“One guy told me it smells like a red deer in rut,” chuckles Bob Townsend, his hands planted on the bar as his towering frame leans forward to gauge his customer’s reaction to the dram of single-malt Scotch whisky he’s just poured.
“Reminds me of a caterpillar soaked in ethyl alcohol,” answers John Mionczynski irreverently, as he sniffs the golden liquid in his glass.
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried that,” Bob answers.
Mionczynski sips and nods. Satisfied, Bob leans back and scans the small bar to see who might be holding up the next wooden nickel, ready for another taste.
Words of compliment float up from each sipped glass: “Spectacular.” “Complex.” “Full throttle.”
And the names of the Scotches drift around the room: Bunnahabhain, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie.
It’s the monthly Second Saturday Scotch Sipping at Six at the Two-Bit Cowboy Saloon in the Miner’s Delight Inn Bed and Breakfast, Atlantic City, Wyo. Nowhere else in Wyoming — or perhaps even in the U.S. — will you find such a collection of Scotches in such an unlikely venue. As he has on the second Saturday of every month since July 2008, Bob’s selected three expressions to feature from among the carefully curated collection of 77 neatly lined up before mirrors on the back bar. The tasting is a treat for both the experienced Scotch drinker who’s looking for rarities and someone to discuss them with, as well as for the first-time taster who wants to learn to appreciate the drink. But as much as it focuses on this highly regarded beverage, the evening is also about meeting strangers and interacting with the assortment of folks who come from all over Wyoming and the West to taste. “There isn’t a stereotypical tasting,” says Bob, who never knows whether one or twenty people will show up.
“Our dress code is clean blue jeans,” adds Barbara Townsend, Bob’s “Sweetie.” The congenial, laid-back atmosphere distinguishes this from more formal, classroom style tastings. She’s arranged palate cleansers — homemade sourdough baguettes and miniature chocolate chip cookies — on trays in the dining room, and she greets guests at the door, stokes the fire in the fireplace and pours tastes at the bar.
The local snowplow driver and his wife, who works for the historical society, share the rocking love seat near the fire. Three visitors from Thermopolis perch on barstools, jotting notes after each whiff or sip. One taster, recently home from a deployment to Afghanistan with the Colorado National Guard, has driven five hours to treat herself to this relaxing evening.
“It’s like the whole world slows down,” says Barbara.
The featured malts of the evening are a floral Glen Moray from Speyside, followed by lightly smoky Kilchoman winter 2010 release from Islay, and then the pungent Ian MacLeod Smokehead. The fourth taste requires rolling a die and choosing a Scotch from within the region of Scotland corresponding to the number rolled. Bob presents a laminated map showing the distilleries. Finally comes the real fun: connoisseur’s choice. Bob asks a few questions about preferences, purses his lips behind his white handlebar moustache, turns and plucks a bottle from the shelf.
The Path to Atlantic City
Barbara, petite with sparkling eyes and a tidy haircut, grew up in Kansas and served in electronic maintenance and as a first sergeant for the U.S. Air Force. Bob, raised in Riverton, Wyo., entered the Air Force as an air traffic controller. They met one another at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, but several years passed before they started communicating back in the U.S. They were married in 1997, and after serving an impressive 52 cumulative years of service, both retired in 2000 and moved to Laramie to get their bachelors degrees from the University of Wyoming.
On a trip to Riverton to visit high school friends, Bob took Barbara to see historic Atlantic City. A for-sale-by-owner sign was tacked to the buck-and-rail fence in front of the Miner’s Delight. They’d never planned to run a bed and breakfast, but were enchanted by the town’s dirt streets and history, so agreed to give it a shot. Shortly after graduating in December of 2005, they bought the building, moved in and started making renovations to restore some of the historic quality to the rooms.
