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At Dwyer's Pub Scotch Club, bonding over love of whiskey – and wings

Somewhere in the temperate, seaside country of Scotland, Geoff Boulden's own barrel of young Scotch Whiskey is aging.

The barrel, which holds 280 bottles of whiskey, won't be ready for 10 years. But his friends at the Dwyer's Pub Scotch Club bought a share of it to drink when it's ready - in a decade.

"So we all have a reason to live," Boulden said.

That's a good incentive if you've spent one Sunday a month for the past eight years testing, discussing and learning about whiskey.

There's something about a Scotch Club that conjures an image of a wealthy gentleman's club pretentiously discussing whiskey and  business endeavors or something.

But upstairs at Dwyer's Pub, in a room with neon bar signs illuminating windows and filled with members clothed in baseball caps and T-shirts, Dwyer's Pub Scotch Club could not be further from that image.

Small clusters of characters shuffled up the creaky stairs at the North Tonawanda pub. As each one greets their friends, they set their drinks down and pull out three whiskey glasses. Most people bring their own glassware to Scotch Club, along with a passion for whiskey, history and the pub's regionally famous chicken wings.

At one table, three men cheered their pints of Guinness, pregaming the meeting, which centers around three distinct whiskey tastings. A woman greets each table with paper cups full of chocolate she brought from home because chocolate complements whiskey.

The men behind me discussed the fall of department stores and the rise of Amazon as they caught up on a month's worth of news. “I’m willing to predict that in ten years, we won’t have a shopping mall anymore,” one said.

These are just a few of the people filling the seven, circular tables at Dwyer's Pub, a group that is equally (if not more) about socializing than Scotch.

Friendships and Scotch

On 12 Sundays a year, a close-knit group of Scotch enthusiasts taste three new fiery liquors and learn whatever random facts founder Keith Sexton has in store for them.

Within its brick walls and brassy ceiling, friends have been bonding over Scotch for years, up to nine years for some of them, such as Boulden. He's been been coming every month since 2010 — and, as he joked, enjoying the samplings. “I can’t remember a thing,” he added, then burst out laughing.

At the first meeting in January 2010, there were 11 people.

“And we’ve never had less than that since," Sexton said.

On a recent, cold Sunday night, members knowingly discussed the "nose," "body" and "finish" of each Scotch with verisimilitude. It was clear they've learned something at these monthly meetings, especially since each burning drink tasted like Scotch, Scotch and more Scotch to my unsophisticated palate. Members speak their own language of distillery names and whiskey types and flavors.

This isn't the only Scotch club around. It's not even the only one in Buffalo. Gates Circle Wine and Liquor offers a club with a slightly similar premise, opting for members to pay a $100 quarterly fee and receive a bottle or two of "rare or special release bourbons," discounts and whiskey-related news. (No Dwyer's wings, though.) Some national clubs, such as Flaviar, Taster's Club and The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society Bottle of the Month Club, offer curated monthly packages of new whiskeys, shipped right to the drinker's house.

But those don't offer the camaraderie that comes with sitting in a room together, eating messy raspberry barbecue wings and swigging down liquor.

These members love Scotch, but it's clear in the loud, laugh-filled room that the people filling these tables for months that spill into years, are tied together by more than Scotch tastings.

The tasting process

Sexton placed a cup of water and a plastic dropper on each table, to be added to the whiskey before tasting. (There's a super complicated reason behind it, but essentially, a drop of water might make the whiskey smell better.) A sheet of paper described each whiskey we would be tasting, as well as the cost and brand.

Sexton carried a water bottle full of whiskey and topped with a spigot and began pouring whiskey into each taster's glass. He was carefully rationing the whiskey. “Normally I’d just eyeball it but we’re pretty packed tonight,” he said.

David Duke has been religiously attending meetings since January 2011, back when he was in grad school. "I felt like the only way to make it through grad school was a lot of prayer and whiskey," Duke said.

His son plays the violin at every holiday meeting, growing up before the other members' eyes.

“I can go buy Scotch and I can look online for YouTube videos on how to make Scotch. It’s a lot of social stuff that I enjoy here," Duke said. "These are my friends... I can count on them for a lot, having known them for eight years and having drunk with them.”

