Put down the green beer and try something a little classier this St. Patrick’s Day. At Ri Ra’s new Whiskey Room (3125 M St. NW), sommelier Rachael Ewing will find an Irish whiskey — or perhaps a Scotch whisky or bourbon — that’s your perfect match. We asked Ewing, formerly the scotch specialist at the Adams Morgan bar Jack Rose, how she became an expert on the water of life.
How’d you get into Scotch whisky?
I studied at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. I needed a part-time job, so I walked into this local bar, and I told them I didn’t know anything about whisky but I would show up on time and I would try really hard. Come to find out that this bar [The Grill Bar] is a very well-respected whisky bar, one of the top bars in the world.
How did you start to learn?
I’d go home at the end of my shift and smell my hands, and go, “Wow, that smells like cherry or vanilla, or something barbecued.” I didn’t realize whisky could be like that. I could find my way along the shelves by smell a good six months before I started drinking it.
How did you become a sommelier?
The term “sommelier” isn’t traditionally used in whiskey, but one other person and I have adopted it to communicate that level of knowledge: not only the academic study but also the practical knowledge that goes into making sure people have the best experience possible with whatever they’re drinking. That being said, I’m certified. I’m a certified expert in the sales and service of Scotch whisky.
What do you focus on at Ri Ra?
Irish whiskey. It’s a very distinct style. We want to put it in context, so we do have scotch and bourbon. We really want to highlight the fantastic elements that whiskey in general has to offer, and show you how Irish whiskey fits into that and carves out its own niche.
Is Irish whiskey less popular than scotch?
A lot of people have a tendency to dismiss blended whiskies — a lot of Irish whiskey is blended whiskey — because of the fascination with the purity of single malt.
How does a “Whiskey Room” differ from a bar that serves whiskey?
I want you to be able to come in and have a conversation with me about what you like — wine, some type of food, cocktails — and then find the style of whiskey that will suit what you’re interested in, whether it’s bourbon or single malt scotch or single pot still Irish whiskey.
What are D.C.-area whiskey drinkers like?
Incredibly educated. People can come in and talk to me at length not only about Scottish regions but about the process. It’s just fascinating to sit down and talk to the average customer.
In the Spirit
Cooked in stills and stored in dark places for years or decades, whiskey is a mysterious and romantic drink. Styles include single malts fermented from malted barley, grain whiskey made from corn or wheat, bourbon made mostly with corn, and rye made from rye. You’ll find blended whiskies from Ireland and Scotland: they’re a mix of grain and single malt. When the drink’s made in Scotland, we call it scotch, and the Scots call it whisky, no “e”. Canadians also skip the “e” to name their whisky. Irish and American versions are usually referred to as whiskey, with an “e”. (Express)