Matthew Rhys Journeys Through Whisky

Matthew Rhys keeps the bar aboard Rarebit well stocked for charter tours of New York Harbor.

Matthew Rhys Journeys Through Whisky

October 8, 2022 –––––– Susannah Skiver Barton, , , ,

Many whisky drinkers start their journey with inexpensive pours. For Matthew Rhys, that cheap bottle was a blended scotch called The Jacobite. But these days, the Welsh actor and star of hit shows like “The Americans” and HBO's “Perry Mason” has upgraded his bar cart.

“There's a little bit of everything, because as soon as you get known as a whisky drinker, that's what people bring you,” he says, rattling off Macallan, Bushmills, Lagavulin, Penderyn, and Jameson, which “has a special place in my heart” as the first “decent” whiskey he was able to afford as a young struggling actor. “That's what I love about whisky,” he says. “There's infinite variety. You can bounce around.”

But the whisky that turned Rhys into a devotee was from Islay: Lagavulin 16 year old. “Oh, that's what whisky is,” he says, recalling the moment that it went from mere alcohol to profound pleasure. “I liken it to Shakespeare in schools. You're brutalized by Shakespeare and you think, ‘Oh God, this is awful.' Then sometimes you see a production and go, ‘Oh, I understand—that's why Shakespeare is so good.' You're given a whisky like [Lagavulin 16] and you go, ‘Now I understand.'”

Rhys's awakening led him to explore more scotch, Irish, and—naturally—Welsh whisky, in particular Penderyn, whose distillery is about 30 miles from his hometown of Cardiff. An unpaid ambassador for the brand, he has been spotted sharing it with Hollywood friends and Brooklyn bargoers alike. As co-host of “The Wine Show,” available in the U.S. through Amazon Prime, Rhys has whetted his palate beyond whisky, though a dram from the home bar remains his preferred end-of-day pour.

Known for the complicated protagonists he has played, like the brilliant but flawed detective-attorney Perry Mason, Rhys likes to develop his own ideas about a whisky rather than following someone else's tasting notes. “They start saying things like ‘I'm really getting licorice and fireworks, gunpowder and tobacco'—and you're like, oh God, are you? I can't smell anything.” But Rhys admits to being suggestible when it comes to Talisker, a whisky that's on his bar a lot these days since he helped to launch its 43 year old Xpedition Oak last July. “When they say it is made by the sea—I don't know whether that's gone into my subconscious many years ago, but when I do drink it, I'm always aware of that statement and then I'm kind of going, oh yes, I can taste it. There's something elemental of the sea in this that I can taste.”

The sea flavors much of what Rhys is drinking these days when he spends time aboard the Rarebit, a wood-hulled Wheeler Playmate that he and U.S. Merchant Marine captain Kelli Farwell renovated and offer for charter tours of New York Harbor. The same model as Ernest Hemingway's famous Pilar, the boat features an onboard bar that Rhys keeps well stocked. At over 80 years old, and following a three-year renovation, the Rarebit has undergone its own journey of maturation, just like Rhys's palate—or a well-aged whisky. He compares the vessel to Talisker Xpedition Oak, which was finished on staves that had made a transatlantic sea voyage. “It's laden with history before you smell it,” he says. “You add another element and it lives again.”

No matter what he's drinking, Rhys prefers to sip neat, proclaiming, “Enjoy the water, but for the love of God, don't put it in your whisky.” He views it as a sign of respect for the maker. “I'm a little bit of a purist in that way,” he says. “I think whatever they've gone through—the great length and trouble—to make, you should taste.”

Icon Insider

Who: Matthew Rhys, actor
Seen in: “Perry Mason,” “The Wine Show,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “The Americans,” “Brothers & Sisters”
Preferred style: Single malt
Favorite whiskies: Penderyn, Talisker, Jameson, Macallan
How he drinks: Neat. “You should taste exactly what it is they set out to give you.”