I started to get nervous when the gas light came on. We weren’t exactly lost. We could have reversed direction on the dirt road we’d been driving on for more than a half-tank of gas, but I doubted that we’d make it out of the sagebrush sea before the fumes ran out.
We were in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming, searching for the almost-ghost town of Atlantic City. Founded in the 1860s by miners who sought their fortune in gold, it’s home today to just a few dozen people.
But twice a month, visitors make the trek from throughout the region to an old log cabin in town, now a bed-and-breakfast inn called Miner’s Delight, where the bar is stocked with rare single-malt Scotches.
I’d heard of the bar in Atlantic City that opens to the public only twice a month for Scotch tastings. I’d never tried Scotch, but I like bourbon, so I was intrigued. No experience or reservations needed, Bob Townsend, owner of Miner’s Delight, told me. Just don’t trust the GPS directions.
When the computer showed a route different from the highway I’d planned to take, I forgot Townsend’s warning. That’s how we found ourselves in the middle of endless open land.
We finally arrived at the inn, flustered and very late. People were seated at the small bar, using pipettes to dribble water into glasses of gold liquor, pausing to sniff before sipping and making notes afterward.
The inn possesses the charms of a classic bed-and-breakfast, with a wood-burning stove, a piano and plenty of seating in the living-room-like bar area. An antique cash register sits beneath the rows of shimmering glass bottles. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, an overwhelming display of Scotch.
Townsend knows each bottle — where it came from, the history of the distillery and the taste of its contents. Like something sweet? He knows just the thing. Prefer smoke? Here, try this. Don’t know if you even like Scotch? Have a seat.
Townsend doesn’t remember when he started drinking Scotch, but for years it was simply his drink of choice. It wasn’t until he opened the Two Bit Cowboy Saloon — the name of the bar in Miner’s Delight — that he became a Scotch scholar. He now starts his morning reading about a dozen whisky blogs that help him decide what to order. He attends festivals and always tastes the new shipments.
A Scotch bar in Atlantic City was never Townsend’s plan. There really wasn’t a plan when he and his wife, Barbara, both retired from the U.S. Air Force, visited Atlantic City in 2006. Bob grew up in nearby Riverton, Wyo.
They saw a “For Sale” sign in front of a cabin with a storied history that began in the late 1800s, when it was used as a hotel. It enchanted them. They bought it.
Townsend stocked the bar, which served guests and a few local patrons, with bottles of Scotch that he wanted to try.
As an excuse to sample a few more bottles, the Townsends hosted a community tasting in 2008 with 20 bottles. It was supposed to be a one-time thing but was so popular that the Townsends decided to try regular tastings every first Friday of the month. For $40, you can sample a half-ounce pour of each of three featured top-shelf Scotches, as well as two single malts of your choice. In 2012, to meet demand, the Townsends added a tasting every second Saturday, where $25 gets you three single-malt samples, then you roll a die and pick a whisky from the region the number corresponds to (Scotland is divided into six malt-whisky-producing regions), and the last dram is your choice. The best weekends are the ones that include both the first Friday and the second Saturday.
The bar’s selection has grown from 20 bottles to 86. Most are at least 46 percent alcohol by volume and some are cask strength. Usually, at least 20 bottles are single-cask offerings.
“That whisky can never be duplicated,” Townsend said. When the Arran distillery, on Scotland’s Isle of Arran, released a 16-year-old single cask Scotch to the United States for the first time, Townsend received 20 of the 165 bottles.
When one bottle is retired, it’s replaced by something new, with only a few exceptions, such as the 10-year-old Edradour that Townsend always keeps at the bar.
For Scotch connoisseurs, the tastings offer a chance to try a Scotch before committing to the full price of buying a bottle. And if you’re a novice, you get as much of an education as you desire. I learned that I like a smoky Scotch. As I sipped one known for its “big smoke,” the taste expanded with a puff in my mouth. It was like eating fire without the burn.
About three years ago, Steven Brutger of Lander, Wyo., heard about the Scotch tastings in Atlantic City. “It was the lore of Lander,” he said.
Brutger’s father and grandfather were Scotch drinkers, and he enjoyed the taste but wanted to learn more about it. After his first tasting, he started coming every few months to try whatever’s new on the bar.
“Going to Miner’s Delight has kind of been a game-changer for me,” he said, “taking me from casually interested in Scotch to really pretty darn excited about it.”
He’s not the only one.
Now when I go to a bar, I love to order Scotch.
Miner’s Delight Inn
290 Atlantic City Rd.
Atlantic City, Wyo.
Scotch tasting prices: First Fridays $40; Second Saturdays $25.
Dayton is a freelance writer in Missoula, Mont.