Whisky Wind-down, 1: Life’s a Beach

A pair of hands hold mini-bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon. In the background, rain begins to fall on a tropical beach.

Today’s dram: Maker’s Mark

Today’s tasting notes: This is an old favorite. A classic for a reason. Well made to the same standard for better than a century. Good, warm, just enough bite.

Bourbon is an American creation. Today, it’s a reminder to me. Of home, when I’m away from it. And of the good things there that make it worth going back to.

Mostly that’s people, of course. Family. Friends. Friends who are like family.

But also ideals. Liberty. Equality.

We may fail, often, and years like 2017 may make us question the strength of our society and its commitment to those ideals, but we endure.

Today’s thoughts: Privilege. I acknowledge it. From a beach in another country, together with like-minded friends, I prepare to watch a new year roll in, and I know, within a reasonable margin of error, I’ll be fine in the coming year.

I didn’t feel this way as this year began. I felt quite a lot of trepidation, in truth. And 2017 has not been a year to be proud of, as an American.

Or, bluntly, for me as a writer, as someone who feels compelled to speak up, speak out, but all too often fails, allowing inertia, apathy, and whisky to prevail in place of the long, difficult slog that is activism.

Will 2018 be better?

I don’t know.

But as I sit on a tropical beach, miles away from responsibility and stress, I still find my thoughts turning toward all the things I could have said and done better this year, and I’m not ready to leave off just yet.

Today’s observation on the weather: It rained pretty hard for a couple of hours today, eventually driving most everyone away from the beach, and throwing kinks into the evening plans of locals and tourists alike.

That happens, even in tropical paradise.

But now it’s clearing, and the sun’s gone down, and plans will be re-configured, or new ones made.

Time will roll on, weather and human perceptions of its passage notwithstanding.

Today’s toast: To tomorrow. Always tomorrow.

Whisky Wind-down, 6: Rest Ye Weary Dead

A bottle of The Sexton single malt Irish whisky sits next to a glass filled with same, on a mantel with red holiday garland.

Today’s dram: The Sexton, single malt Irish whisky

Today’s tasting notes: Aroma is sweet and woodsy. Flavor is smooth and slightly sweet, with a warming bite in the finish.

It’s different. I don’t drink a lot of Irish single malts — they’re not terribly common, compared to Scottish single malts — but I enjoy one now and again, especially as they are a departure from standard Irish whisky. This one reminds me a bit of Highland Scottish whisky; probably I’m drawing that comparison from the sherry cask aging used here.

All in all, it’s enjoyable; I’ll probably keep this around for a cold night by the fire. Or, perhaps, I’ll fill a flask for company on a particular walk.

Today’s thoughts: The bottle lore on this one speaks of a graveyard by the River Bush, from which you can sometimes detect the aroma of distilling spirits.

It’s been awhile since I’ve walked a graveyard, but it was an old hobby of mine.

It’s an autumn sort of hobby, the sight of nature in decline serving to accentuate the stark stone reminders that mark our mutual finish line.

Works in winter, too, though. Then the cold breeze bites and the empty trees shiver, and everything says your time will come, too.

Many years I’ve sought such places in these final days of the year, when the festivities fast fade and the year’s last gasp is in the air.

It’s quite the melancholy week — a transitory time fit for reflecting upon the expiring year, all its good, all its ill.

It all starts again soon enough.

Today’s toast: To the dead: beyond the need for a dram, past all ambitions great or small, gone from the wheel.

2017 Whisky Wind-down, 30: Wrecked

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


A bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan lies on its side, apparently empty, its cork a filled whisky glass nearby. These items are arranged near a keyboard and a computer monitor. On the monitor is writing about whisky.

Today’s dram: Ardbeg, Corryvreckan

Today’s tasting notes: This is cask-strength, big Islay whisky at its finest, and it’s where I left off last year.

I am tempted, by both laziness and a love of my own words, to just repeat the description I wrote last year, but that would be a disservice to you, me, and this cask-strength 57.1 ABV monster.

Really, calling it a monster is another sort of disservice. A kraken is a monster. A corryvreckan is a swirling whirlpool about which a kraken might feel a trifle anxious.

As an anxious person whose sigil is squid, I find this whisky delightfully appropriate.

Much like its namesake, the whisky is a complex swirl. Sometimes I get straight campfire in the aroma, followed by a woodsy burning on the palate. Other times, it’s brine in my nose and saltwater burn on my throat. I can’t say it’s the same thing every time I try it. It’s shifty, spiraling on my palate and in my mind, and that’s why I keep coming back to it.

