2016 Whisky Wind-down, 1: Strong Finish


Today’s dram: Ardbeg, Corryvreckan

Today’s tasting notes: Before I can describe the experience of drinking this, I need to tell you how I found it.

I owe my love of Scotch whisky to reading and friendship.

Principally, it’s due to one of my oldest, dearest friends. We’ve known each other about three-quarters of our lives, and over the course of that time we’ve been influencing one another in various ways, the most consistent of which is reading recommendations.

Several years ago, he recommended to me Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Among other vices, the protagonist drinks Scotch whisky, with Laphroaig a favorite.

The writing made it sound good, so my friend picked up a bottle and has been collecting ever since. Whenever I visit his home, he brings out whichever bottle(s) he’s recently acquired and we enjoy a dram or two while catching up.

Lately, it’s been the same when he’s visited me. I was slow to pick up an enjoyment of Scotch whisky, but with time I’ve come to love it, and I take great joy in finding something before my friend does.

Thus, when he recently hit a milestone birthday, I turned to an author I was pretty sure he had not gotten around to yet, Joe Abercrombie. He writes grimdark fantasy, so Scotch whisky doesn’t appear in his fiction. But oh, does he go on about Scotch whisky on his blog.

I was pretty sure my friend would not be prepared for Abercrombie’s Whisky Deathmatch winner, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and I was proven correct when I gave him the bottle.

Then he opened it, and we realized no one can be prepared for Ardbeg Corryvreckan.

This is cask-strength, big Islay whisky at its finest, with complexity galore added in.

At 57.1 ABV, it threatens to sear itself into your senses just on aroma. Fight through that. Inhale deeply. Find yourself in a peat bog on fire. Seek the ocean nearby. Promise of safety. Sip. Crashing. Waves overhead. Timbers around you. Someone screams. Darkness. Across from you, a hag in plaid smiles a broken-toothed smile and shakes her head at your foolishness. She gestures at the glasses laid out on her table. You toast. You drink. You wake. Gasping.

Today’s thoughts: A few months later, I thought, Shit, I need a bottle of that for myself.

It has been sitting, quietly, lurking at the back of the Scotch whisky shelf, waiting.

I’m still a bit under the weather, with diminished senses, but fuck it; I’m ending Whisky Wind-down the way I wanted.

The tasting passage above is half-memory, half bowled-over-just-now.

Wow.

Just, wow.

The Corryvreckan, if you are unfamiliar, refers to a sea passage off the northern coast of Scotland. It is famous for a persistent whirlpool, which is the subject of myths, legends, and lost souls.

There are but hours left in the year as I sit and sip and ponder, staring into that swirly abyss.

“The year went by fast.”

“The year can’t end soon enough.”

“2016, you monster!”

All true. All false.

All depends on your perspective.

I fancy no one ever said it better than Dickens, writing the intro to A Tale of Two Cities — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ” — but I imagine even that wily old wordsmith would look around at 2016, then quietly strike through half of that famous opening. The hopeful-sounding half, obviously.

And yet … can’t we, in every age, look at those words and think they apply? Are we not always lurching from the spring of hope to the winter of despair? Did not half (or, er, just shy of half) of American voters actually want an evil tangerine in the Oval Office?

I look around, and beyond the doom, I see a swirly mix of all that is wrong and right with the world. For every dark bastard, I see a hopeful naif. For every disillusioned Baby Boomer, a determined millennial.

I see the growing ranks of those who would, through active malice or indifferent selfishness, drag us to the dark depths.

Yet I see still more struggling against these currents to stay in the light.

Today’s solemn conclusion: What matters when a clock strikes midnight?

Today’s toast: To passing the time: May you do so with a suitable dram, in the company of friends.

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 4: Taste Memory


Today’s dram: The Balvenie, DoubleWood, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: Before I tell you about the whisky, let me remark on the glass.

That is one of a pair of genuine Glencairn glasses, a holiday gift from The Empress of Whisky. Naturally, I had to pour my next dram into one of these beautiful glasses, the design of which is said to be ideal for appreciating whisky.

Hell, the Queen of the United Kingdom agrees — the design won the 2006 Queen’s Award for innovation. Also, many master distillers swear by this as the perfect vessel in which to properly appreciate a dram of whisky; in particular, the shape concentrates the aromas for easier sniffing.

The joke, of course, is on me.

A fucking head cold has settled in, and my sense of smell is wrecked. My sense of taste isn’t that great, either. Fact is, I might not be able to properly taste whisky for the rest of the year.

Blarg.

You’ll just have to trust me that this one is good. 

The Balvenie isn’t the only distillery to use multiple casks to mature a single whisky, but the DoubleWood is famed (or well marketed, anyway) for the technique. After an initial rest in used American bourbon barrels (very typical for Scotch whisky), the DoubleWood ages in used sherry casks. According to the distillery, it is this second rest that imparts so much of the sweet character for which this whisky is known.

Today’s thoughts: I remember.

I remember the joy this particular whisky brings me.

I picked it up at my favorite bottle shop a few years back. The Empress of Whisky and I were there — on what you might call “routine business” — when she remembered some gifting occasion for which she had promised me a bottle.