The Scotch Club meets at 7:30, but on this Sunday, the meeting began around 8:30, after all of the Scotch had been poured and chicken wing orders were taken.

“Our first distillery tonight is Cardhu,” Sexton said. “It’s the first distillery, maybe only, owned by a female.”

Cardhu is a Speyside distillery known for its single-malt Scotch and female-driven history. Helen Cumming founded the distillery in 1811 and her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Cumming, took over in 1872.

“Yay!” a woman near the front says.

“How old is she and is she married?” a man toward the back asks.

Sexton plays a relatively high-production video with glamorous shots of the quaint, old Scottish distillery. Two men in the video are about to smell their pours of Scotch. Then he pauses the video. Because first, it's our turn.

“Okay, we’ll give it a nose first, see what we get. Then we’ll let them smell, see what they get,” Sexton said.

The Scotch is a $46 Cardhu 12-year.

“I definitely get like a soft melon,” Sexton said. “Cantaloupe.” Everyone pitched in. “The lightest of grassy notes.” “Vanilla.” “Citrus.”

I smelled… whiskey.

“Never any wrong answers," Sexton said.

“What do we think about the body? Light, medium, full? I’ll go light-to-medium... What flavors upfront? What do we think about the length of the finish?”

Keith Sexton reads information aloud about Scotch to members of the Dwyer's Pub Scotch Club.

Overall, the meeting feels a lot like a class. Not a boring one.

One in which you can drink.

Sexton encourages group input, shows informational videos about each distiller and shares whiskey news. At the end of eight years of this, you should know quite a bit about Scotch.

“Glenfiddich is maybe the only distillery that I know of that [has] their own cooperage on site,” Sexton said. A cooperage is where distillers make the barrels, I learned before it was time to swallow down a sample of Glenfiddich Fire & Cane, a $50 Scotch.

“What do we think about the nose here? I get like a smoky peppermint,” Sexton said.

A quick video of the Scottish countryside plays next, set to peaceful Yoga-like music, to introduce Speyside Distillery Spey Tenne, the cheapest and most alcoholic Scotch, at $44 and a 46 percent alcohol percentage. “OK, so it’s just one of those videos that makes you wish you were in Scotland drinking this instead of North Tonawanda," Sexton said.

“Give it a nose,” Keith said. “You can definitely smell a strong, firm sweetness. A hint of dark chocolate, cinnamon."

Finding a love of Scotch

Sexton started his club to share his love of Scotch with friends and community members. He's loved Scotch ever since he decided he didn't hate it anymore, after a customer at the Wine and Liquor Outlet in Lockport, where he works, told him he had to try the right one (Glenmorangie Port Wood).

The members of the Edmonton Scotch Club in Alberta, Canada, wrote out a full list of instructions for budding clubs. It includes good friends, a wealth of information about the distilleries, chocolate and club logo patches. Dwyer's Pub has mastered all of the above, except with club T-shirts instead of patches.

When Sexton looks around, he doesn't see customers -- he doesn't profit from this, all of the money goes back into the club or to the bar -- but he sees tables of friends.

“I look at this whole room of people and I think ‘I would never know these people if I didn’t do this,'" Sexton said. “It’s the friendships that can’t be discounted.”

As for their favorite whiskeys? Two people couldn't answer. They both said it was like choosing a favorite child.

“It’s a personal thing, which is the beauty of it. Everyone’s different. It’s not gummy worm vodka," Boulden said. "You might like a certain kind and it just works for you. Maybe it’s like perfume or something. It works for you and your chemistry.”

Geoff Boulden is a big fan of Scotch now. He has a Scotty dog. His wife enjoys bagpipes. They've both visited Scotland. And yes, they plan to go back.

"I can now visit my barrel," he said.

Dwyer's Pub Scotch Club

Where: 65 Webster St., North Tonawanda

When: One Sunday a month. Check the calendar for the date. The next meeting is Dec. 9.

Cost: $15 for just the Scotch tastings and $25 for the Scotch, 10 wings and a drink (beer, wine or cola).

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