I know my perception is influenced by the name and legend, but isn’t that part of the point? If labeling and legend don’t matter, just buy a bottle of Fermented Grain and call it a day.

I remember my first dram of this one, taken in the kitchen of an old friend. I’d gifted him the bottle, which he immediately opened and poured, and we were both blown away. I’d bought it on reputation alone, and we were both expecting … something. What we got was a punch in the mouth, but one that left us refreshed and searching.

Today’s thoughts: Here’s where I tell you the plan that didn’t come to fruition.

Last year, I had this bottle set aside for the conclusion of 2016 Whisky Wind-down. My intent was to take it with me to an annual New Year’s Eve party hosted by some lovely friends of mine, at which I would share it, wax philosophic about it, and generally commiserate with like-minded folk over the wretched year ending and the one to dread ahead.

I would have written the post, published it, then perhaps added updates as the night wore on and the year wound down.

Alas, I got sick instead. A few days shy of the end of the year, actually. And it wore down my enthusiasm for writing, as well as my capacity for fully experiencing whisky.

I didn’t miss any posts, but I still feel those last few were not what I wanted them to be. Granted, little of my published work is ever what I wanted it to be. There’s a disconnect between thoughts, writing, and publication that I shall never put together to my satisfaction. Frankly, I don’t know how any writer does. I don’t know if the ones who seem to are just the rare breed, or liars. I do know I once spent half an hour in the leasing office of my college apartment complex because I got writer’s block when the office manager asked me to write down my reason for not renewing my lease.

That’s … not really uncommon for me. The feeling, if not the outcome. Deadlines are good, if only because something will (usually) get done, but deadlines are horrible because whatever gets down will (usually) not be as good as it could have been.

Nothing ever is. Struggle, struggle, struggle.

And here, where there are no deadlines except my own, and I am the most lenient deadline-giver that ever there was … things don’t always get done.

What have I been doing all year, instead of writing?

Well, to be accurate, instead of publishing? I’ve written. My drafts folder rivals the size of the published folder.

But nothing’s ever good enough.

Let me explain, by going back to the bottle.

I’ve been nursing this one all year. In and of itself, that’s not unusual. I tend to keep whiskies around forever, pulling a dram now and then as the mood strikes, but acquiring new bottles at a far greater pace than emptying old ones.

But I’ve been at this one lately, reminding myself what it represents, why I’m compelled by it. I’ve been caught in a corryvreckan for over a year, treading water, going with the flow.

I want to find the optimism with which I pretended to face this year, the hope with which I believed I could still proceed, the faith in certain people …

But, no.

I stopped writing for a reason.


Beyond any particular personal failings (or illusions of such), I did not think a string of words mattered, anymore.

At some point, if you do not have common ground with people who are important to you … what?

Don’t misunderstand. I am as close as ever to almost everyone I care about. I have, even, to my own surprise, formed a few new friendships and found formidable firmness in some others already extant.


I let some go. Others, I keep only beneath a modest shroud of shared pretense.

To be perfectly frank, I stopped writing here because some of the things I was compelled to write about threatened to pull that shroud right off.



But it’s a year later, and the world rolls on, and I’m still aboard, and growing bored, and, well, shit, what is a writer who does not write?

Today’s overwrought symbolism: Obvious, isn’t it?

Today’s pithy summation: Writers’s block is all in your head. Too bad you live in your head.

Today’s toast: To being back at the keyboard.

2017 Whisky Wind-down, 346: Not My Whisky

[Editorial note: You probably remember 2016 Whisky Wind-down. Hell, it basically just ended. Am I saying 2017 is already so bad that it’s time to start a similar countdown already? No. I am not. However, some days beg to be noted in time. Also, some days call for a stiff drink.] 

Today’s dram: Ruskova Vodka Real American Whisky

Today’s tasting notes: Blarg. Gak. <string of expletives>

Today’s thoughts: Appropriately enough, I woke up sick today. Psychosomatic? Could be.

At any rate, I hadn’t been awake long when my phone rang. T-Mobile customer service. Without getting into the specifics, I’ll just say the company and I have an ongoing billing dispute. They’re wrong, of course. The service reps — I talked to three, over the course of 90 minutes — acknowledge the problem, but say they “can’t change that in the system.”

All in all, it was a frustrating experience, being in the right but still unable to make a positive change. Powerless before the needs of the corporation. Pay up or lose.

