Whisky Wind-down, 29: Form

[Note: If you’re new, catch up at the 2017 Whisky Wind-down Primer.] 

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Books on poetic form rest on a table next to a filled Glencairn glass and a bottle of whisky, all in front of a bookcase holding academic tomes.

Today’s dram: Atlanta Spirit Works, Ameireaganach, Huddled Mashes No. 1

Today’s tasting notes: I learned of Atlanta Spirit Works when a friend brought their single malt rye to a party last year. I’ve since had the opportunity to try several of their other offerings, including this one, which was released about a month ago.

Although Atlanta Spirit Works is young, the company uses ancient techniques, including classic Scottish-style double copper pot distillation. From there they often deviate from tradition, or switch traditions. This bottling, for example, was aged on new charred American oak. So, basically what you’ve got here is a whisky that’s Scottish by distillation style finished with an American aging method. (I’m not getting into the grain bill; suffice to say it’s mostly classic malt varieties for a Scotch-style whisky.)

The result is a warm whisky with a bit of bite, smooth enough to be pleasing but stout enough (at 92 proof) to encourage sipping. It finishes clean, with an aroma of honey over fresh bread.

Today’s thoughts: At university, I knew a guy who could not write free verse poetry. He was killer at any form of sonnet, loved classics like anaphora and terza rima, and became almost physically aroused by villanelles.

But he had an aversion to free verse that I can only describe as writer’s agoraphobia — all that open space on the page terrified him.

And so he wrote around it by building form into formless assignments.

The technical term for that is a nonce form. Created for the occasion. Not a recognized form, maybe not even one you would ever come back to. Or possibly a variation on a recognized form.

Sometimes nonce forms stick and become something. Shakespearean sonnets, for example, began as nonce variations on the English sonnet. Sure, now that’s a classic form onto itself, but when he penned the first one, Bill’s peers probably thought him a wee bit pretentious.

Trouble is, we had several assignments that were meant to be written as true free verse, not nonce. They should be formless and flowing exercises of pure language, unconstrained by stanza patterns, line lengths, or syllable emphasis.

After my classmate turned in a couple of “free verse” assignments that actually contained fairly noticeable patterns, the professor called him out and threatened to fail him the next time he incorporated so much as a whiff of pattern in his work.

We were pretty sure the guy was cooked, but the next week he turned up with a proper free verse poem. You’ll forgive me if I don’t recall the specifics after two decades, but it was thirty or so lines of varying length, beautiful language, not a trace of form.

Praise and an A for him.

After class, when just a few of us were left, slow to file out, he confessed: There’d been a hidden form. It was subtle, but there was a pattern to the opening and closing words of each line.

Upon hearing this, I wasn’t disappointed. Rather, impressed. He’d found a way to be comfortable enough to make the words flow.

Today’s relevant numbers: Two down, 28 to go.

Today’s toast: Here’s to old what’s-his-name, whose pattern I forget; to someday meet again, in rhythm quite legit.

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.

My Fat Tuesday

When I was in college I was talked into visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

“It’s an experience you must have!” friends assured me.

The trip entailed an eight-hour ride in a filled-to-capacity van to a friend’s aunt’s home, where we slept on the floor. This to facilitate spending several days wandering through tightly — oh-so-tightly — packed streets of people wildly enthusiastic about beads, boobs, and booze.

It was, indeed, an experience.

Most of it is now a long, crowd-induced anxiety blur, but I do remember one beautiful moment: on a side street where the distance between people actually increased to more than arms-length, a street musician belted a bright melody on trumpet, and I was moved to dance.

I don’t know that one moment was worth the days of hassle, but, then again, I still remember it nearly twenty years later, so maybe so …

Cheers, New Orleans.