Whisky Wind-down, 21: Are We There Yet?

A small bottle of Bruichladdich Laddie whisky sits next to a filled Glencairn glass and tabletop clock.

Today’s dram: Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie

Today’s rambling preamble to the tasting notes: Yesterday I mentioned the Hebrides. I’m not going to give you a complete Scotland geography lesson — not least because my knowledge of this subject is almost entirely whisky-related — but I will note that these islands are collectively home to several distilleries.

The whiskies made on the Hebrides — with one exception — are considered part of the Highlands, but that region is vast and it’s probably just a matter of time before the Scotch Whisky Association elevates The Islands to region status, which is what happened with the former sub-region Speyside. (Despite this recognition, a few Speyside distilleries still describe themselves as makers of Highlands whisky, but that’s marketing inertia for you.)

Anyway, the exception: Islay.

It’s part of the Hebrides, but it’s not part of The Islands for whisky purposes. Oh no; this island is a region unto itself, as well it should be.

Unless you’ve just stumbled upon this series — in which case, welcome! — you may recall me mentioning Islay frequently. A couple of my favorite distilleries (Laphroaig and Ardbeg) are located there, as well as Bowmore (of which I have enjoyed one and want to try more) and Bunnahabhain (new to me, and also fascinating). Still on my list are Caol Ila, Kilchoman, and Lagavulin.

All of these are known, to one degree or another, for the heavily smoky, often briny flavors in their whiskies.

Now, the exception within the exception: Bruichladdich.

Founded in 1881, but dormant for a good part of the 20th century, this distillery is now run by folks who are, well, let’s call them a tad eccentric. My bottle of The Classic Laddie was part of a three-bottle set that came with a 20-something page booklet almost entirely comprised of anecdotes about the history of the distillery, the people who work there, the local farmers who supply the barely, the antique Victorian-era coal-fired machinery they use to dry the barley …

I’ll stop on that last point, as it has some bearing on the whisky at hand. By using coal, (rather the traditional peat) as a fuel source for malting the barely used to make its whisky, Bruichladdich makes Islay’s only* unpeated whisky.

Today’s tasting notes: It’s briny, innit? You get it first on the aroma, which is sea air with a hit of alcohol burn mixed in. As for flavor, it bears a hint of earth about it, despite the absence of peat in its making. Then the brine comes in again; there’s not overmuch at first, but it lingers in an otherwise smooth finish. There is some burn on the back of it, too, probably attributable to the highish 100 proof.

I hesitate to admit this, considering I generally mock the practice, but after finishing two-thirds of the dram, I contemplated adding a few drops of water, just to see whether that might “open” it up. But then I realized that would require a trip downstairs, so I just finished it as poured.

Today’s thoughts: One of the first single malt Scotch whiskies I ever had, a gift courtesy of the Empress of Whisky, was a bottle from the first run of The Laddie 10. And while I do not recall exactly enough to relate the nuanced differences between that bottling and this lesser-aged version, I can report that sipping this dram brought back fond memories of that long-gone bottle.

Today’s aside: Laugh now, but when Scotland Geography shows up on Jeopardy!, I’ll be smiling. Also? I will crush in Potent Potables.

Today’s toast: To trivial knowledge, which I do not take trivially.

—–

* — Yes, there are exceptions even to this exception-within-an-exception. But Bruichladdich is the only Islay distillery regularly producing unpeated** whiskies as part of its standard range, rather than as special one-off offerings.

** — While I’m foot-noting, anyway, I’ll take the time to point out that a lot of whiskies produced with barley dried without the benefit of peat-fueled fires nonetheless still bear the subtle combination of smoke and earthiness attributed as “peatiness” in tasting notes. Why? Blame the water. When you live surrounded by peat bogs, apparently it permeates your groundwater. And while that may or may not be detectable out of the tap, it shows up when you toss in barley and boil it for whisky.

A Trappist Toast

Today would have been my maternal grandmother’s 89th birthday. 

My mom and my younger sister, who still live in our hometown, usually visit her grave, and, since the timing is right, use this as the occasion to put out the holiday poinsettias at the family plot. 

My sister plays Roy Orbison songs because he was my grandmother’s favorite.

I’m never quite sure what to do with myself. 


I don’t live close enough to visit the cemetery, and I don’t have the same connection to the music as my sister. 

Usually I spend some time thinking of her, remembering, wondering, imagining the things I would talk to her about if I she were here, as though she’d just been away for a while. 

Today, I decided to go try a new Trappist beer. 

I don’t recall her ever drinking beer, and I don’t know what opinions she might have had about Trappist monks. She died well before I took an interest in either, so her take on these subjects shall remain a mystery to me, a couple more items on the long list of things I wonder about when I think of her and all the years she’s been gone. 


I imagine she’d tell me to enjoy myself, and probably chide me to behave and not overdo it, and I’d assure her that drinking Trappist beer is a religious experience, not an intoxicating one. 

And she’d get the joke, which would elicit that disapproving-yet-loving scowl of hers, and she’d tell me to come closer, which I would do despite knowing what was coming. 

What was coming would be a grandmotherly swat on the backside and her wagging a finger and telling me to be nice or the Devil would get me. 

And I would nod, and agree, and never tell her I’m agnostic. 

Then she would tell me I need to write more, and I would promise that I’m working on it, and I would mean it, because no one breaks promises to Nanny. 

So the end of the day would find me savoring the beer, blinking my watery eyes, and keeping the promise. 

Dice: A Footnote to "Dungeons & Dragons Just Turned 40"

As I was writing “Dungeons & Dragons Just Turned 40,” I got off on a bit of a tangent about dice. I didn’t want to leave such a narrative-diverting spiel in the middle of what I had intended to be a short piece, but, at the same time, I kinda liked my little reminiscing session about these old friends. 


