Tasting Dawson’s High Society

Sunday, October 16.

I arrived at the Scotch Club late. The meeting started at 4 p.m. and I had missed the formal introductions.

Two friends – seemingly also late – greeted me at our host’s door.

“We’re having a party for you,” said one.

“Dammit, I hate surprises.” I replied.

With the previous night’s light snow melting under our boots, we squinted into the sun’s late rays and talked about bad surprise parties. Then Eldo, our host, appeared at the door.

“Are you going to come in or what?” he hollered, shoulder-length silver hair swinging against a colourful tunic.

“We were waiting for you to invite us,” we replied.

Usually, about 10 people pay $75 a year to join the Klondike Fine Malt Club. Since its beginning in 2002, monthly meetings have taken place at different homes on a rotating basis. Others drop in for $20 a night.

Inside Eldo’s, it was packed and warm. Being the start of the season, this was a special meeting. Eldo had invited members and non-members alike, at no cost. For the first time, he joked, everyone he invited actually showed up.

Our host was well-prepared for a full house: a massive pot of borscht simmered on the stove, lamb and sliced farmer’s sausage accompanied a rich veggie casserole. Multiple bottles of Scotch were in circulation.

I plopped onto the couch in the teal and purple living room, an empty half-pint beer glass in hand. (Being an informal meeting, alternative glassware was deemed acceptable.)

In a vivid piece in The Globe and Mail in 2007, one of the Society’s core members, Lulu Keating, claimed: “The indicator of acceptance by Dawson City society is not how many winters you’ve endured here, but if you’ve been invited to the Scotch Club.”

Just three months since arriving from Toronto, I’m into the thick of it.

I had heard echoes of Keating’s tone in Eldo’s mocking words a few nights earlier. Leaning forward in his wooden chair at Bombay Peggy’s, blue eyes twinkling, rubbing his silver beard, he stressed that the Society was “very pretentious”.

Pretentious Dawson-style, that is. Most of the other attendees were also not Society members, though a handful represented a newly-formed junior Scotch club, which began earlier this fall.

Cradling my empty half-pint beer glass, I stared at the five bottles of Scotch and a special Scotch watering can in front of me on the coffee table.

I am not a Scotch drinker. In truth, Scotch had never touched my lips before that evening.

In a moment of latecomer’s remorse, I contemplated the bottles’ colours – from forest green, to olive green, to clear. I examined their shapes – wider bases, to slimmer necks, to bulging neck.

Where to start?

I poured a two-finger splash of 10-year-old Talisker, recommended by one of the junior Scotch clubbers as a favourite.

At formal meetings, the Society goes through the bottles one at a time, describing the colour and smell, sipping and swirling it in their mouths before swallowing. It is first sipped neat, then perhaps with a dash of water, or with a stone ice cube that chills the Scotch without watering it down.

Treating the event like a wine tasting, I stuck my nose in my glass. It smelled warm and woodsy.

I swirled the golden liquid, watching it make a mini whirlpool, then tipped it to my lips. My tongue tingled with its surprising spiciness. I swallowed. It flowed hot over my throat, my eyes watered and I felt as if I could spew fire from my nose.

As the flaming sensation died, a pleasant warmth set in. Not bad.

Turns out I had started closer to the “J” end of the palate spectrum. The usual route is to work down from “A”.

Scotches are rated from A to J, with J being the most smoky and peaty. An A-Scotch has honey notes, and is smooth and heathery. The double-matured Royal Lochnagar – one of the most expensive bottles of the evening, which I tried later – is perhaps a B.

As the guests trickled out around 11 p.m., six of us remained, forming new friendships and sharing stories in the teal and purple living room, until the last two bottles were nearly drained.

I walked home down Fifth Avenue alone, cheeks glowing, my warm breath rising in the frosty, darkness, thinking of the Yukon.

Something tells me it’s going to be a good winter. I’m excited to share it with you

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