Detour Before Dark: Drinking Scotch at the Imperial with the Mother Lode Scots
By Scott Thomas Anderson — first published in the Roseville Press Tribune
The Scots have an expression: “Alcohol does not solve any problem, but then neither does milk.”
Popular culture tells us kilts or claymores are emblems of Scotland’s daring, inventive, often bloody quest for self-determination; but when it comes to heritage, a real Scotsman lets the nation’s whisky do its talking — that explosive collision of barley and clear water that plumes with enough hard, flaring combustion to spark an Ode to the gusto of the Highlands.
Every year, a group of Scots-descended men and women gather at the Imperial Hotel in Amador City to host a Burns Supper, the worldwide salute to their enduring culture and a tribute to the restless poetry of lochs that are far, far away. Since 2013, this transporting event is held within the walls of a 136-year-old hotel that witnessed Scottish immigrants help build the foundation of California.
It’s a Wednesday night at the Imperial, and from the winter light fading in its Gilded Age saloon to the classic gingerbread moldings over its garden windows, this Western Victorian hotel is buzzing with conversation. Stuart McNaughtan and Carl and Marilyn McDanel, members of the Mother Lode Scots, take a seat the in the bar. They settle in, glancing at the rough red bricks that is the backdrop for their annual celebration of Robert Burns. Tonight the old hotel is a spectacle, with banjo, mandolin and ukulele players picking Appalachian Celtic songs in the back as hill folk rap under clawed hunks of plaster clinging to stone and tap their feet on century-old floor planks. A cowboy sips his wine near the original wanted poster F.N. Staples, a doctor from Amador City who poisoned his wife in 1904 before gallivanting off to San Francisco with a younger women. There is a good chance the graying portrait of Dr. Staples has hung on the same section of the tavern’s wall ever since.
Three beers and a glass of Scotch are dropped in front of McNaughtan and the McDanels. The Imperial is owned by the McCamant family and, as such, it keeps a respectable collection of Scottish whisky at its bar; but the link between the hotel and immigrants from the Highlands and Lowlands goes back farther. The Imperial was built in 1879 as a bordering house for men who refused to give up the disintegrating dream of California’s Gold Rush. It offered drinks and beds to prospectors like James Horn, who arrived from Scotland’s Lanarkshire in 1851 and mined the hills just north of the hotel. The Imperial’s doors opened at the same moment Robert Aitken, of the Clan McDonald, was arriving from Glasgow to work as a butcher and teacher before getting elected one of the area’s first supervisors. In those days the hotel was equally familiar to Dr. Alexander Gall, who immigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland, to be among the region’s main physicians. For the Mother Lode Scots, the Imperial’s anchorage to this history makes it ideal for hosting their Burns Supper.
“People say that when you walk in here, it’s like walking back in time,” Marilyn McDanel says over her beer.
Her husband agrees.
“Even though he died at end of the 18th century, and this hotel was built in the 19th century, we’ve had members say they can envision Robert Burns actually being in here,” Carl adds. “The Gold Rush only lasted a couple of years, but the Scots arriving around the time the hotel was built ended up becoming important farmers, ranchers and merchants. This county was practically founded by the Scots.”
The whisky currently on the table is The Macallan 12, which washes down with a vintage kindle in the throat, followed by a singing, sour butter-spice that turns around the edges of its taste. The Imperial Hotel also serves The Macallan 18, a golden Scotch that uses Sherry oak casks, Douglas fir washbacks and rare squat stills to bring out the silkworm smoothness of its advanced age.
Glenlivet is another popular Scotch at the Imperial. Distilled in Speyside, it’s known for the calm, icy reflection in its bloom, along with bold oak echoes and a heated sweetness in its pinch. Glenlivet pairs perfectly with the Imperial’s roasted garlic and warm Brie plate, served with olives, mixed greens and a baguette. In a nod to the greatness of modern Scottish and Irish cuisine, the Imperial’s chefs constantly source fresh ingredients from small-scale farmers and ranchers in the foothills. In the case of the Brie plate, the result is an oozing, sap-like collapse of cheesy sharpness that pools around caramel-dark garlic cloves melting in your mouth: A few bites and its salty aftertaste literally glows against the flavors of the Glenlivet.
