Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Brandon Wetherbee
Mr. Rogers, the best man ever, began every episode of his iconic television show with the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
The answer should be a resounding “YES!”
The goal of this series is to introduce the reader to the people that make this city, or really any other city, great. Every story you will read will be about a single person’s passion, why they’re passionate and how they relate to others through their passion.
We want to invite people in. Everyone is invited to the party. Bands don’t play shows for themselves. Filmmakers don’t make films for themselves. Chefs don’t open restaurants for themselves.
We don’t make things to satisfy ourselves. We make things to make our world smaller.
We’d like to think that living in a city is like going to a giant party where everyone is going to have a good time, in reality it isn’t. Like most parties, it is a small group of friends talking in a circle.
This column is about talking to other people and getting to know other people.
Meet your Neighbors.
I met Rachael Ewing in the basement of Jack Rose Saloon in the fall of 2013. The restaurant/bar was unveiling their new space and its rotating whiskey taps. The space is intimate, with only enough seats for 20 people, and offers the best selection of whiskey in DC. The night was a celebration of bourbon, my favorite spirit. Ms. Ewing didn’t want to talk about bourbon, she wanted to talk about scotch.
Ewing was the scotch sommelier at Jack Rose. If you haven’t heard of that title, you’re not alone. Very few people in the world have that title. She was one of two in the United States of America. The other is Heather Green in New York. When Ewing left Jack Rose after a year to become an Irish whiskey expert, it was an interesting move.
“When I got my first job in Scotland they asked me whether I drank whiskey and I said no, I think no I think it’s horrible stuff, you know it’s harsh and it burns and I wouldn’t touch it.” This is what Rachael Ewing thought in 2011.
Ewing, a certified expert at the sales and service of scotch whiskey, has lived the type of life you read about in celebrated novels and never meet in person. She grew up in Germany, spent time in Tanzania and Italy, bartended in Scotland and came to DC after getting a job as an expert in scotch. At 24. Her knowledge of whiskies makes her a rare and valuable commodity.
Only 1,000 people are certified experts at the sales and service of scotch whiskey. Ewing is one the youngest. This was not planned. She earned a masters degree in Politics and International Relations at 22. She was bartending when she was earning that degree. “For America it was underage, for Germany I was late, and for the Scots I was probably right on time.”
Like most college graduates, she found herself overqualified and jobless. She was hanging out in the older ex-pat community in Italy, drinking single malt scotch. After years spent working in a Scotland bar, Ewing became the groups expert. The expert soon began leading dinner party conversations and blind taste tests of 12 bottles at a time. This led to taking the class to become a certified expert. She passed with merit. This led to a job at Jack Rose.
After a year working at one of the best bars in the country (Jack Rose has a collection of 15,000 bottles), Ewing got a chance to take on a new challenge, helping run the new whiskey room at RiRa. The bottom floor of RiRa is a classic Irish Pub. The upstairs is a small room focusing on a whiskey experience with 200 bottles. The transition for both the bar and Ewing make sense. Brown liquors appear to be on the rise. “When I was up in New York I was talking to the Tullamore Dew Brand Ambassador and he said Irish whiskey has grown 400%. Scotch, in 2007-2011, doubled in size for international sales. Whiskey in general has been growing exponentially and Irish whiskey has been gaining back or gaining back a market share.”
The rise in popularity has led to a rise in education. There’s no one more qualified in the District to educate you about scotch and Irish Whiskey. The transition from a large, 3-floor space to a small, barely 1-floor space, is a bonus for Ewing. “I like the focus on education. You have more of an intimate space and you have more time to really sit down and talk to someone about what they like and what they’re flavor profile is. In the smaller setting you’re not reaching as many people but you have a chance to have a more intimate conversation.”
When asked about how she stays sharp, the answer was a little surprising. It has nothing to do with alcohol or tasting. “I have a sensory tuning kit that I take with me. 27 different designated smells, it’s the same one that the perfume industry would use. Wood and vanilla and mint and cinnamon, there’s specific smoke flavors, oak smoke flavors, peat smoke flavors.”
Those sensory exercises and knowledge of the histories of casks and more help Ewing find the right type of whiskey for each drinker. A series of three questions also help. Do you like red or white wine? Do you like gin or vodka? Do you like cinnamon or vanilla? I told her I preferred red wine, gin and am pretty evenly split between cinnamon and vanilla.
“Red wine tells me that you like something with a medium pallet, maybe a little bit of weight, probably a rounded mouth feel. You went with the gin instead of the vodka which means you’re probably interested in botanical flavors, if I gave you something with a very floral edge that might be right up your alley, but the red wine and the gin compliment each other to a certain extent so you’re not throwing me a curveball so far. When you went ahead and said I’m not sure about the vanilla or the cinnamon, that has to do with how something goes down because cinnamon I find tends to be a very sharp flavor, vanilla is very mellow and people who say they like vanilla also tend to describe whiskey as very smooth.” This led to a sampling of Tullamore Dew.
“Tullamore Dew is one of the few cask strength Irish whiskeys so it’s 55% alcohol, there are 3 things holding the flavor in your whiskeys: fats, oils, and alcohols. So the higher alcohol by volume is going to be holding more flavor in it. This is why people often add water to their whiskey, which people who drink 40% alcohol by volume whiskey, you’re not going to get as much of an effect, but if you put 1 drop in a 55% alcohol by volume you’ve changed the composition so much that your body thinks it’s a completely different flavor.” If any water were to be added, it would taste different.
If you added water to a standard Jameson, the taste would stay the same. “If you’re drinking a standard Jameson it’s at 40% alcohol by volume it already has a lot of water. And the reason why they’ve done that is to stabilize the flavor. You add water, you have a larger volume.”
Ewing gave me a whiskey that will change. It’s not Jameson. It’s forever evolving. “Whiskey by definition is always evolving.” The evolution of whiskey means her job is safe. No computer program can do this and no book can ever be a whiskey bible, not when things change with every cask.
I wanted to begin this series with a bartender. I used to be a bartender. Something about drinking at work seemed appealing. After meeting Ewing, it made sense to have her be the first subject. “I can’t really get drunk, but at the same time I’m one of the few people who is supposed to drink on the job.” If you’re allowed to drink on the job you’re probably going to hear stories. All bartenders hear stories. I knew way too many secrets from way too many strangers. Rather than stock up on stories of people, Ewing’s career is learning the story of whiskey.
“The way any whiskey tastes is because of taxes. I mean you can go back through whiskey history and you can look at the whiskey rebellion in the US, the whole reason we have BIB bottled in bond here in the US, is prohibition, rectifiers, you didn’t have to pay taxes on it if the government kept an eye on it for awhile. There’s a great story even with scotch whiskey about how the authorities would give a sum of money to people who turned in other peoples elicit stills, they’d wait until their stills were falling apart, they went ahead and turned in stills that were falling apart, get the money, and buy a new one. I just love the narratives and love the stories about whiskey, and I think Irish whiskey has a lot of the same stories that scotch does but with a very different twist.”
Visit the upstairs room at RiRa and talk to Ewing. Her passion and knowledge for spirits makes whiskey seem alive. Her style of drinking brings people from all cultures together. That’s not usually thought to be possible in Georgetown. In her small room, it is. Go there. You’ll learn something.