Which is, again, appropriate enough for the day at hand.

All the facts in the world don’t matter if one side has power and the willingness to use it.

All the reason in the world doesn’t matter if the other side is unreasonable.

Try as you might, the inertia of the system will carry you away, regardless.

Today’s notes on the immediate future: And so … I drank my selected “whisky.”

I poured a second.

After a bit, it got easier.

I mean, if you have low expectations.

No, lower than that. 

Afterward, I went to my happy place. 

Not the bar. 

My other happy place: the kitchen.  

There, I baked Christmas cookies.

What with travel, various sicknesses, and other conflicts, this weekend is the earliest I have been able to coordinate gathering with my family to observe the holiday.

It’s harder than it used to be, and I don’t just mean the scheduling. 

See, try as I might, I can’t convince some of them we’re better off, by far, than we were eight years ago, and the next four years bode poorly for all of us.

(In fairness, try as they might, they can’t convince me of the opposite, either.)

We resolve these differences mostly by ignoring them. 

At least we agree on cookies. 

Today’s toast: Nostrovia, comrades! “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.” –Jack Burton

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.


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, 20: Peat, Politics, Pigs

Today’s dram: Springbank, 10-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: This is a bit of strange one. I was given this bottle in my early days of whisky collecting, before either I or my wife (aka, The Empress of Whisky, who delights in favoring her loyal subject with gifts of the water of life) knew exactly what we were doing. She bought it, if I remember correctly, mostly because it was a rarity at the bottle shoppe, the only Campbeltown whisky on offer.

Some history: Springbank is an old distillery, with its Campbeltown production facility dating to 1828. Back then, this whisky region was home to more than two dozen distilleries. Today, only three remain.

Springbank is family-owned, a rarity in these days of global booze conglomerates. It’s also one of only a couple of distilleries that does pretty much the entire whisky production process on site, from malting the  barley to distilling the spirit, from aging the whisky to bottling it. About the only thing they don’t do is grow their own barely. (There is a distillery that does so, but alas I haven’t any of that in my collection.)

So, historic, local, quirky … how does it taste?


Or, more precisely: It tastes like fermented canola oil with a touch of peat, salted.

Which is not to say I don’t like it. But it is, shall we say, a whisky for a certain mood, one that strikes but rarely.

Today’s thoughts: So, pigs.

It’s been a long hard year, made worse by the events of November 8, when a minority (albeit an electorally well positioned minority) of Americans chose to elect as president an odious marionette of tainted meat stuffed into an ill-fitting suit.

I really do want to just have fun with Whisky Wind-down, but let’s be honest — kinda the whole reason I’m doing this in the first place is to take my mind off the shitstorm that is 2016. Letting the entire series go without at least touching on politics would be somewhat incomplete.

So, where do we go from here?

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

That’s Nietzsche, of course.

“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

George Bernard Shaw this time, saying perhaps the same thing?

I wonder. There are days when it feels like all the effort in the world doesn’t amount to more than pig-wrestling, and at the end I just sit there, dirty, while the bastards grunt back at me, wondering why in the fuck I ever bothered.

But other days, when I squint right, I don’t see the sty. I see the bleak pit of the abyss, its gaping maw clamoring to consume the world’s last beauty. 

And that’s worth fighting for. 

Today’s pithy summation: There will be a time to make bacon.

Today’s toast: To the good fight: May we be ready for it. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 25: Faraway Friends



Today’s dram: Jameson Irish Signature Reserve

Today’s tasting notes: Jameson is smooth, rich easy-drinking Irish whisky. This stuff? Head of the class. It has almost no rough edge to it. Gently sweet. The body is light if you’re used to single malt Scotch whisky, but it’s in the medium range for Irish whisky.

Today’s thoughts: This bottle was a wedding gift from one of my wife’s friends who lives in Ireland. I’m told you can’t buy this in the States. She gave us this bottle and a pair of lovely Irish crystal tumblers. Once or twice a year we have a measure and I talked her into doing so tonight. (It was not a difficult conversation. My wife is fond of whisky, too, with the notable exceptions of smoky or peaty Scotch whisky.)

Why this dram tonight? Faraway friends are on my mind. I’ll leave it at that.

Today’s maudlin notation: Hug the ones you love, and don’t put off taking that trip to see them (or saying yes when they ask to visit you).

Today’s toast: To all I hold dear, but especially those not near: Be well. I love you.