An Interview With Whisky Expert James D'Arcy
Have you heard about Old Town Cocktail Week? It’s a wonderful new initiative celebrating the amazing craft cocktail talent we have here in Old Town. Because we never turn down a good opportunity to drink a fine beverage, Alexandria & Company is participating by hosting our friend and Old Town local, James D’Arcy (Brand Ambassador for The Macallan), at The Seedling Collective for two intimate whisky tasting workshops.
I first met James and his wife Shaun through our sons who are similar ages and favor the same playgrounds in the neighborhood. First and foremost, you can tell immediately that they are doting parents who love their job of raising their sweet son. Secondly, I was intrigued by their professional jobs: Shaun is a professor of dance at George Mason University, and James represents some of the finest names in the beverage industry. I knew pretty much immediately after meeting Shaun that we would hit it off as friends: we have similar interests, perspectives, and we both had toddler sons and labs in relatively small Old Town homes (so, similar vacuuming habits).
While brainstorming events for Old Town Cocktail Week, James quickly came to mind as a resource. His is profoundly knowledgeable about fine spirits in general but I knew our clients would especially appreciate his connection to The Macallan. James generously agreed to lead two private tastings with us and we couldn’t be more excited about what we have in store. In preparation for the events I decided to sit down with James to learn more about his background, what drew him to such a special job, and what he loves about living in our beautiful Old Town neighborhood.
It’s not every day that one meets a Brand Ambassador for one of the finest names in the fine beverage industry. How did you get started in this role?
James: My undergraduate degree is in Dance Theatre, and I stumbled into the industry somewhat by accident to pay bills. I would work in pubs in London (editor’s note: James is English) in between dance jobs and developed an interest, enthusiasm and finally a passion for mixed drinks and cocktails. This led to a lot of reading and further immersion in that realm. Once I started working at a member club in central London, The Club at The Ivy, I knew that I didn’t want to take the next dance job that came about.
It was through dance that I met my wife, Shaun, who is American and after a lot of back and forth across the Atlantic I made the move out to Orange County, California as a career opportunity became available for her there. I put down my shakers and strainers and stepped into the role of Beverage Manager for the five star, five diamond resort, The Resort at Pelican Hill.
This role had a greater emphasis upon wine and became my next passion and obsession for a while, until my son was born. He quickly became a new passion and we looked to move east to be closer to my family in the U.K. and my wife’s family on the East Coast. I first accepted another Beverage Manager position with an elite hotel in DC and then was recruited into the Brand Ambassadorship with Erdington, which owns The Macallan (among many other of the finest beverage brands in the world).
When you moved to the DC area, what drew you to Old Town?
James: The architecture, historicity, walkability, bike-ability (if that is a word?), sense of calm community, proximity to DC, MD and NC, the width of the streets, friends, playgrounds, the water, height of the buildings, lights in winter and trees in spring… should I go on?
Who has the best whisky selection in Old town?
Jame: I actually don’t know, hmmm. It could be a long week of stopping in everywhere during Cocktail Week to find out!
Have you always had an appreciation for whisky or did you learn your way into it?
James: The first time I ordered whisky as a student in a bar in London, I made the mistake of choosing the strongest available. No, I didn’t enjoy it and neither did my friends.
Roll forwards a number of years and we are all whisky enthusiasts and continue to share experiences, when the Atlantic doesn’t get in our way.
I often describe an appreciation for whisky or spirits in the same way that I would any visual arts. One person can spend hours in front of a blank canvas and have a profound experience, whilst others may walk by without even noticing. Our bodies are not designed to drink high levels of alcohol, which is why we have to be responsible, but the alcohol is almost like a canvas. Until you are familiar with a canvas, you can’t necessarily appreciate the painting. Once you are attuned to the consistent aroma of alcohol, it become the vessel to allow the complex and intense world of aromas and flavor to live, breathe and allow the opportunities for profound moments.
I think it can be learned, allowed, pursued and developed in many ways. As with anything, what you put in is what you get out.
Do you have recommendations for those of us who aren't keen on whisky and how can we come to appreciate it?
James: If you have a desire to enjoy whisky, read on. If you do not, you can enjoy whatever you want to enjoy!
If you are trying to develop your palate and become more keen, I would recommend trying numerous whiskies side by side. This does not mean drinking lots of whisky, simply comparing the aromas of many side by side.
The world of flavors in the world of whisky is broad. From sweeter Bourbons, to heavily peated and smoky whiskies from Islay. When we line a few up side by side, we can start to appreciate the difference from one to another. Sometimes, the first positive experience with any whisky is to say “I like this one better than that one”.
I have two rules for drinking whisky.
1. Drink it how you like to drink it.
2. Don’t tell others how to drink it.
You hear a lot about having it neat, with a drop of water or with ice and people will vehemently argue over what is correct. We are all different and enjoy different flavors and experiences, so you do you.
If you are looking to find out how you personally like to enjoy whisky, I would recommend the following.
1. Try it neat
2. Try it with a few drops of water
3. Add ice
Served in these three ways, the same whisky can taste profoundly different. You can never undo and return whisky back to how it poured from the bottle, so I typically recommend this order if you are trying to find what you enjoy.
A few weeks ago I had a mezcal cocktail at Urbano 116 that I’ll never forget: it was so good, and so interesting in a way I never knew was possible with mezcal (I am admittedly very ignorant of it). Have you had a world-changing cocktail?
James: A Perfect Manhattan made with Sazerac Rye 6 Year, Dolin Blanc, Carpano Antica Formula. This cocktail, in a private club in Chelsea introduced me to the magic of perfectly balanced drinks and how much theatre, magic and performance there can be when visiting a bar!
I would imagine that making the shift from Beverage Manager at a top luxury hotel to a more sales-oriented role was a huge change for you. What drew you to being a brand ambassador for The Macallan?
James: The Macallan is an absolutely iconic single malt. It has a history and place in the world of scotch whisky that is unparalleled and this sings from every dram. Having spent the previous five years working within the luxury hospitality realm it felt like a natural step that made use of my skills and passions developed from my time in dance, through my wine and spirit studies and exams.
I do not consider myself a great salesperson, in the sense that I could not “sell ice to the Eskimos”. I have to believe in something to advocate for it, and both The Macallan and the company at large called Edrington is filled with leading brands, great people and a culture that tries to give more at every turn. I wanted to be a part of that.
What is something that would surprise people about your trade?
James: It surprised me, that in America, we cannot make and sell alcohol. We have to have a middle man, or distributor. All nations have their own ways of controlling alcohol, but this surprised me. Another is how seriously responsibility is taken at both a consumer and corporate level.
1) Way to spend a free day in Old Town?
Simply walk around. To see construction with my son, the water with my wife, and the park with my dog, Luna. With where we are based Windmill Park at the riverfront is a convenient way to do all three!
2) Beverage and how you like to enjoy it?
A cheat of an answer, but the beverage I am having with my family or friends. The experience and memories is the special part to me, the intricacies are my profession.
3) Day trip outside of Old Town?
Still being somewhat new to the area, I do not yet have a favorite. I have enjoyed visiting the amazing countryside in all directions. Suggestions are welcome!
4) Local distiller?
I honestly have pretty limited experience with local distillers, but have loved tasting and interacting with the folks at:
5) Local haunt?
Probably Captain Gregory’s, which I only heard about through you. So thank you!
Follow James @whiskydarcy and make sure you check out our upcoming workshops!