Scotch whisky. A gentleman’s drink. I gentlelady’s drink. A drink for Ron Burgundy, and Jack Donaghy. Probably not great as a children’s drink.
Scotch whisky, or just whisky from hereon in, is my poison of choice and it has been for years. Similar to a great craft beer2 or fine wine, whisky is a drink whose every day creation is steeped in tradition, culture, passion, and of course debauchery. This is the story of the moment that I figured out I was in love with a libation.3
My first few years at college, I lived in a four bedroom apartment immediately outside the campus gate with three other guys. The roster rotated a few times over the years, including one year where I left and then came back a year later. Eventually we settled in to our own Final Four who would be around before we all moved out and went separate ways to be adults (ugh). One of the guys I lived with was a dude I went to high school with, who had some eccentric and eclectic tastes for all things against the grain and liked to get us roped in pretty frequently. It kept things interesting.
Through him, we eventually started doing a biweekly poker game on Fridays with friends from our jobs and classes. We played for real money because we couldn’t think of anything better to spend our cash on, and we drank a lot. It was during these poker games that I started drinking whisky, though I honestly couldn’t tell you if I bought a bottle on a lark or if said roomy showed up with some one day.
What I do remember about my early days with whisky is The Glenlivet. I remember it sounded like a good idea because it was a “single malt”, it used definite articles in that distinctively strange Scottish manner, and it was more than half my age at the time. These were all things that seemed like they should be important. I remember that when I compared the taste of a nice single malt whisky against that of a blended whisky like Johnnie Walker Red it was apples and oranges. I remember not being able to feel my face. I remember my nose burning like when you laugh out milk. It was awesome.
The Glenlivet was akin to training wheels for the whisky neophyte that was myself in those days. It’s still a distillery I enjoy from time to time, though no longer the young 12 year old variant (I’ve switched to Islay whisky for younger agings but that’s a story for another time). But then, it was all about The Glenlivet. Around this time, I was 18 or 19ish. To whit, I was not good at drinking. I was mediocre at college drinking. And even then I say mediocre because I didn’t drink when I was still in high school, so I had very little experience being a person that used the word “party” as a verb.
I go back home to Canada to make visits, usually once or twice a year if everything is permitting. Around this time, I made a visit back home for Christmas. Legal drinking age in the province of Manitoba is 18 instead of 21 like it is here in the sunny state of Florida, so while I was up there my older brother and his girlfriend decided to take me out drinking. We made a few stops about town, including a stop at a martini bar in a run-down hotel building with no lights. The last stop of the night was at a bar/night club that was supposedly owned by a gang that was in a turf war with the Hell’s Angels (the Angels are still really, really big in Canada, and they are or at least were frequently in the news while I was a kid whenever I would go back to Winnipeg to visit). Anyway, not a savory place. Plenty of Jersey Shore types, a live DJ, plenty of class oozing out of the seat cushions.
I was drunk, young, awkward, and out with my brother. I should maybe mention that my brother and I at this time weren’t very close because we didn’t grow up together; he’s my half-brother through my dad and I didn’t even meet him or know he existed until I was around 7 or 8 years old. So I was drunk and uncomfortable.
We went up to the bar to order our last round of drinks for the evening, and when the bartender looked over at me the only thing that could come to my mind was “I’d like a top-shelf Scotch”. I’d been waiting tables for a few years, so the only way I knew how to order nice liquor was to call it top-shelf. The ridiculousness of the sentence I had just uttered was lost on me for a long, long time.
I didn’t hear the end of it from my brother for years afterwards. But on my 21st birthday, he sent a note, instructions, and some American money with our dad to bring with him down to Florida when he came to visit me. He had dad buy me a bottle of The Glenlivet, 18 Year Old, and he gave it to me with the note.
Enjoy your top-shelf Scotch.
We still like to joke about it, but I haven’t stopped enjoying whisky. I started drinking whisky regularly every other week at our poker games, and I’ve since then branched out greatly in to different regions and distilleries from The Glenlivet, teasing my palate with the intricacies of single-malt whisky. Whiskies that have been peated, and that haven’t. Cask-strength, and weaker. Neat, on the rocks, and with a few drops of water. There’s a bar here where I live that has a great whisky collection and a knowledgable bartender who I’ll pay a visit to every now and again. But that 21st birthday is when it really hit me. I still remember the night we finished that bottle, me and some of my closest friends, sitting on a balcony during a muggy Florida summer. Enjoying cigars. Drinking that whisky. Sharing in the experience; bonding amongst friends, enjoying the taste and complexity of a history-rich spirit, soaking up the patchwork of puffy clouds and pin-prick light. That was the moment. The moment that I realized I wanted to know more. That I wanted to know why the 18 Year tasted different than the 12 Year. I wanted to know what else was out there in the wide world of whisky. I’m sure a great deal of it fed in to some sort of cultural perception about manliness and drinking and general bro-ery. But it was nice, relaxing. And enjoyable.
For many people, whisky isn’t just a drink. It’s a hobby. Learning, drinking, collecting. Refining your palate, studying the profiles of each individual bottle. What sort of wood was this whisky aged in? What was this barrel used to age prior, and what flavors will it impart in to the final spirit? What region, what properties are in the water, and what is the history of this distillery? These are all things that have great effect on the taste of the drink, and just as a fan of fine wine can come to obsess over grapes and soil and climate, so too can a fan of fine whisky come to quest for the perfect dram for their palate. A fine dram with a nice cigar on a summer evening is paradise for some. Enjoying whisky is not just an activity reserved for fictional Republicans with aggressive power suits and red ties.
It may not hurt that there is a Scottish heritage on my dad’s side of the family, but for me whisky is part of my lifestyle. Not in any sort of hedonistic way. I’d be surprised if, on the whole, I enjoy more than three alcoholic beverages a week. It’s a treat, and one to be enjoyed responsibly, and for those with the desire there is a rich history and culture that goes in to appreciating a whisky in all of its minutiae.
So, Dalrymple, you can have your Heineken. I’ll have my Laphroaig any day of the week.