Single Malt Brotherhood
Mark Canlis / May 2009
Blessed from afar in Scotland, Seattle's dynastic Canlis restaurant clan creates an inner sanctum of warmth and fraternity for dues paying whisky celebrants.
In the heart of the Northwest, on a sleepy hill overlooking mountains and lakes, there lies a hidden cellar. Behind rows of famous Burgundies, wooden boxes stacked high of first growth Bordeaux, and Italian super Tuscans rests one of the great whisky collections in America. To be clear, these are single malts: whiskies from Scotland. And they are all but invisible to the world, save for a small and thirsty contingency of men and women gone whisky-mad. They are the dram hunters, a society of Seattleites committed to community and secrecy and to baptism by firewater.
The Canlis Wine & Whisky Society is little more than a belief, a belief that Seattleites have wait-listed themselves to pay several hundred dollars annually to take part in. It's a belief that great wines and whiskies are made, and should be served, with a story; a belief about community, and raison d'être, and purpose. It's not just a belief that one family—a father and his three sons—couldn't possibly drink such a vast collection, it's that this family couldn't do it.
Founded by their grandfather in 1950, the first restaurant in Seattle with a liquor license, Canlis, almost 60 years an American legend, has indelibly penned this country's thesis on hospitality. Their guiding values are to be trustworthy, generous, and other-centered. It's this last one that manifests itself into a belief that a restaurant's role is to celebrate the stories of others.
So when it comes to drinking, this society has many tenants but one guiding principle: that each of us—man, woman, child, bottle—has a story worth taking the time to share…let's drink to that.
Drink they do. Here is one of the few places in the world to actually serve truly rare whisky by the glass. Members have Riedel stemware etched with their membership number. It waits at the table, along with a wine and whisky list that even 50 year regulars of the restaurant have never seen.
Each bottle in the society's small but fastidiously picked collection tells a story. To begin with, they are all 700ml—these bottles were never made for export. They were made by Scotsmen for Scotsmen. Indeed, their journey to Seattle is a part of their story.
Capped at 100 members, the Canlis Wine & Whisky Society practically isn't. There is no sign on the door, no sign even on the cellar. The bottles rest unnumbered atop unmarked wooden shelves. The common thread—what binds this band together—is uncommonly small. No country club list of high-brow afternoon sippers, these are whisky drinkers—that is all they share. Several of them own cellars as deep and wide as the host family's restaurant. Others scrape by on modest incomes—an artist, a film producer, two brothers who own a struggling Internet start-up. One member just passed his family business on to his son; another, a local clergyman, saves all week just to afford a dram of the amber liquid temptation.
As for the society's leader, most members have never met him. Enter Matt Canlis: Scottish parish minister, husband, father of four, and ringleader of a drinking society 8,000 miles away. As a pastor in the Church of Scotland, Matt is a man of the cloth who dispenses the water of life. The oldest of the three Canlis brothers, he resides in a town so small that even Google Earth pauses before showing a fuzzy, nondescript image of…well, there is no discerning. Welcome to Methlick, Aberdeenshire. Population: 462. Note the one road that "Ts" into route B9005—the one called Manse Road? That's where you'll find him: presiding over the smallest parish in Scotland, residing just a stone's throw from his sixth century church and sitting on a cellar full of the world's most treasured whiskies.
The fate of these bottles is what's so unusual. They are expertly packed in socks, tennis shoes, and sweaters and brought home to Seattle whenever a suitcase-toting family member is available. Visiting for Christmas? Bring back a bottle. Here to see the cousins? Make sure not to return empty-handed. The Reverend Canlis has a business card that reads "Canlis Restaurant: Chaplain & Whisky Consultant," and, so ordained, he has been collecting single malts with his restaurant-owning brothers (Brian and Mark) in Seattle ever since.
Not just any bottle, either. There are collectors who hunt the world over just to find a rare bottle—objects of obsession to be found, bought, and hung on shelves like so many bagged trophies. These brothers hunt the world over and let the bottles find them. "The whisky celebrates the people who found it. The focus is on the people, not the whisky," this pastor explains. A pastor raised in a restaurant his younger brothers now run. Drinking, it seems, has come a long way.
To illustrate, it is just before 10 a.m. Matt and his father, Chris, have already spent an hour with then-distillery master Stuart Thompson discussing marriage, children, sex, and religion. They have just toured one of the great distilleries in the world. In great mouthfuls they are drinking, straight from a cask, the coveted Ardbeg "Provenance."
Provenance, a whisky so rare that after Glen Eagles sold the last dram during a G-8 summit years ago, it was rumored to have disappeared from Scotland. A minister and his father, converted, become believers in the smoky, peat-filled wonders of Islay during a father-son sabbatical stay there. An idea, germinated with whisky, blossoms two years later. Seattleites join a society that flies Thompson to Canlis to repeat the performance for members. Provenance is not gone. It is hiding in Seattle.
Next to the Provenance on the list is a Highland Park Capella: it is never poured without paying homage to the famed WWII chapel for which it is named. It, like every bottle in the collection, was brought here in a suitcase. Each has a story, and to hear it, the brothers require you to share one of your own. There are many reasons to drink, many more ways to make a buck off of those who do. Imbibing of late seems to have lost a bit of its relational side. The Canlis brothers are critically aware of this. The return of the cocktail, the advent of the American home cellar/collector, a burgeoning demand in China, and a worldwide return to anything "authentic" have brought about a heightened awareness of Scotland's prized export. Single malts are in. Bantered and blogged about, rated and reviewed, any knowledgeable barfly will have a favorite for every night of the week. Collectors, eager to shelve the next impossible-to-find release, shell out unseemly sums, while businessmen try to impress with their power-purchasing bravado, and drink tabs for two soar into the hundreds.
In Scotland though, it rains 300 days out of 325. The remaining 40 days are so dark, so foggy, that at high noon one may only discern the weather by exiting the pub and standing amidst it. However, the company is typically so warming and the whisky so good that a pub-full of men couldn't give a damn about what it was doing outside. In Scotland, coal fires still burn. Stories are told. The histories of great men, ships, and wars are rehearsed. Poured whiskies in a thousand Scotland pubs weave an effortless national conversation: work, football, fly fishing, the farm. In St. Andrew's, talk of theology shifts quickly to how to repel a Roman empire with a handful of Highlanders. In Speyside, there is a toast to the recovery of a farmer's struggling flock. Scotland, a country of only five million, peers into the coming night storm and shores up with a friend, a neighbor, a wee dram. The art of relationships, taught from this rock in the North Sea, is about community. Life's joys and burdens are shared, and as the three Canlis brothers see it, they are best shared with whisky.
Seattle is known for its rain, its software, its airplanes, its coffee. Is this the next big push—putting community back in its place? Its cozy coffee corporation, Starbucks, already changed the way we spend spare time (and five dollars). Could wee drams of whisky shared in this country's capital of wet bring people into community in a way our society has forgotten? I know one man in Scotland who's praying for revival, and two of his brothers who will raise a glass to that end.