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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The rules for whiskey club

The first rule of whiskey club is you talk about whiskey. The second rule of whiskey club is you talk about whiske y. Really talk about it. The nose. The color. The taste, not just on the first sip but the second, third and finally, the finish.

There are other “rules,” too. Swirl before you sip. Sip small, but soak as much of your mouth as you can, or as Jim Briggs puts it, “Marinate the steak.” Hold the liquid in your mouth one second for each year the alcohol was aged.

Drinking and discussing go on as long as they have to – usually long enough to sample 1- or 1 ½ -ounce pours from three or four bottles. But there’s another rule, and it’s perhaps the most important: don’t get drunk. This isn’t because there’s a Spokane police officer in the club, but because inebriation isn’t the point.

“We are contemplative sippers. We don’t shoot it down in this club,” said Briggs, who founded Spokane Whiskey Club three years ago come May.

The mission is sophisticated but not stuffy: try whiskeys in the company of other enthusiasts – and enjoy both. Whiskey club is as much about the camaraderie as it is about the distilled spirit.

There’s a public service component, too. Members want their opinions to be helpful to readers and would-be whiskey buyers, so they maintain a website where they post reviews of each whiskey they sip.

Traffic to their site has doubled during the past year, and December saw a record-setting number of visits – with some 5,000 views compared to the normal 500 to 600 hits per month in 2013. Now, Spokane Whiskey Club is considering the creation of a podcast, maybe even an app.

The increase in interest is part of a global resurgence in whiskey and the comeback of cocktail culture.

Worldwide whiskey sales are on the rise, and there’s a boom in distinctly American spirits. According to figures released in February by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey volumes were up 7.4 percent, generating $2.7 billion with more than 19 million cases. Irish whiskey and single malt Scotch sales were up, too.

“People don’t just want to drink more good whiskey; they want to know more about it,” Lew Bryson wrote in “Tasting Whiskey,” his 2014 guide to whiskeys of the world. “They want to know about Scotch, bourbon, Irish, Canadian, Japanese, and all the new craft whiskeys. They want to know what’s good and what’s not, they want to know how it’s made, they want to see it being made, and they want to know more about the people who make it.”

Members of Spokane Whiskey Club want to know – and share – all of those things. They want to try as many as whiskeys as they can, so consumers don’t have to. They want to help people make informed alcohol purchases. They also hope to be a general resource for local would-be whiskey enthusiasts.

The men of Spokane Whiskey Club are serious about their mission, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. They don’t aim to appeal to the experienced connoisseur; they want to reach beginners because, as they write on their website “that is where the fun is: turning new people on to what should a noble and satisfying hobby.”

Members aren’t writers nor chefs nor distillers by trade. They’re working men, ages 27 to 50, from assorted careers and cities. All but one – the oldest – are transplants. All but one are husbands and fathers.

There are seven members, including three of the original four. Spokane Whiskey Club started in 2012 with four friends. It was Briggs’ idea. The idea was to gather one Saturday night per month, drinking and discussing the finer points of different whiskeys.

There are no dues. Membership in the private club is capped at eight. The reason isn’t to exclude people – Spokane Whiskey Club is anything but elitist – but, Briggs said, “We feel smaller numbers provides for more quality conversation contributions from members and improves the overall experience of the meeting.”

Nights are themed: bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Canadian, or bring your own bottle. Usually, they take turns buying. The cheapest was around 20 bucks; the most expensive – a Glenfiddich – was about $220.

“We don’t want to automatically go to the highest price,” said Briggs, 33, a sales account manager for an engineering company in Spokane. “We actually like to find value bottles.

“A point of pride for us is we’re generalists,” he said. “There are a lot of Scotch clubs, bourbon clubs. There are a lot of clubs. Whatever’s good we’ll drink it.”

Sometimes they surprise themselves.

“Crown Royal was one we ended up rating higher than we all expected,” said Ben Green, 33, a Spokane police officer and two-year whiskey club member.

In their early days, “If we didn’t like something, we made a joke of it,” Briggs said. Back then, the club accepted free sample bottles from distilleries which sometimes expressed dissatisfaction with the subsequent online reviews. Last November, the club quit accepting free samples.

“We want to be independent,” Green said.

“We want,” said Ian Fallon, 27, the club’s youngest member, “to give everyone a fair shake.”