Pick one, she said.

So I browsed a bit and my eye fell upon The Balvenie DoubleWood.

And I half-remembered something one of my whisky heroes, the writer Barry Eisler, said about this one, a memory he related about trying it for the first time by the fireplace in a bar on a chilly day while reading a book about Tokyo, and how drinking it takes him back to that moment and time.

I am enamored of that story probably because I have long been the sort who can place my first tastes of particular drinks at certain points in time, with certain people, certain moods … they are personal hallmarks of history, treasures in my mind. 

Sometimes, I plan for them.

So I picked the DoubleWood, and I set it aside, waiting.

The moment came when I invited some friends to join me at a mountain cabin to celebrate my 40th birthday. Much whisky was had that weekend, but two particular drams stand out in memory. One is the subject of a Whisky Wind-down post yet to come. The other is the DoubleWood.

I opened it, and poured a dram, and walked outside, to where there were several friends lighting a fire, including The Empress of Whisky. And I stood back, and watched, and smiled at their antics, and enjoyed that these people were here together, because I had invited them, because they cared enough to travel to this remote location, to share a fire and drinks and friendship.

It doesn’t matter what The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 actually tastes like; I will always think of my friends when I have it.

Today’s note on aging: I was a bit bummed to turn 40. I think that’s required, isn’t it? 

It’s an auspicious age, the middle of most lives, the turning point when less lies ahead than behind.

Yet less isn’t lesser.

The years before me, whatever their number, I intend to spend in good company, in the best cheer possible, fighting the good fight where I can, making my little observances, attempting to add wit, whimsy, and ruminations … ’til darkness falls. 

Today’s toast: To aging: It beats the alternative. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 5: Home, Health, Heartache

 

Today’s dram: Conecuh Ridge, Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey

Today’s tasting notes: This is borrowed. Specifically, I begged a sip from The Empress of Whisky, who received it as a gift from her sister this Christmas. 

Conecuh Ridge is something of a newcomer, one of few distilleries operating in Alabama. 

This bottle is an homage to Clyde May, who was something of a legend among the state’s moonshiners.  Whereas his contemporaries were content to sell the raw product of their stills, May aspired to something greater. Inspired by the great bourbons of Kentucky, he aged his spirit in new charred American oak, but he included a twist — dried apples. The result he dubbed “Alabama Style Whisky.”

Roughly a century after May’s heyday, the Alabama state government finally got around to legalizing the distilling of spirits. Enter Conecuh Ridge. Among their offerings is this homage to the late great May and his innovative whisky. 

I think it tastes like apple juice spiked with vodka. 

Today’s thoughts: I had not intended to write about this one, but life intervened. Between a long drive home, a sore throat (that might be the foretelling of something worse), and the news of Carrie Fisher’s death, I am just burnt today. This is my token effort, based on a sip I begged yesterday. I am currently drinking bourbon for medicinal purposes. May tomorrow be better. 

Today’s note on the passing of an icon: If you read Whisky Wind-down 17, you know something of what Star Wars means to me. This year has been relentlessly reaping celebrities, many of them icons of my youth, but Fisher’s death is a stab in the damned heart. I know only little of her struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, but she is a hero for the way she openly wrote and talked about those issues, aside from anything else she ever did. Obviously, she will always be Leia. I can barely begin to say how important she was as an icon to young girls, but I know just how much she meant to one young girl in particular, my younger sister, whose love of Star Wars is second to nobody’s, my own most definitely included. I’ll write more about that in happier times, I’m sure. Today, though, I’m going  to leave the last words to my favorite Star Wars fan. 

Today’s toast: Courtesy of Jennifer Pierson: “To my favorite princess, thank you for inspiring me at a young age to speak my mind, take no crap, stand up for what’s right, and be brave. You’ll be missed.”

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 6: North, South, Shalom


Today’s dram: Highland Park, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: This is a new one. At least, I don’t recall having tried it. It’s the product of another venerable whisky distillery, the northernmost in Scotland. 

There, on Orkney Island, they still malt their own barley before drying it over a fire fueled by peat with a heavy dose of heather. 

The marketing spiel says that heather gives the whisky a floral character. I can’t say I detect that by smell, but then I may be a touch stuffy at the moment. On the tongue, it is warm and smooth. It goes down easy, leaves a lingering pleasant warmth with maybe the faintest kiss, almost a memory, of smoke. 

Today’s thoughts: I grew up in the South. Rural southern Georgia, if specifics matter. There are things about Chrismas in the South that are different than Christmas elsewhere. 

We don’t expect snow, for starters. 

Sure, we dream of a white Christmas, but we know it’s just that — a dream. Actual white Christmases happen to other people. Northerners, mostly. 

My first Christmas in Maine was a bit of a revelation in that regard. Christmas there is like the Christmas I had only seen on greeting cards. Snowy landscape. Smoke curls from cute chimneys. And everywhere everyone was eager to stay indoors, playing cards and drinking something warm.

