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, 2: Revival


Today’s dram: Four Roses, Single Barrel 

Today’s tasting notes: I really can’t taste today. I had a brief reprieve from my head cold yesterday, but that was just the tease before the end, apparently. Today I am stuffy and coughing and cranky. Boooo. 

Anyway, let me tell you a story.  

I first heard of Four Roses while reading an older book. Not old-old, just mid-’90s. But in this book, which was set in the ’70s, I think, there was an older gentleman (Korean War veteran) who, as a matter of routine, had a nightcap from a bottle of Four Roses.

That’s it. No detail given. As I was reading this prior to the blossoming of my own interest in whisky, and prior to the days of good old reliable Google-at-your-fingertips-to-answer-anything, I lived for a time in mystery as to exactly what Four Roses was. 

(It’s bourbon.)

Once, it was a famous brand, and I now realize part of the author’s purpose in having that character drink that whisky nightly was to place him in time and attitude as a certain type of man, an older gentleman who knew the good stuff when it came to whisky. 

Trouble is, by the time I learned this, Four Roses had fallen greatly in stature and had become seen as cheap rotgut whisky, not worth drinking neat or savoring. 

For a time, it was no longer even sold in the States as straight bourbon whisky. Here, it became a cheap blended grain “brown spirit,” hardly worth the name whisky and legally not allowed to be sold as bourbon. 

And yet, overseas, especially in Japan, Four Roses remained true to its heritage and sold straight bourbon. Its success there was such that a Japanese company bought the distilling operation and, gradually, restored the traditional methods while expanding capacity to return to one, global, superb product. 

Today, if you visit Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky — as The Empress of Whisky and I did, last October — the tour and tasting staff are upfront about all of this. I appreciate that. Rather than try to cover an inglorious past (as some marketing hacks might recommend) the company admits and embraces its history and uses it as a springboard to talk about the quality bourbon it turns out today. 

And it is. Quality. 

The standard Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon is fine sipping whisky, and the small batch is quite a lovely step up from there. 

The single barrel promises a unique experience — hand-selected by the master distiller and bottled at a higher proof (though not quite cask strength) for a rich, decadent sipping experience. 

In my experience, single barrel whisky is good stuff. It is also, usually, available only sporadically, at a higher price, in good bottle shops. And while many (maybe half?) of the distilleries we visited offered some for sale at their in-house stores, only Four Roses made it available in tiny 50ml bottles. 

Naturally, I bought one. 

I’d planned to drink it today, but it would be a shame to waste that good spirit on my hampered senses just now. 

So, it will wait. 

Today’s thoughts: I was gone for a long time. I wasn’t writing much, here or elsewhere. That has changed, and I hope to keep going as a new year dawns. I have thoroughly enjoyed 2016 Whisky Wind-down, and not just for the daily drams. It has been a good excuse to get me to the keyboard daily, and it is my hope that when this ends, I shall keep that momentum, like a child who keeps pedaling after the training wheels come off. 

I hope to keep giving you something to come back for, anyway. 

Today’s sincere note: Thanks for reading along. One more to go, then we’ll see where life takes us. 

Today’s toast: To many happy returns. 

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. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 4: Taste Memory


Today’s dram: The Balvenie, DoubleWood, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: Before I tell you about the whisky, let me remark on the glass.

That is one of a pair of genuine Glencairn glasses, a holiday gift from The Empress of Whisky. Naturally, I had to pour my next dram into one of these beautiful glasses, the design of which is said to be ideal for appreciating whisky.

Hell, the Queen of the United Kingdom agrees — the design won the 2006 Queen’s Award for innovation. Also, many master distillers swear by this as the perfect vessel in which to properly appreciate a dram of whisky; in particular, the shape concentrates the aromas for easier sniffing.

The joke, of course, is on me.

A fucking head cold has settled in, and my sense of smell is wrecked. My sense of taste isn’t that great, either. Fact is, I might not be able to properly taste whisky for the rest of the year.

Blarg.

You’ll just have to trust me that this one is good. 

The Balvenie isn’t the only distillery to use multiple casks to mature a single whisky, but the DoubleWood is famed (or well marketed, anyway) for the technique. After an initial rest in used American bourbon barrels (very typical for Scotch whisky), the DoubleWood ages in used sherry casks. According to the distillery, it is this second rest that imparts so much of the sweet character for which this whisky is known.

