Heads, Hearts and

Whiskey Tales

Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories

Dills Tavern, Part Two:

The Rhymes Were the Reason

October 2020

None of the arriving guests seemed to notice the smokiness of the drafty tap room as they arrived at Dills Tavern. There is limited electrical and HVAC in the 18th century tavern, but the dim light was illuminated by bright smiles and the chill air warmed by greetings of friends who were assembling for a Robert Burns Supper and whiskey tasting. Dills Tavern may be one of the best venues for such an event. The tavern has been restored to its original 1794 Scots Irish architecture. The traditional meal was prepared on an open hearth, and guests were going to retire to rope beds in barracks styled guest rooms at the end of the night. On the property is a wheelwright shop, log barn, and of course, like most rural taverns - a distillery. The distillery is in the process of licensing and will operate using 18th century mashes and methods in hand-made stills.

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As other guests chatted and caught up on old times, TW slipped away. I was busy conducting final coordination and making sure everything was ready. After a long draw on a newly lit cigar, he posed a question framed as a statement, “I want to see how you are going to make this work; there appears to be no rhyme nor reason to your line-up”!  He was peering at a row of whiskies perched in the doorway of the guillotine bar. The eclectic collection of Highland, Lowland, Island, Islay, and American whiskies were aligned in formation like Scottish Highlanders and militia preparing to discharge a volley from their muskets. His question was reasonable since we conduct whiskey tastings together and as individuals. Through the years, we’ve agreed on some general rules: 1) Get a whiskey in the participant’s hand within 2 minutes of beginning the presentation, 2) five whiskies is a good number to explore, 3) have a sequence that builds on a taste profile or theme, and 4) it’s not always “what’s in the glass “ but can be “what was not in the glass”.  Pretty simple. It may have appeared random to a casual observer, but in this case the observer’s skepticism was unfounded.

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As the participants were piped to their seats, the guests were greeted by Regimental Sergeant Major Malcom MacWilliams and his assistant who prepared the traditional Scottish fare of haggis, neeps and tatties, cockaleekie soup, bubbles and squeaks, and shortbread that is served at events which commemorate the life of Scotland’s most famous bard.

As the participants took their seats, glasses were charged (well with-in the 2-minute time limit) with the first whisky - Glenkinchie. All rose, with glasses lifted, the Selkirk Grace was offered, toasted and amen-d! Glenkinche represented the Scottish lowland area of Burn’s birth. There are distilleries closer to his birthplace of Alloway, but they make grain whisky that is generally used for blends not single malts. In 1786, Burns borrowed a pony and rode to Edinburgh to sell his poetry. The Glenkinchie distillery was not around when Burns made his ride; however, the style of the whisky that is produced in this region became known as Lowland style. The distillery is only a few miles from Edinburgh. This whisky is light and floral, like cut flowers. It paired well with Cockaleekie soup which is chicken-based with leeks and vegetables. The soup was followed by a salad and the group prepared for the main course. But first, the empty glasses were filled with Talisker.

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I share the world’s fascination with the national drink of Scotland. But I have to be honest, their national dish - sheep’s offal ground up and mixed with oatmeal (even when seasoned precisely) - is still spiced sheep innards. To get to more whiskey, the boys had to eat the haggis. The Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race was delivered to the room with solemn drama. To say the poem “To A Haggis” was recited would be an understatement. RSM MacWilliams performed the poem in theatric fashion, plunging his sword into the “meaty buttocks” and drawing his knife to carve huge chunks of the warm-reekin rich.  Following toasts and a standing ovation to the recitation of Burns’ Ode to the Offal, huge plates of steaming haggis, neeps 'n' tatties, bubbles and squeaks were passed around the table. Talisker was a great compliment to the main course. Several whiskey writers recommended it. The peppery flavor went well with the rather plain haggis. The balanced smoke and peat served to pull all the smells and flavors of the plate and room together.

Lagavulin is never just an alternative. My respect for this delicious whiskey runs deep.

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The haggis pros recommended Talisker.  My amateur choice was the rich nectar from the salty, iodiny shores of Islay. I was not disappointed. This was a case of “what was in the glass” - sherry tones! The blast of flavor from the peated Lagavulin balanced by aging in Oloroso sherry casks was a perfect complement to the haggis. A sip, after a mouthful of the bland haggis, revealed and heightened the sweet sherry flavors of this whiskey. Reasonable men can disagree which whisky is the perfect shepherd for sheep innards. For me, it was Lagavulin 16, and an extra whiskey (6 vs 5) is an acceptable infraction of the rules!

After second helpings, we prepared for the final course.  Several members of the club rubbed their hands together in anticipation of the next whisky. They had spied it on the shelf. The Glenmorangie 18 year was opened.  The sweet aroma of this Highland whisky permeated the smoke of the fireplace and pre-dinner cigars.  The golden color shimmered in the candlelight as I filled each Glencairn. The nose of this whiskey was exquisite. The Glenmorangie was selected because it is Sergeant Major‘s favorite. TW described it as a complete whisky. Some whisky has an awesome nose or a great attack on the palate. Others have a wonderful blend of malt and smoke and long luxurious finish. Glenmorangie 18 has it all. The original spirit is finessed for eighteen years in oak casks with a finish in Oloroso sherry barrels gilding the fruity, floral delicacy. It is a completely sensational whisky. It was combined with homemade shortbread. I hate the phrase “to die for”, but if you like that phrase, it is an appropriate description of the combination. The buttery shortbread with the silky, sweet, luscious, honey of the whisky was well….you know!

With dinner complete, it was time for cigars to influence the evening’s sequence. The first after dinner spirit was Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout. This whiskey also had a special role. The ruffians and scoundrels who comprised the guest list that night were military men. While several border on “Renaissance Man” status, few reveal their soft, sensitive side. It was an event in honor of a poet. Several members questioned if they needed to prepare verse or poetry for the occasion. When challenged about getting in touch with his feminine side, Chuck retorted, “I’m just an Old Scout getting prepared for the event”. It was an irony not to be lost; and because TW visited the distillery and is a fan, it was added to the batting order. This is a high rye bourbon whiskey (36% rye). It was a great segue from the old world of scotches to the new world of American whiskey.  This whiskey gives a little pepper with the sweet. It led the transition from the luscious shortbread/ Glenmorangie combination to what was up next. 

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Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,       (those that make mankind their care)
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware         (old Scotland wants no watery ware)
That jaups in luggies:                                  (that slops in bowls)
But, if Ye wish her gratefu prayer,                 (but if you wish her  grateful prayer)
Gie her a Haggis!

On this night, the rhymes were the reason for the line-up.

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Cuban cigar roller Jesus Castanon has access to pre-embargo Cuban tobacco.  He combines it with some Pennsylvania 41 Broadleaf (a tobacco grown at the tavern) and rolls a cigar he calls The Fusion. Sticks were passed out and the last bottle opened. It was a Pennsylvania rye: Dad's Hat. The freshly rolled sticks were moist, burned evenly, and produced a good volume of smoke. These puros needed a young, spicy, peppery Monongahela style rye to reach their full potential and stand out in the crowded plethora of flavors from foods, spirits, and smokes of the evening. The whiskey got noticed. Randy, who arguably has the most sophisticated palate of the group said, “I love this whiskey”. He was seen in the corner, guarding the bottle and rationing the spirit to others in measured pours. The evening went on into the wee hours of the night. As the fires died down, we retired to the upstairs sleeping quarters of the tavern with bellies filled with haggis and spirits. Our prayers, according to Robbie Burns, were answered that night, even before they were offered…….   

Cheers, Murray