Northfield's Secret Scotch Tasting Club

It’s as geeky as it sounds, but it’s also a spiritual endeavor

scotch, tasting clubs, northfield, minnesota, this northern life

Photo by esdras700/Fotolia

The Northfield Tasting Club meets once a month. Maybe 20 people are invited, but only 10 can attend, the first to respond to the email invite. The location changes every time, as if we were a secret society. After dark, in someone’s living room, we arrange a messy ring of couches and chairs, and drink single malt whisky. 

The curator (or high priest, or evil mastermind) is Arnab Chakladar, an English professor with a biting intelligence and a liver-slaughtering knowledge of scotch. After greeting everyone, he vanishes into the kitchen and returns with a tray of glasses bottomed with an amber splash. We will taste four bottles over as many hours, discussing and grading them based on the following categories: nose, palate, finish, and “wild card.” A Ledaig 13. A Glen Garioch 16 in a single bourbon cask. An Ardmore 16 in a single sherry cask.

Everyone is a nerd—a bookstore owner, a Medievalist, a physicist, a librarian, a political scientist, a computer programmer—and nerds are especially good at clever analysis, witty asides. Someone will sniff significantly and say, “Burnt caramel” or “Band-Aids” or “Cellar floor puddles.” Another will sip and say, “I’m getting a little bit of seawater-soaked melon,” or “This tastes like a wet sheep dog smoking a cigar.” 

The word “good” doesn’t cut it. Neither do opinions like “If it’s got a glen in it, it’s tasty enough for me.” If you are not interestingly engaged, and if your blood type is not 90 proof, you are not welcomed back.

Everyone scribbles down notes, because at the end of the night, Arnab meticulously enters the scores into an Excel spreadsheet. If you fail to keep a careful record, he will slowly turn toward you with his eyes half-lidded. The flames will leap in the fireplace and the shadows will retreat to the corners, and you will be eviscerated with the same level of verbal swordsmanship he uses to articulate his feelings for a beloved single malt.  

I don’t know how many book clubs, in how many cities, my wife has belonged to, but her complaint is always the same: “We talk for—maybe—five or 10 minutes about the novel. The rest of the time is devoted to gossip and Chardonnay.”

The tasting club would devolve similarly if not for Arnab. He will permit and even encourage some gossip—but if more than a few minutes pass without someone saying, “I love the briny complexity of anything that comes out of the Highlands,” or  “This batch reminds me of my grandmother’s morning breath…if she was sucking on a Werther’s Original,” then he will theatrically clear his throat and tap his glass with his fingernail. And everyone will shrink in their seats and return their attention to swirling and sipping their whisky.

This intensity is a good thing. It’s what makes the tasting club more than fun, but a challenge, as if we were playing a strategic board game with a mild buzz. How often, as adults, do we truly slow down and concentrate on exacting the flavor, the color, the meaningfulness of a moment? How often do we fall into lazy patterns and grow complacent about the books we read, the food we prefer, who we get together with and what we talk about?

For the most part, no one in the tasting club hangs out together except as part of the tasting club. It is a gathering of strange minds. We live in a charming but sometimes claustrophobically small town, but these living room gatherings feel global. We’re men and women, young and old, representing a cross-section of cultures and professions, presided over by Arnab, our severe bartender, our cranky oracle. 

Through the whisky, we talk about politics and chemistry and geography. Did you ever notice how scotch is named after a landmark, whereas bourbon is named after someone on the wrong side of the Civil War? How do the casks influence composition? Can you really pinpoint flavor based on a region? Our conversations sometimes take on the tenor of a religious debate, as we agreeably but zealously joust about a fussy little drink that somehow leaves us with a more rigorous, expansive appreciation of life. In this way Arnab has built his own church, and his congregation worships at an altar of peat

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