Heads, Hearts and
Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories
Dills Tavern, Part One
(The First Ninety Seconds)
This past January I was invited to attend a Robert Burns dinner at the historic Dills Tavern in Dillsburg, PA. The Dills Tavern is an 18th century tavern that now serves as a living history museum complete with the main tavern house, barn, smoke house, wheelwright shop, and, of course, a historically accurate distillery. We were going to have a traditional Burns dinner followed by a whiskey tasting and then sleep over in the inn. I knew it was going to be a special evening in a historic venue, but I had no idea just how much of a trip back into time it was actually going to be.
This is my experience…
Murray meets us in front of the Tavern on this cold, overcast afternoon. He takes a long draw from his cigar and beams with pride over the events that he has planned for this evening. I go inside alone as he greets the other arriving guests.
Like countless weary travelers over the last two hundred years, I unlatch the cold, cast iron box-lock of the solid wood front door with a chunky click. Pushing the door, I feel its weight as it opens. Walking in through the door, it’s dark in this unlit front hallway. I was expecting to be met with a rush of warmth common to walking into any building in the 21st century; there is none. It’s as cold in this front hallway as it was outside; maybe colder, for the darkness and solid stone walls drain any radiating heat I might have swept in with me from the heated car.
Moving through the darkness, I’m trying to strain my eyes which are not yet adjusted from the overcast, late afternoon light outside. I manage to find my way through the doorway from the front hall into the next room. I pass by a man in the haze; he’s dressed in a kilt. We exchanged brief greetings as he drifts past me - he is following after Murray.
Like a ghost of the house dressed in 18th century garb, the man in the kilt paid no more attention to me than would any tavern patron passing another stranger in these halls. I turned to watch him disappear through the doorway. Out of sight, I hear his footsteps pause at the front door and the sound of the cast iron box-lock echo off the stone walls in the hall as the door opens and closes.
This next room is only slightly illuminated with a glow from the fireplace on the adjacent wall. Cast iron pots simmer in front of the small flame, and whatever food is being prepared in them smells wonderful.
I find the next door into the tavern’s taproom, a small tabled room for eating and drinking. I’m taken aback by the level of smoke in this room. The window, with its glass panes rippled from the years, filters in the grey light from the dim sky and adds to the haze and surrealistic atmosphere as I scan the room. The fire is crackling with hot flame and coals, and there are a few candles adding some tone to the grey hue as my eyes finally adjust. It’s my nose that cues me into the fact that it’s Murray’s fragrant cigar, not the fire or the candles, which has this room thick with smoky ambiance.
The warmth of the fire draws me over, and I hold my cold hands outstretched to it. I ponder, how often have my exact footsteps been echoed through centuries from the front street to this tavern’s taproom fire, seeing, smelling, and hearing those very same kinds of things on the way?
I was mesmerized by my first 90-seconds in the Dills Tavern. I have visited many living history exhibits before; I love history, and I live in a great area to experience it. I’ve even been privileged to be a special guest at some great historical sites and museums before. But I have never walked back in time like I did as I wander through into the Dills Tavern.
Murray enters the room and offers me a dram to start off the evening’s exploration of whiskey: Glenkinchie. I sip the Lowland Scotch and slowly turn, examining every detail in this historic place. The whisky is sweet and floral, with fruit and cereal. It seems even more intricate and delicate in contrast to these rustic conditions that I am experiencing.
In our modern times of the 21st century when we are constantly blasted with sensory overload, it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate all of the quiet and subtle nuances in a whiskey. Reduce your living conditions down to a stone house with an open fire and suddenly the flavors in the glass seem to be a work of magic.
I continue to take it all in. On the other side of the room are the whiskies of the evening, lined up, presumably in the order we are to indulge. In all good whiskey tastings, there needs to be a theme in the whiskey; a thread that ties the whiskeys to the event or to the evening or to each other. There must be a method to the madness.
Murray and I have conducted tastings together for many years. We always have a well-developed theme. I scan for his method in this lineup and find none. It starts on the left with the Lowland I have in my glass. The far right ends with an American Rye. There is chaos in between. There needs to be a flow to the order of whiskeys at a tasting. The whiskeys need to build on each other, each taste must support the next glass to come and at the same time complement the glass just finished.
Could it be that Murray got so involved in coordinating this truly awesome historic location that he violated one of our cardinal rules by not developing a meaningful, comprehensive flow to the whiskey-flight? I look again at the lineup – how can you justify an Islay in the middle a Lowland and a Rye. How can he make the transition from an 18-year Highland to a Bourbon? Perplexed, I stand here wondering if Murray did indeed fall short on the spirit compilation? How in the hell is he going to make this work?
I take another sip and pull a cigar from my coat pocket. The aroma of the food in the cast iron pots takes my attention away from the bottles of whiskey – it smells great and I’m starving! The log burning on the fire rolls forward and the flame doubles in size and brightens the room. I can hear the voices and laughter of the rest of my friends coming in from the street. Someone is starting to play bagpipes. I can feel the energy building - this is going to be a great night!
To be continued…
In October’s edition of The Whiskey Network, Murray will have his chance to tell the rest of the story.