Today’s thoughts: I remember.

I remember the joy this particular whisky brings me.

I picked it up at my favorite bottle shop a few years back. The Empress of Whisky and I were there — on what you might call “routine business” — when she remembered some gifting occasion for which she had promised me a bottle.

Pick one, she said.

So I browsed a bit and my eye fell upon The Balvenie DoubleWood.

And I half-remembered something one of my whisky heroes, the writer Barry Eisler, said about this one, a memory he related about trying it for the first time by the fireplace in a bar on a chilly day while reading a book about Tokyo, and how drinking it takes him back to that moment and time.

I am enamored of that story probably because I have long been the sort who can place my first tastes of particular drinks at certain points in time, with certain people, certain moods … they are personal hallmarks of history, treasures in my mind. 

Sometimes, I plan for them.

So I picked the DoubleWood, and I set it aside, waiting.

The moment came when I invited some friends to join me at a mountain cabin to celebrate my 40th birthday. Much whisky was had that weekend, but two particular drams stand out in memory. One is the subject of a Whisky Wind-down post yet to come. The other is the DoubleWood.

I opened it, and poured a dram, and walked outside, to where there were several friends lighting a fire, including The Empress of Whisky. And I stood back, and watched, and smiled at their antics, and enjoyed that these people were here together, because I had invited them, because they cared enough to travel to this remote location, to share a fire and drinks and friendship.

It doesn’t matter what The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 actually tastes like; I will always think of my friends when I have it.

Today’s note on aging: I was a bit bummed to turn 40. I think that’s required, isn’t it? 

It’s an auspicious age, the middle of most lives, the turning point when less lies ahead than behind.

Yet less isn’t lesser.

The years before me, whatever their number, I intend to spend in good company, in the best cheer possible, fighting the good fight where I can, making my little observances, attempting to add wit, whimsy, and ruminations … ’til darkness falls. 

Today’s toast: To aging: It beats the alternative. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 5: Home, Health, Heartache

 

Today’s dram: Conecuh Ridge, Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey

Today’s tasting notes: This is borrowed. Specifically, I begged a sip from The Empress of Whisky, who received it as a gift from her sister this Christmas. 

Conecuh Ridge is something of a newcomer, one of few distilleries operating in Alabama. 

This bottle is an homage to Clyde May, who was something of a legend among the state’s moonshiners.  Whereas his contemporaries were content to sell the raw product of their stills, May aspired to something greater. Inspired by the great bourbons of Kentucky, he aged his spirit in new charred American oak, but he included a twist — dried apples. The result he dubbed “Alabama Style Whisky.”

Roughly a century after May’s heyday, the Alabama state government finally got around to legalizing the distilling of spirits. Enter Conecuh Ridge. Among their offerings is this homage to the late great May and his innovative whisky. 

I think it tastes like apple juice spiked with vodka. 

Today’s thoughts: I had not intended to write about this one, but life intervened. Between a long drive home, a sore throat (that might be the foretelling of something worse), and the news of Carrie Fisher’s death, I am just burnt today. This is my token effort, based on a sip I begged yesterday. I am currently drinking bourbon for medicinal purposes. May tomorrow be better. 

Today’s note on the passing of an icon: If you read Whisky Wind-down 17, you know something of what Star Wars means to me. This year has been relentlessly reaping celebrities, many of them icons of my youth, but Fisher’s death is a stab in the damned heart. I know only little of her struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, but she is a hero for the way she openly wrote and talked about those issues, aside from anything else she ever did. Obviously, she will always be Leia. I can barely begin to say how important she was as an icon to young girls, but I know just how much she meant to one young girl in particular, my younger sister, whose love of Star Wars is second to nobody’s, my own most definitely included. I’ll write more about that in happier times, I’m sure. Today, though, I’m going  to leave the last words to my favorite Star Wars fan. 

Today’s toast: Courtesy of Jennifer Pierson: “To my favorite princess, thank you for inspiring me at a young age to speak my mind, take no crap, stand up for what’s right, and be brave. You’ll be missed.”

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.