DC sommelier ‘duels’ Irish whiskey, single malt expertise

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WASHINGTON – There’s no doubt the local bars will be filled-to-the-brim on St. Patrick’s Day with stumbling holiday enthusiasts who had their fill of green beer and cabbage.

But those looking to get a real education in a celebrated slice of Irish culture can find one on a long mahogany bar in a curved glass at Rí Rá’s The Whiskey Room.

“Irish whiskey is what’s new. It’s what’s upcoming,” says Rachael Ewing, who is the whiskey sommelier at The Whiskey Room.

In addition to getting a pour — or two — of Irish whiskey, patrons at The Whiskey Room get a lesson in varieties from all over the world from Ewing, a whiskey expert, and her team.

“There’s a lot of academic study that goes into it, but there’s also a lot of sensory, hands-on work,” Ewing says on learning whiskey.

Ewing’s journey into whiskey is one of pure coincidence.

“Oh, I completely fell into it,” the 24-year-old says.

At the time, Ewing was attending college in Aberdeen, Scotland, and like most students, she needed a part-time job to get her through school. So Ewing applied for a position at a local, run-down bar, named The Grill. She soon found out The Grill is one of the top whiskey bars in the world.

Unfortunately for Ewing, she knew absolutely nothing about whiskey.

“In fact, when they asked me, ‘What do you know about single malt whiskey?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s terrible firewater and I don’t drink that stuff.’”

Despite her lack of whiskey-gusto, The Grill gave Ewing a job and scheduled her to work the busy Friday and Saturday night shifts. Then, on Sundays, she re-stocked the 600-plus whiskey collection.

Being around different whiskies quickly changed Ewing’s mind on the “firewater.”

“I would go home and I would smell my hands and that to me was the real gateway because I would go, ‘Oh, my gosh, my hand smells like cherry, or vanilla, or that reminds me of old leather, cigar smoke,’” she says. “I could find my way along the shelves by smell a long time before I started drinking.”

After college, Ewing moved from Scotland to Tanzania to pursue a career in international development. While there, she found the other things she learned while in Scotland were in demand.

Ewing’s manager noticed she worked at The Grill while in Scotland and asked if she’d be interested in teaching the expat community about whiskey.

“That’s how I had my first informal tasting class,” Ewing says.

Those wanting to learn from her brought Ewing all different types of whiskies — literally, whatever they could get their hands on.

“It was a lightening round. I had to sort of use everything I’d learned back in Scotland and whatever came through the door be able to say something about it. And that was probably the largest learning experience and the most fun I’ve ever had,” she says.

While in Tanzania, Ewing decided to get certified in Scotch whisky, so she went back to Scotland to train and obtain the certification she says roughly 1,000 people possess.

Now, Ewing — who formerly worked at Jack Rose Dining Salon in Adams Morgan — hopes to learn more about Irish whiskey and build the collection at The Whiskey Room. It’s something she’s always wanted to do.

“The collection is very organic and it’s not at its peak right now, but you can see where it’s growing and you can see where people are building their knowledge and their interests,” Ewing says.

With its collection, The Whiskey Room offers customers a signature whiskey experience: “duels” of two different whiskies, served side-by-side.

Ewing and her co-workers then answer any questions after the tastes, and provide as much, or as little, education as the customer wants.

“We sort of get people in with the idea of the duels, you can try these extremes, and then if you want to know more about that, then we’re here to give you an entire flight, to talk you through the range, to move beyond that into a little bit more of the nuance of whiskey,” Ewing says.

“We do want to introduce people to good whiskey, whether that be Irish, whether that be single malt Scotch, whether that be bourbon.”

Ewing is one of few women in the U.S. who have the title “whiskey sommelier.”

“I just want to put this disclaimer out there: sommelier is a French term and it’s typically used for describing experts in wine. But because there isn’t really a designation for a person who does the same tasks for whiskey, I’ve sort of adopted it,” she says.

Heather Greene, whiskey sommelier at The Flatiron Room in New York, is the only other woman Ewing knows with the same title.

“I think everyone knows that whiskey is a male-dominated industry, but that being said, what everyone knows and what’s true aren’t exactly the same thing . But I do think that there’s a feeling, particularly within the last couple of years, that women are just now being brought out of the shadows,” Ewing says.

“I think women’s palates are as sophisticated, if not more, than men’s, and that they can enjoy the full-range of whiskey that’s out there. I guess that’s more of the challenge for myself and for Heather and the rest of the industry, to try to figure out how to make women more interested in single malt whiskey.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, The Whiskey Room will open at 11 a.m.

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Information from: WTOP-FM, http://www.wtop.com

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