The Art of Whisky Tasting with Missoula’s ‘Scotch Whisky Guy’
He isn’t Charles M. Schulz’s Charlie Brown. And Snoopy isn’t his best friend: Scotch whisky is. Charlie Brown of Missoula has a lifetime of memories, travel, paintings, and whisky to call upon. They’re littered—in an organized fashion—throughout his home, trailing down to a man cave that would make one think, This is what they had in mind, when they first coined the term.
There is minimal shelving behind the bar where mementos from his lifetime of travel rub elbows. Photographs of trips to Ireland and Scotland and amber shades are sure to catch the flecks in any visitor’s eyes. They are rarities—both to Charlie and the world. The cabinetry opposite from the bar houses a variety of rare Scotch whiskies. Some sit in etched bottles with hand-drawn labels and others are hidden away in smooth wooden cases or sleek boxes, their names waiting to train your tongue: GlenDronach (pronounced glen-dro-knock), Glenmorangie (glen-mor-an-jee), Edradour (ed-u-dower).
He’s known as “the Scotch whisky guy” in our valley not because of his unique collection or too-cool-for-the-room tasting parties but because of his palate. It’s all about how smell and taste harmonize for the individual. This, Charlie says, is where the difficulty comes in: telling someone which whisky is better than another.
Typically, Charlie tells me, women are better tasters because of their heightened sense of smell, which is vital to the whisky tasting experience. So I confidently pick up the tulip glass Charlie has poured for me and follow his instruction for a perfect sip. First, he and I tilt our glasses, never swirling them, to avoid obliterating our smell. Then we nose our glasses. It’s the introductory whiff that wakes our senses and readies us for the taste. We do this a few times before keeping our mouths slightly open at the rim, helping us better discern the different aromas.
The mouth feel is what we’re experiencing when we take our first sip. It’s a small amount that coats and swishes around our mouths, much like tapping each wooden bar on a xylophone, tuning us into a symphony of the whisky’s flavors, aromas, and consistency. Ten seconds or more I welcome the whisky before swallowing, and then I take a sip of air and breath it through my nose to indulge in the finish and realize more flavors as they arrive.
I tell him my story of smoke, vanilla, and wood and remind myself not to ask for cranberry juice the way I would’ve in college. It’s like a magic trick that he has allowed me the ability to perform. No ice, no water, just whisky and its complex flavor profile.
Charlie walks me through his collection, each bottle a different memory or region of the world. Ireland, Scotland, Japan. He points to a bottle behind the glass and begins, “They accidentally mixed Glen Moray, an average Scotch whisky, in with Ardbeg Provenance, which is extremely expensive.” I cringe at hearing what seems like a colossal, costly mistake but Charlie laughs, remembering how his friend suggested that they taste it before throwing it away. Serendipity was bottled and enjoyed soon after, taking its place on Charlie’s shelf and in whisky history.
“You’re looking at some of the rarest scotch in the world,” says Charlie. “I’ve got bottles in there [that] I paid $80 for and they’re worth $2,000 now, just in two years.”
Many of his bottles come from distilleries that he’s tasted for. “I give them tasting notes…. It’s not a profession per se because they just enjoy my comments on what I like. They’re tasting the same elements that [I] taste.” In a way, he’s giving these distilleries validation of their own product.
But why have so many bottles, Charlie? Why collect them? He shakes his head and says that he doesn’t know why someone would collect whisky, even though he sells some of his inventory to collectors eager to get their hands on his rarities. “I’m not a collector,” says Charlie. “I drink them.”
One of his aunts was the first female naval caption in the navy. She went over to Scotland several times and every time she did, they’d reward her with bottles of scotch. Charlie would fly to California when she’d return home and drink them with her, realizing over the years that his palate was similar to that of a woman’s, sensitive to the layers upon layers of flavor and aromas that whisky had to offer. A U.S. Army veteran himself, Charlie founded the Scotch Whisky Society of Montana in 2005. Today, there are about 175 members, half of whom are women.
He holds the neck of another bottle as we stand together in front of the cabinet, which now feels like a tier of crown jewels. We laugh about their worth, how some have doubled or tripled within a few years. He tells me about the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs that have attended his parties and his friends—importers, bartenders, and bar owners—and the liquid that flowed from each toast.
“I’m not rich in terms of money,” says Charlie, putting another bottle back in its place. “But I am rich because I have a wealth of good friends all over the world.”
Together, we raise our last sips. “Uisge beatha,” toasts Charlie. Here’s to the water of life.