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, 10: Family Time


Today’s dram: Crown Royal

Today’s tasting notes: Remember when I described how smooth and easy I found Crown Royal Limited Edition? This is the regular stuff. It’s still pretty smooth for whisky, but it has a bit of an edge to it. Along with a fair amount of sweetness, too. 

Today’s thoughts: This was not on my draft whisky list, and I am not a huge fan of Canadian  whisky overall, but I am a huge fan of enjoying a drink with family. This is one of my father-in-law’s favorites, so when I saw him tonight and he said, “Let’s have a drink,” I could hardly refuse. (You’ll have to ask him why he drinks from a coffee mug.)

Today’s advice to anyone anxious over holidays with family: Whisky can be a common denominator. 

Today’s toast: To holiday mingling: Cheers!

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 11: The Price of Admission


Today’s dram: Ardmore, Traditional Cask (Peated Single Malt, No Age Statement), dressed for the holidays

Today’s tasting notes: Full, rich, warm Highland single malt with a pleasant earthy aroma and plenty of peat on the way down.

I’ve had this bottle kicking around for a bit, but I just went looking for more information on it and learned a couple of things: 1) It won a gold medal in the Highland Single Malt — No Age Statement category at the 2010 World Whiskies Awards. 2) It is no longer being made, having been supplanted by a different line from Ardmore.

Since this whisky lacks an age statement, let’s talk about what that means. (For your sanity and mine, we’ll stick to Scotch whisky, since age statements mean different things to different types of whisky.)

Say you are a distiller with some whisky you have been aging for 12 years, but you aren’t happy with it as-is and feel it needs a bit of mellowing to be just right. You don’t want to wait another year (or two or three), so you decide to mix in a bit from an older batch to get the flavor profile you seek.

First, so long as you’re using another whisky made at the same distillery with the same ingredients and methods, you can still call it single malt. So long as it’s all malted barely distilled at the same location, it qualifies, even if you end up blending different batches of different ages. (The term blended Scotch whisky refers to one that is made from multiple malt whiskies made at different locations OR one that contains grain whisky in addition to malt whisky. Or both. If that sounds confusing, well, yell at the next member of the Scotch Whisky Association you meet.)

So, you think that 12-year-old whisky needs a bit of older whisky mixed in to mellow it out. Even if you add some of your precious 25-year-old to the mix, you still have to call it 12-year-old on the age statement, which legally must be no older than the youngest whisky included. (So, even if you went barking mad and produced a mix that was 99% whisky aged 25 years, with the remaining 1% aged only 12, legally you would have to sell it as a 12-year-old whisky. Right after you got your head examined, I suppose.)

So, what’s the big deal with No Age Statement whisky?

The rise of NAS whisky (as the kids call it) is allowing Scotch whisky distillers to meet today’s increased demand for good whisky by using younger (minimum aging three years) products, blended perhaps with a bit of precious older stock, to make new expressions.

Generally, such whisky is marketed as an artful creation of master tasters, rather than an expedient answer to demand in a booming market.

It’s either that or sell less whisky.

It’s not like there’s a way to speed up the aging process … wait a minute … there is, sort of.

Let’s talk about quarter casks.

These smaller vessels hold less whisky (duh) so it’s a more labor-intensive, materially-expensive way to mature whisky, and you don’t see them employed very often.

The advantage of this method — aside from being able to use nifty marketing spiel about “19th century methods” — is that the whisky spends more time in contact with the wood, owing to the greater circumference-to-volume ratio. Or something. Pi may be involved.

Point is, more contact means more flavor, faster.

Also, being able to say you used “traditional methods,” hearkening to the days when casks had to be lighter to fit on the backs of the donkeys who would carry them through the Highlands, well … it helps people get over their snootiness about your lack of an age statement.

Rounding back to the beginning, the whisky in my glass today was produced in quarter casks, and it has no age statement.

Some people have a philosophical beef with both those factors. For them, Scotch whisky that does not display an age statement, but does use marketing as cover for a distillery’s changing methods, is to be looked down upon.

Me? I can’t say I’m indifferent to these factors, but I care more that you’re serving a good whisky for the price you’re asking.

This fits the bill. It’s a full, flavorful peaty whisky that compares well to many 10- or 12-year-old Highland single malts I’ve had the pleasure of sampling.

Today’s thoughts: The distillers who laid down their whiskies a quarter-century ago might well have thought they were making enough, or more than enough, to meet the future’s demand. Long-term gambles like that are very difficult to get right.

It’s almost as difficult, say, as having children and then wondering what your life will be like a few decades hence when they bring home their spouses for the holidays.

<cough>

I like to think my in-laws are at least tolerant of their poet-in-law. I’ll ask them again in a day or so.

Today’s observation on holiday decor: If you think a whisky bottle dressed as Santa is weird, you should see my mistletoe-bedecked bourbon.

