Notes on a New Year

Sick. It’s a lousy way to start the year. 

Well, except for the part where The Empress of Whisky keeps bringing me whisky-laced coffee. 

Mmm. 

I should probably eat something, though.  

Plenty of choices. Two days ago I made a large batch of dressing (using my mom’s recipe). I intended to take half to a New Year’s Eve party, but, well, sickness. 

Instead we stayed home and The Empress beat me at board games. At midnight we toasted each other and our kitty. 

For New Year’s Day, I made black-eyed peas, not because I am superstitious, but because they are delicious. Also: turkey breast, the aforementioned dressing, potatoes, several vegetables for The Empress … quite a holiday feast, most of which happily doubles as good comfort leftovers for sick people. 

I’d like to tell you I’ve been sittting here, planning my year, looking ahead … but mostly I’m just fighting the kitty’s advice to nap again. 

Outside, rain falls. 

All together, it’s a good enough day. A quiet place to start what promises to be a noisy year. 

We’ll see to tomorrow, tomorrow.  

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, 3: Blended


Today’s dram: Johnnie Walker, Double Black

Today’s tasting notes: I haven’t said much about blended Scotch whisky.

In truth, I’m not a huge fan.

What a lot of people think of as everyday or ordinary Scotch whisky, the sort of thing you might mix into a Rob Roy or a Rusty Nail, isn’t to my taste. I find most blends too easy-going, and I prefer the more interesting profiles of single malts.

Having said that, ain’t nothing wrong with a good blend. And I try, really try, not to be snobbish about this. (Or other things. Success is variable.)

Johnnie Walker makes some of the best-known and best-selling Scotch whisky around, and it’s all blends, sold by color. Hell if I can be bothered to get into figuring out what the various colors represent.

What they are, though, is successful. John Walker & Sons started blending and bottling in 1820, and they’re still around for a reason. They make good whisky.

Back in Whisky Wind-down 23 I wrote about Johnnie Walker Black: “There is smoke there. Not faint, either. Distinct. Not Laphroaig, mind, but then what is? Otherwise, smooth. Very. Not much peat to speak of, but there. It’s Scotch whisky, for sure, and if you’re not a Scotch whisky drinker this might well bowl you over.”

Double Black, then, is a more intense version of Black, per the marketing.

Since Black is smoky enough to get your attention if you’re used to easy-going Scotch whisky then Double Black should be more so, yes?

Oh, yes.

It has an aroma of smoked honey, and it tastes sweet and smooth. There is peat and smoke on the tongue, and on the finish, but it glides down and fades fast. I’d call this a very approachable whisky. Maybe it could be a gateway whisky for someone looking to get more adventurous.

Today’s thoughts: I grew up in a fairly conservative part of the country. I had what you might call a traditional evangelical upbringing, and though I don’t intend — today, at least — to get into religion as a topic unto itself, I want to make the point that this upbringing included homophobia. I say that not to lay blame or make attack; it is simply a fact of how I was raised.

The first gay person I knew personally was a band-mate who came out toward the end of his junior year of high school. I was a freshman at the time, and while I “knew” then that gayness was “wrong,” I also knew this guy personally. Not well. We weren’t in classes together, and we were in different sections of the band, but I knew him. The fact he was brave enough, in a small rural southern high school, to come out at 17 and boldly be who he was, to weather the storm of small town scorn … 25 years later I think of him as a hero.

I only wish I had been brave enough, myself, to realize that at the time and tell him so. To have gotten to know him better. To have been not just a fellow musician, but a friend.

The fact that I wasn’t actively rude to him isn’t enough, to me, to justify not being a better person. Standing by isn’t collaboration, but it might as well be. I wanted to be a better person, but I was afraid.

Afraid to step up, yes, but mostly afraid that maybe the bigots were right.

Fear, coupled with religion, held me back. When “God” tells you it’s okay to fear The Other, well, shit, what’s a fellar to do, son?

Get out.

I left that small rural town and that evangelical faith and, eventually, that homophobia.

It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t because of any one person.

It was, like much else in my education, a matter of getting away from myself and my upbringing and the tiny world I grew up in and finding the larger, more diverse world around me.

Then losing my fear of it.

Friendships came later.

Good friendships. The sort who share milestone birthdays and good whisky.

Day to day, I don’t think about this much.

Then sometimes I look around, at the game table, or at the bar, or at a party, at the people surrounding me, and I realize how far I’ve come from that scared kid I used to be.

I don’t pretend my journey is anything next to theirs.

Ultimately, a straight white guy is likely to be comfortable pretty much anywhere.

Too many, though, prefer to stay comfortable where they started.

As much as I’d like to go back and tell my scared former self to get over it, I want to tell the rest of the scared folk back home, the ones who stayed, the ones who cower, the ones who still hate whom the preacher tells them, just how very small their world is.

Today’s note on compassion: We’re all afraid. Those of us who have it easiest have the greatest obligation to overcome our fears and stand for others. 

Today’s toast: To growing up, breaking out, and journeying on. 

A Big Step

Yeah, yeah, I’ve been remiss in writing. This may or may not change.

What will change?

Attitudes in the United States of America.

Today I celebrate with friends, family, and friends-who-are-like-family the Supreme Court’s ruling that, yes, in fact, equality is a thing in this nation of ours and we will, on occasion, stand up and loudly defend the application of that equality to all our citizens.

No more counting the states where same-sex marriage is legal — it’s all of ’em.

No more counting the days until the holdout states must recognize same-sex marriage — it’s now.

No more “same-sex marriage,” actually — it’s just marriage.

There’s still a long road ahead; bigotry doesn’t die just because you tell it how the Constitution works.

There’s still a long way to walk on that road, and it winds through worse places, truly dark places of hatred and violence.

Today, though, we stand in a beautiful glade and admire a rainbow.