Any bartender at the Imperial is also no stranger to Cutty Sark, that flagship Scotch from the working class streets of Glasgow. Cutty Sark is a rare, pale whisky with a pine-sour bite, accented by a touch of sweet smoke and a hum of peat from the bogs. The bottle is named after an old clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, though fans of Robert Burns know the term has a more mischievous association: In the Scottish dialect, a sark is a short undergarment. Burns made the words famous in his darkly irreverent poem “Tom O’Shanter,” in which a man traveling through country at night stumbles upon a coven of young, beautiful witches holding a ceremony in the ruins of a church. The hero watches the Devil gleefully play his bagpipes as the women dance and undress into sarks, until the poet becomes so infatuated with the most stunning witch that he gives his position away by yelling out to her, “Weel done! Cutty-sark!”
With its emphasis on whisky drinking, nocturnal revelry and flights of the imagination, “Tom O’Shanter” was one of Burns’ more memorable explorations into the Scottish mindset. One might say it hints at a Highland way of seeing things that the Imperial’s head bartender, Pete Hertzog, has come to better understand since hosting the Mother Lode Scots’ event in recent years.
“I like the energy that the Burns Supper brings to the hotel and the fact that people are so involved in their costumes and speeches,” Hertzog says. “For a larger group, it’s people who are really happy to be here. It’s always a serious party. And who doesn’t like bag piping in short bursts?”
In 1997, the Mother Lode Scots, based in Amador County’s foothills, was a club on the verge of collapse. The same night Stuart McNaughtan joined half of the group’s leadership resigned in an unrelated quarrel. A hardworking man of Scottish stalk, McNaughtan immediately began trying to rebuild the organization. Today, the Mother Lode Scots are known by Celtic culture groups across the state as one of the most buoyant organizations around. I talked to McNaughtan about his clan’s famed Burns Supper, which happens again on Jan. 16 at the Imperial Hotel in Amador City.
Scott: There are Burns Suppers in Sacramento, San Francisco and Southern California: Why is the little one put on by the Mother Lode Scots so popular?
Stuart: It’s not as stuffy as the others. Burns Suppers are quite formal affairs. They usually have this grand format that they follow. It can be exceedingly long and dry. We use a little of it, but our Burns Supper is more causal and lively, and people have a lot of fun … Robert Burns himself wasn’t a highborn or stuffy person. He was known as ‘ploughman’s poet’ during his own life.
Scott: Given that Robert Burns’ poetry uses a Scottish dialect, why do so many people around the world still relate to it 219 years after his death?
Stuart: Well, “Old Rabbie,” as well call him, had quite a colorful history. This man loved women, over and over and over — and they loved him — and most of his poetry was about his different loves. But you get the sense that, in each case, he did love that woman at the time and it wasn’t just a passing thing. He truly loved all of them equally (laughs) even when he was married … He died young, at the age of 37, and so his poetry is heartfelt. He wrote to the common person. His lines weren’t meant for royalty. So even when you read it today, it really connects.
Scott: As someone of Scottish descent, why are the Scots themselves so enamored by Burns?
Stuart: He was very patriotic about Scotland. He was political, especially when it came to the treatment his country got from England. When Burns rails against something in his poetry, it’s quite dramatic. Even his decision to write in the Scottish language was a political act: It makes him really important, even though it’s hard to understand some of the poetry today.
Scott: What’s Burns biggest accomplishment?
Stuart: Once a year, on New Year’s Eve, people all over the globe get together and sing one of his poems whether they know it or not — ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ It’s permeated the culture more than he could have ever imagined.