Today’s toast: To families coming together for the holidays: May your homes be as warm and inviting as a good Highland single malt, however old.

 

Barkeep, Another

A hand lifts a chalice of beer in toast. The glass bears the name of the Trappist monastery that brews the ale inside: Spencer. The ale is the color of copper and topped with a stiff, high foam.
Here’s to you, Nanny.

 

In the very near future my writing will have a tendency to focus on drinking and reminiscing.

Before that starts, I’d like to revisit a piece wherein I did both of those things, albeit for rather different reasons. I’ve mentioned before — and it would likely be obvious to you, anyway — that I sometimes have trouble making the words flow. There are a number of times when I want to be here, saying something, and I can’t make it happen.

Then, sometimes, all it takes is a beer in a bar on my grandmother’s birthday.

I think about that evening a lot, actually. Whenever the words won’t come, which is all too often. My maternal grandmother never really knew me as a writer, but I still think of disappointing her when I’m not living up to my own expectations.

Anyway, here’s one occasion when I did, if only briefly:

A Trappist Toast

Notes: The font is funny on that page. That’s because I composed and posted the entire entry at the bar, using my phone. It bugs me, but not enough to change it, because seeing it reminds me that much more of the act of writing itself, which, well, not to belabor the point entirely, was much more important to me that evening than the actual words themselves.

(Also, I forgot the photo.)

Remember, Remember …

Everyday is everything.

If today isn’t a holiday where you live, it might very well be in someone else’s part of the world. And even if it isn’t a proper, the-banks-are-closed, light-some-fireworks occasion, you can bet there are still a dozen smaller observances, in honor of cats, or tacos, or a type of cancer.

It’s always someone’s birthday, and someone always dies.

Here in the States, November 11 is Veterans Day. Since 1954, anyway. Prior to that, it was Armistice Day, which was kinda like Veterans Day but with a name like that, veterans of wars other than WWI felt left out. Prior to 1918 and the formal end of the War to End All Wars, November 11 was, I guess, just a nice early autumn day.

On November 11, 1991, this date ceased to be anything for me but heartache.

My mother’s mother’s brother — great-uncle to me — was a month past sixty when he died that day, at home, alone in the house he had lived in most of his life. He had been my babysitter, my daycare, and my after-school watcher, a grandfather in all but name to a boy who had none.

He was my moral pole star, though I don’t recall realizing that before he died.

Certainly I loved him. He was the relative I said I’d go live with when my parents or my little sister got on my last nerve and I threatened to run away. He was who I was excited to talk to about my day at school, or my newest action figure, or my plans for this year’s Halloween costume.

If I had wanted to grow up, he probably would have been who I wanted to grow up to be.

Everyone loves and everyone loses people they love, and any day can be a sad day when the pain wells up and the memories comfort you but also make you just a little angry because the world is cruel and the only fair thing about life is that it ends for everyone.

Any day can be a dark day, but I can’t avoid November 11.

I had stayed home sick that day in 1991, and I remember standing at the bathroom sink that evening, a wet washcloth growing cold in my hand, when my parents told me about the call from a concerned neighbor, and asked me to watch my little sister while they went to make sure everything was okay.

I knew then what they weren’t telling me, and the funeral followed three days later.

I can no longer distinctly remember 1992 or 1993. They blur together. I was home sick from school on one of them, and I walked through the day in a fog on the other, and on both I visited the cemetery in the evening and spent time at his grave.

By 1994, I was two hours away at college, the day fell on a Friday, and I drove home after my last class, in time to reach the cemetery by dusk because it mattered very much to me that I be there, that I see the cold gravel six feet over his bones, that I whisper a few words, as though the dead have ears.

I drove back that night, having not stopped to see my living family, or even tell them I had been there.

Through the rest of college, I responsibly kept to my school commitments and made no further pilgrimages, instead making it my habit that day to decline dinner or game night invitations, to be alone, to walk a wooded trail, to sit and listen at nature, to ponder the dead.

Over the years that followed, I sometimes walked alone in woods or through a cemetery near where I lived at the time, I visited his grave the brief years I lived back home, I never left my bed the years I got sick, and I loved my wife for leaving me to myself every November 11 of our marriage.

Once I assembled a desk, just to occupy my mind with a simple task.

Last year, I cooked a meal he used to make, following his techniques as best I remembered, down to cooking in cast iron and brewing teeth-achingly sweet tea to wash it down. I have since learned this is a custom on the Day of the Dead, and that unintended similarity is pleasing.

This year I write.

For the first time, I am able to put twenty-five years of mourning into perspective, by putting it into words, then putting those words into the world.

Every year is different, except every year I wonder whether this is the last time I will feel this.

A hundred people die every minute of every day. I can find no statistics on how many leave echoes, or how long those echoes persist, or whether it is my particular madness that every year I make myself listen for the echoes of November 11, 1991.

Quiet, now; I am concentrating.