A score of 64 and below is “bad, just bad,” according to the club’s official rating scale. It’s provided on a laminated sheet along with a bourbon flavor wheel, Scotch flavor camps and a listing of other descriptors broken into eight categories: woody, feinty, winey, peaty, cereal, floral, fruity and sulfur.

Other scores are: 65 to 74, unbalanced, below average, needs work but still drinkable; 75 to 84, average to decent, good, mostly positive; 85 to 94, exceptional, excellent, positive in all categories; and, finally, 95 and above, legendary, rarely given.

“Really we’re trying to be opinion makers,” Briggs said.

He holds court in his dining room in Spokane’s Audubon neighborhood, presiding over a table spread with bread, butter, water and whiskey.

“We want to be able to review the last one as well as the first one,” said Brendan Cassida, 36, an engineer who splits time between Spokane and Manchester, England, earning him the title of the club’s “International Man of Mystery,” a reference to the 1997 Austin Powers movie.

“Bread helps absorb the alcohol. It helps kind of slow things down,” said Briggs, who reminds members to nosh and hydrate in between sipping and rating. They go around the table. Everyone contributes. Briggs asks the questions.

Somewhere in the house his five children – ages 6 months to 8 years – are sleeping.

On bourbon night, two of the three tastings are blind. Bottles are bagged, labels hidden. A half hour to 45 minutes is devoted to each bourbon, served in small, tulip-shaped Glencairn whiskey glasses. Swirling and smelling come first.

“I got Christmas,” Cassida said about bottle No. 1.

“I can’t get away from the mountain meadow, tall grass, herbs,” Fallon said.

Sipping and more swirling followed by more sipping come next.

“If there’s any sweetness on this profile it’s on the end,” Fallon said.

“I see lemon,” said Ken Fry, 50, a realtor and the only member of the club born and raised in Spokane.

“I don’t get any citrus, unless it’s rind,” countered Chris Connelly, 41, a Spokane paralegal. The self-proclaimed “new guy,” he joined the club last year.

“Maybe grapefruit,” offered Doug Pooler, 41, a mechanical engineer.

They take stabs at guessing the alcohol by volume, or ABV, before giving their overall impressions and Briggs performs the big reveal. Bottle No. 1 is Basil Hayden’s, a light-bodied bourbon with a brief finish.

“Light spice. Very restrained. The taste brought the black pepper and smoke. It’s not citrus to me, more of a luscious, melony kind of sweetness, musky melon,” Connelly said.

There’s respect for the art and craft of distilling the spirit, and it shows. Talk remains refined and relevant. It sticks to whiskey – even after a few ounces.

The libation doesn’t bring out the salty sailor in any of these men. There’s a little gentle ribbing. But despite dislike or disappointment in a certain label, discussion is dignified. And that’s not – they assure – for the benefit of a woman in their midst. While members might become more animated – and their talk a little looser – they stay focused and civil, even when Pooler announced halfway through the second tasting – Maker’s 46 – “I just nosed the water.”

No. 3 – which turns out to be Elijah Craig 18-year-old single-barrel bourbon – is “dusty and sweet,” Green said.

Connelly gets something else: “Cheerios.”

“There’s something metallic in there,” Fry said. “It’s salty seashore.”

Green agreed: “I feel like I’m back on the docks in Kodiak.”

Or, Connelly said, “the basement of an old house that’s musty and damp.”

These aren’t bad things.

“I want more,” Connelly said. “It makes you want more.”

Briggs will eventually compile all of their tasting notes into a review that reflects that night’s discussion. He dreams of publishing a Spokane Whiskey Club tasting guide for beginners and organizing field trips to Kentucky, Tennessee and Scotland to visit festivals and tour distilleries.

In the meantime, he hosts private tastings for nonmembers. These, too, are themed. A recent event was dedicated to Canadian whiskys and attended by a dozen.

Crown Royal Cask No. 16 – “sugary” and “maple-y” – was first. There’s some smoke, and someone offers, “a warm, peaty flavor, earthy.” Then Briggs revisits Elijah Craig, which reminds a guest “of those honey sticks you get at Green Bluff when you’re a kid.”

Before calling it a night, Briggs offers one last rule of whiskey club, which goes for tastings, too: “Never drink alone for whiskey is best enjoyed with good company. It is the most social of drinks.”