The inn was built in 1904 by the Carpenter family, who’d come west in a covered wagon. A daughter, Ellen, hosted guests and served meals there until 1961. Bob remembers coming to Sunday brunch at the Carpenter Hotel as a kid with his grandmother. In 1963 a couple from New York purchased the building, renamed it the Miner’s Delight, and opened a gourmet restaurant that served meals for 35 years. Barbara and Bob, the fourth owners, elected to keep the name Miner’s Delight, but not the 60s décor. They’ve exposed original handmade bricks and log walls in the kitchen and maintained the old wood stove and rough plank dining room table while fixing up guest rooms with local art, antique furniture, and quilts made in Lander.
Bob, who’s “always” been a Scotch drinker and started enjoying single-malt Scotches in the 80s, got the idea to host a tasting after a Scottish geologist stayed with them for eight days in 2007. Each evening, the geologist came to the saloon for a couple of “wee drams.” At the end of his stay, he gave Bob a list of recommended Scotches. Bob ordered each one. The first tasting was such a success — 24 people bought tickets and everyone “had a blast” — that he and Barbara decided to make it a regular event.
Whiskies with Stories
Heads turn as nine young men in shaggy haircuts and plaid, button-up shirts stroll through the door. Barbara collects $20 and hands out five wooden nickels to each of them. Employees of the National Outdoor Leadership School, they’re here from Lander to celebrate a buddy’s 32nd birthday. Another couple is celebrating their 19th wedding anniversary.
In one corner of the saloon stands an unassuming piano. Most likely built in the 1880s, this instrument was rescued from women’s suffragist Esther Hobart Morris’s cabin in nearby South Pass City in the 1960s. Barbara, Bob and Mionczynski transported the instrument — now on loan to the Miner’s Delight from the Atlantic City Historical Society — to Atlantic City from Laramie, where it was without a home.
Mionczynski’s fingers skitter over the keys and the notes of a lively ragtime tune mingle with the conversation. Gloria and Clemeth Skiles, who will drive nearly two hours home to Rock Springs later tonight, sit in easy chairs near the piano and make requests. Mionczynski has been known to play until keys fly off the piano, and Barbara keeps track of them so they can be glued back on.
Talk at the bar ranges from how much money the best calf-roping horses are winning at the National Finals Rodeo to tales of NOLS students canoeing whitewater rivers in the Arctic. In a break between songs, Barbara jangles the triangle that hangs behind the bar and holds up a basket. Inside are slips of paper with the first name of each guest. One of the men from Lander reaches in, selects a strip, unfolds it, and reads aloud, “Scott… That’s me!” He’s won a Laphroaig keychain, one of tonight’s many door prizes.
“People like whiskies with a story,” Bob says. Nearly half at the Two-Bit are limited editions or hard to come by. Take the Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky, the only blended Scotch at the bar, a limited edition replica of the drink chipped out of the ice below Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic hut in 2010. Or the Sherry Cask 1996 from the Arran distillery. Only 165 bottles were made, and Bob got 12 of them. Acquiring such rare Scotches requires negotiating with importers who control the number of bottles that come to the U.S. and to which states they go.
Bob started with just a few Scotches on the back bar and told Barbara he’d never have more than 30. When he got to 30, he said he’d never have more than 40. “I’ve reconfigured the shelves to accommodate the bottles,” he says. “I will not reconfigure again. We won’t grow beyond 77, but we rotate. Once we sell out of a limited edition, there is no way to replace it, so we always keep it fresh. There’s always something new on the bar.”
He and Barbara anticipate serving locally made Wyoming Whiskey at the Two-Bit at some future date; the distiller has told them, “It’ll be good and ready when it’s good and ready.” In the meantime, they are planning a trip to the Victoria Whisky Festival in British Columbia this January, by special invitation of the festival president who appreciated the uniqueness of their monthly tasting when he heard about it online. There, they’ll meet distillers and attend classes and tastings.
“This is the best thing that’s happened to Atlantic City,” gushes a local, one of the twenty-odd year-round residents in the remote town. The word whisky comes from the Gaelic usequebaugh, which means “water of life,” and maybe the Scotch tastings are just what is needed to bring new life to this quiet spot on the map.
(Banner photo by Brad Christensen/WyoFile)
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