Also, they have this weird substance called “stuffing” which is used in place of dressing* at the holiday meal. I can’t say I completely understand the reasoning, but it is enjoyable enough. 

Also, wine. 

I realize I am at risk of generalzing too much, but wine was never a thing at my southern family’s dinner table. We had sweet tea. (They call it “the table wine of the South” and that really isn’t an exaggerattion.)

Something else I never encountered? Chanukah. It’s not that we don’t have Jews in rural, southern Georgia, but they are few and far between, and I was a young adult before I knew any personally. Today I am friends with a few, inlcuding my sister-in-law’s husband.** 

He’s a New Yorker by birth, but now he and his Maine-born wife are raising a Texas-born son in Alabama. That kid has culture out the wazoo, even before his aunt and uncle come calling.***

This is the third evening of Chanukah, and I have enjoyed the past two, so today shall I stand respectfully quiet as the family kindles their menorahh and my five-year-old nephew tries to keep up with the words of prayer and song that go along with the lighting of candles. 

Today’s note on passive-agressive holiday greetings: There really is a lot to celebrate. Be gracious, wherever you find yourself . 

Today’s toast: L’Chayim.

—–

* — If you are not from the South, I will forgive you not knowing about dressing. I am not talking about the stuff that goes on salad. Think of southern dressing as a stuffing casserole and you will have close to the right image. I miss it and will very probably have to make my own before the year is out.

** — Is there a word for that relationship?  A proper word, I mean? Some people would refer to the two of us as brothers-in-law, but that is both confusing and technically incorrect. As Ann Landers put it, “You are no relation; you are just two men who married sisters.” But we are family. We need a word. 

*** — I am not the drunk uncle. Mostly. I try to restrict my uncling influcence to hats, beards, and Star Wars. Sometimes I consult on train layouts or LEGO arrangements. Also, I make pancakes. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 7: Pleasant Surprises


Today’s dram: Bowmore, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: The aroma is captivating — you opened open a jar of honey minutes after lighting the fireplace. Someone nearby sliced a lemon. 

On the tongue it is soft and mellow. Swallow it, though, and feel a gentle burn, with a kiss of smoke as it fades away. 

This is an Islay whisky, but it is unlike other Islay whiskies I have known. 

I am mostly familiar with the big peaty, smoky works of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. 

If that whisky is a dragon that grabs you by the throat, Bowmore is a dragon that seduces you first. 

Today’s thoughts: This one was a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, and oh, was I delighted to find it addressed to me. The magic of Christmas may be mostly reserved for children, but now and then a glimmer lands even on a sot like me.  

As my five-year-old nephew ran from sparkling toy to joyful book to holiday sweet, I could just sit back, smiling. He’d wear out eventually, then the adults could settle and sip. 

Today’s note, as an observing uncle: Did I ever have that much energy, even in my single-digit ages? I think not. 

Today’s toast: To families everywhere: Happy holidays, whatever yours may be. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 8: American Classics


Today’s dram: Bulleit Bourbon

Today’s tasting notes: Bite. Such bite. But it gets sweeter as you sip. Benefits of a high rye content. Good stuff. 

Today’s thoughts: Despite the spelling, Bulleit is pronounced “bullet” and is as American as your favorite cliché. 

I make my favorite cliché mostly for holidays. This year, with the help of my five-year-old nephew, I successfully completed the task.   

Today’s deep-dish thought: It’s only pie. Relax. 

Today’s toast: To the bakers: May your calculations be correct and your pies rise as expected. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 9: Travel, Tours, Tastings


Today’s dram: Woodford Reserve, Distiller’s Select

Today’s tasting notes: This is fine bourbon. The aroma is all sweetness, a touch of honey on a warm breeze. Sip it. Warm, sugary, with just a faint bite. A subtle burn fades down the throat. Smell it again. Stare into the distance. Sip. Life is good. 

Today’s thoughts: As I mentioned back in Whisky Wind-down 24, The Empress of Whisky and I embarked upon a lengthy tour of Kentucky bourbon country last year, hitting up many, many distilleries along the way. One of those was Woodford Reserve. 

It’s a lovely facility, sitting on a historic site where bourbon was made as far back as the early 1800s. Between the stone buildings, newly filled barrels are rolled along a set of metal tracks — think barrel railroad — to the warehouses where they will rest for six years or more until a master distiller decides they are ready to incorporate into the next small batch of bourbon. 

It’s a homey sort of place, the type that dedicates a bronze plaque to commemorate the life of a favorite distillery cat. The people are lovely, and every tour is partly the story of making bourbon and partly the history of bourbon and Kentucky. 

I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat myself: If you enjoy whisky, go to where they make it. Meet the makers. Taste the rare stuff that isn’t sold elsewhere. 

The Empress of Whisky and I had a grand time in Kentucky. Likely we will go back someday, visit some of the smaller distilleries that lie even farther off the beaten path. 

First, though: Scotland. 

Today’s note on travel: There are some pretty good whiskies available in tiny bottles. You can fit at least ten into a TSA-compliant quart-size zip-top bag. 

Today’s toast: To vistas on vacation: Ahhh.