wilson.
As a speakeasy within a speakeasy, The Wilson needed a playful “front.” A large powdered glass window advertises “Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency” to the law-abiding world.
At first glance, a detective agency seemed a strange choice for a cover. A good story must be lurking in the shadows.
Justin Lew, creative director of parent company Future Bars, told me the backstory. He and his crew were cleaning out the back room of Bourbon & Branch and found mountains of junk, including a leather purse shoved into the wall. According to the ID, dating from 1932, the purse was owned by Lorraine Wilson. Because the money was gone, Justin assumed the purse had been stolen. Eventually he and the Future Bars crew wanted to return Lorraine’s possessions to her family.
”We looked into hiring a private investigator, and after a while, that idea became part of the overall concept for The Wilson,” Justin explained, “a sort of film noir.”
As I passed through the secret entrance into The Wilson, I half expected to see Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney talking discreetly in the corner. The bar elegantly combines a classic old watering hole feel with Future Bars’ signature modern American decor.
Instead of Bogart and Cagney, I got Tony Devencenzi, the Beverage Academy’s director, who welcomed my class. “Please choose a set and take a seat,” he said, and waved toward neat groupings of whiskey glasses. As I settled into my iron stool, I noticed my session would include five women and nine men. A smile came to my face as I thought of the sun gradually setting on whiskey’s testosterone-oriented rep.
When Beverage Academy instruction isn’t happening, The Wilson requires a reservation to sample its highly touted cocktail menu. But it’s closed Mondays, which allows the Beverage Academy to have a true classroom: a bar. The art of the perfect daiquiri, how to drink your tequilas, Mixology 101 — the Beverage Academy offers a sprawling variety of ways to get to know your favorite spirits.
Titled “Uisce Beatha” (Irish for “whiskey”), our seminar was to be taught by Fionnán O’Connor. Finn was fresh from graduating with a degree in English literature from Berkeley. He’d spent almost all his free portions of his alcohol-aware years traveling in Ireland and Great Britain, developing an impressive, if not intimidating, knowledge of whiskey. As an undergrad, he’d taught an elective on Irish whiskey at Cal. Now he’s working on the definitive tome on the subject.
Playing the classy gentleman’s part in a brown pinstripe blazer and a matching tie, hands waving wildly as he lectured, Finn paced back and forth behind the bar. He spoke as if he were frustrated with his mouth for not keeping pace with his thoughts. “Distilling really started in the Western world after the Crusades — learned out of the mistakes Arabs had made creating perfumes, and then brought back to Britain and Ireland. This is what funded the Church at the time …”
Finn continued explaining the history, from describing the Clonmacnoise monastery to pointing out that the name “spirit” was inspired by the distillate’s ghostlike form as it flew up the tubes. As he lectured, he didn’t shy away from using “real” terms for the tastes. Descriptors like esters, aldehydes, acetals, and ketones were seamlessly woven into organic materials like wood, peat, charcoal, and moss, which were then blended into the final tastes that ended up in our glasses.
The instruction was like many of the wine tours I’d taken in Napa, but with much more precise chemistry, and far more interesting history.
As I tasted a Redbreast12, with its dark molasses and bruised fruit tones, Finn noted that this single pot still whiskey is considered the “old whiskey” or the “national style” of Ireland. It’s the top choice of Irish aristocracy. My brain flashed to the mid-1800s and cigar-smoke-filled parlors and chaps with muttonchops.
At the side of the bar, Tony from the Beverage Academy raised a hand. Throughout the evening, he had helped enrich Finn’s lecture with interesting side notes. “A good technique for tasting,” Tony offered as he raised his glass to the light. “Take a sip of Redbreast and cup your tongue. Hold the sip there for a second or two, then exhale and inhale over it.”
I held a sip and tried to follow instructions. After getting the Redbreast centered, I cracked my lips and breathed.
An absolute explosion that I can only describe as “muscular gingersnaps” filled my mouth. An entirely new spectrum of taste had been detonated. Or as Finn simply put it: “Really paints the tongue, doesn’t it?”
As the flavors swirled, I thought back to my boisterous times in glowing Irish pubs and the rich smell of the emerald countryside.
A few folks used the provided spittoons. I chose to swallow my samples — and soon noticed a warmth curling over the tops of my ears.
We tried three more whiskies as Finn continued. He dispelled a number of marketing myths, like that Jameson is some sort of nationalist Catholic brand. (John Jameson was a Scottish Presbyterian.) We learned about the Irish resistance to column distillation and their hatred of its disruption of the pot distillation tradition. Then came a discussion of how Britain’s war with Napoleon, and the subsequent taxes, bifurcated the whiskey market into Poitín (moonshine) and Parliament whiskey.
All while sipping Ireland’s finest examples.
After a hearty round of applause for our professor, the class broke up and we began milling around. Tony served a couple of extra tastes and conversations bubbled up. Finn leaned against the bar, casually answering the remaining questions. The Irishman had gesticulated and paced enough that his hair now stood in a tall lopsided coif.
I grabbed the remainder of my Bushmills 21, gave it a final swirl, and went bottoms up. Yet, instead of opening the hatch, I let it hang on my tongue. The sweet flavors of cinnamon and toffee burned through my mouth. When I then took an eyes-closed gulp, I got the faint aftertaste of chocolate.
By this point in the evening, I’d become slightly out of phase with the sober world. Still, I set down my empty glass and smiled. I knew that the rich backbone of Bushmills comes from the fact that it’s triple distilled, then matured in American bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry casks. After 19 years, the aging whiskey is moved to Madeira drums for two more years and then is finally sent off for bottling (after which it’s extremely difficult to get ahold of).
As I walked out the heavy front door of the Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency and got a breath of fresh air, I thought about whiskey’s application to be a part of my memory again. I quietly changed the answer to the third question to “No.”
Beverage Academy classes are offered on Mondays at The Wilson. There is currently no set rotation of topics, so you’ll have to check the website for the subjects you’re looking for. Classes are available for every major spirit and a few random genres (like tiki cocktails). Prices vary, but are in the range of $90-$100 for a two-hour session and a tray of cocktails.