—–

Oh, the dice. 


When I saw them, I knew I wanted to play. 


The ubiquitous twenty-sider: Nearly round and used for nearly everything — attacks, saving throws, and non-combat actions. The d20 is probably the iconic die of D&D, closely associated with it to the point of becoming the namesake of a D&D successor game system.

The utilitarian ten-sider: Longsword damage and warrior hit points. Always carry a pair, because sometimes you need to role a percentage.

The dutiful eight-sider: Friend to the cleric for hit points and mace damage. Oddly balanced, despite basically being a pair of conjoined pyramids.

The lonely d12: Hardly ever used in typical play, unless you dare wield a greataxe (or, in later versions, dream to be a barbarian).

The basic six-siders: What most non-rpg gamers think of when someone says “dice.” In D&D, they are the tools of character creation, the very first dice you’ll use on your adventuring journey, though they pop up here and there throughout the game, as well. Carry a bunch, if you like to fling fireballs.

The friendly four-sider: Maybe the most distinctive of the bunch, certainly the one I remember puzzling over upon first sight — how do you roll those? — and later learning to love, as the determiner of dagger damage, last resort of a spell-exhausted wizard or the weapon of choice for a back-stabbing thief.


It wasn’t long before I acquired my first set, which, yes, I still own and treasure fondly.

Dungeons & Dragons Just Turned 40

My first thoughts — after getting past “damn, I feel old” — are fond memories.

I first saw D&D during rookie band camp my freshman year of high school, when a trio of my friends tried to put together a game over their lunch break in the music storage room.

I don’t remember much about that particular game itself — I was just an observer — but I remember my immediate fascination with the very concept, marveling at the character sheets, the books, the dice.

Oh, the dice.

Later that year, with those friends and a couple of others, we formed a regular gaming group, though we wound up playing a different fantasy role-playing game; it was a couple of years before I played in a proper D&D game, which only lasted a summer.

Most of my role-playing game experience is with other games, actually, but through many years, games, and players, it all goes back to that day, those friends, and “the” game.

From the Archive: Out of Iraq

The United States officially concluded its military mission in Iraq late last week, and the last U.S. troops left over the weekend.

We’re out.

Except for all the ways we’re still in.

I’m not going to write about those.

Nor am I getting into the cost.

Or the cost.

I’m just going to share something, an old newspaper column from 2003.

Mostly it is exactly what it appears to be: a montage of my thoughts from the early days of the Iraq War, as I collected them on one particular day when a very important phone call came in.

It is also something else, though: a painful reminder of a time when I believed it would all end well, and soon.

I’ve since been wondering whether that belief was sincere or whether I was just lying to myself.

Certainly I was smart enough then to know better, but … sometimes I duck the hard truths, not that doing so makes them go away, or makes acknowledging them later any easier … still.

The last line of this one haunts me, and I think that’s as much because I failed to admit what I knew then as it is because of what I know now.

—–

“These Last Few Months, in Pieces”

(Published May 4, 2003, in The Houston Home Journal)

I was waiting by the phone, so it hadn’t fully rang when I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Her plane just touched down.”

Dad.

Dad, and a sense of relief, a feeling of one less thing to worry about.

Months of half-expressed fear and frustration began to subside.

•••

It was a few weeks after a handful of fanatics had turned passenger jets into
weapons when she brought the subject up.

“I’m thinking of going back into the Army.”

She has always been a seeker, my elder sibling.

For years: Different jobs, life spent across several cities, classes in assorted
colleges, her inner sense of place never quite satisfied. Now that questing voice within was telling her to retake her place in armed service, convincing her this was how she could make a difference in a nation suddenly as unsure of itself, as ill at ease as she had so often been.

My parents expressed concern and worry, but offered no resistance. Our paths have always been our own to seek, and while they have advised, warned, cajoled, suggested, and implied, they have never forbidden.

“Jon, what do you think?”

I think you’re an optimist, more the dreamer everyone accuses me of being, if you believe this is the way to peace and recovery for our nation.

“I think you’re doing what you have to.”

•••

In time we came to almost forget. We watched her fit seamlessly into an old place, heard tales of new friends, rejoiced with her as she married an old one.

Then the man at 1600 began sending troops across.

•••

“She’s in a maintenance company, drives a fuel truck. They’ll be behind the
lines.”

Dad.

I can tell when he’s worried because while his tone hardly changes, and his face is as impassive as ever, he speaks ever-so-slightly slower, as though considering the words carefully, tasting them for believability.

He went to war, knows as well as anyone that “safe” has no place in sentences about armed conflict, understands that the lines are all too often redrawn, erased, colored cross.

•••

The thing about working sporadically and via computer is that it leaves quite a lot of time for other things.

News.

Fire.

Pain.

Death.

And someone says, “The truck was from Fort Bliss, part of a maintenance group.”

Missing.

Captured.

Dead.

Which truck? What company? Who? Who? Who?

•••

No news is not good news. No news is the absence of bad news. The absence of bad news is hope in a box.

•••

“She’s fine. They were in a different part of the convoy.”

Dad.

I can tell when he’s scared because this is the first time I’ve ever heard his fear.

And I hate myself because the relief I feel is bought with someone else’s tears, because the war goes on, because the bill is still being calculated and I have to hope I’m going to be covered by others until this is over.

•••

“Her plane just touched down.”

Dad.

I can tell when he’s been crying because he and I are sometimes all too alike.

I wipe my face and worry for the others, all those yet to receive their own calls.