Chow mein on a workbench.
Snorkeling in the bathtub.
Steam train through a pharmacy.
Hokey pokey, super kid and monkey blood.
Glazed cocktail sausages.
These aren’t names of ’80s glam metal bands you missed out on. Rather, somewhere in Scotland a crew of expert drinkers with advanced palates sample single cask Scotch whiskies and bestow upon them names that border on insane.
“They have a group of tasters that name these,” says Jack Rose Dining Saloon owner Bill Thomas. “It’s an actual job. There are many Scotch people I’ve met over the years who will say that one of their first jobs was working at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society naming single malts.”
Thomas is a member of the Scotch Whisky Society, and his Adams Morgan temple to brown booze is one of the club’s 14 partner bars in the U.S. Founder Pip Hills started the society in the 1970s when he purchased a cask of single malt Scotch whisky directly from a distillery. Anyone can become a member by paying a $99 fee, and membership grants you access to a selection of exceptionally rare single cask, cask strength whiskies.
The bright green bottles don’t display distillery names or age statements. Instead, the Scotch Whisky Society displays a series of numbers. The digits before the decimal point correspond to a distillery. “Glenfarclas is number one because he assigned them in order of how he did business with the distilleries,” Thomas explains. “So 65 is the 65th distillery Hills purchased a cask from.” The number after the decimal point represents the number of casks purchased from each distillery.
Sure, you can Google which distillery corresponds to each number, but the idea is that stripping away the brand compels imbibers to focus on what’s in the glass rather than what’s on the label. “Obviously Pip was ahead of his time,” Thomas says. “The philosophy of having the whisky stand on its own is pretty amazing.” That said, if you’re dying to know where your whisky came from, just ask your bartender. “We’re not going to deny the guest information if they ask us, but it’s the descriptors, the names that sell it.”
Ordering a few among friends inevitably spurs discussion about whether the panel of tasters got the names right, and if not, better name options. It’s like playing Balderdash, but instead coming up with believable definitions, players try to capture what they taste with a nip of absurdity. It’s more fun than sipping a round of Manhattans, but also cost prohibitive. Prices of Jack Rose’s roughly 200 bottles reflect exclusivity: single dram (1 oz.) ranges from $14-$44. But you get a lot of buzz for your buck because the whiskies are cask strength.
While only short descriptions appear on the menus, bottles have a little more information. For example, the label for “Two wheeled beach cruiser” (29.205) says it tastes like: “Cycling past an old shipwreck with tar-covered timbers, amongst rock pools and dried seaweed. The sweet smell of sticky pork ribs on a bbq and smoked rhubarb crumble with whipped cream, oyster shells, salted almonds, and sweet smoked salmon.” The smoky 29.205 is from a distillery in Islay, where peat is king. Thomas discloses that it’s Laphroaig. And does it taste like all of that hullabaloo? Sort of. It tastes like elementary school art supplies smell.
The Scotch Whisky Society asks you to trust what’s in your glass—that the whisky is high quality and that the descriptors are at least plausible. It’s this idea that inspired the new Dram & Grain menu in the belly of Jack Rose. The somewhat-speakeasy just launched a set of 15 drinks based on three stages of trust: know, inquire, and discover. Each page has less information about what’s in the cocktails.
Some fold in unconventional ingredients—shrimp-washed tequila, chorizo, and sour cream, to name a few—that might cause customers to steer clear if listed. Don’t miss the “Papaya Salad from a Bangkok Night Market” with its red curry spices, or the “Stealing Tomatoes from the Garden of Eden,” which tastes like a thinned out gazpacho.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Dram & Grain, 2007 18th St. NW; (202) 588-7388; jackrosediningsaloon.com