I went up on a wobbly chair just now to get a bottle off the top shelf in my paint bare cupboard over my cracked kitchen sink. I have four bottles up there, single malt scotches all, three now, actually. Each one delicious, each slightly different from all the others. In those differences the beauty of single malt scotch, an acquired taste, certainly, but a polished little universe for the tasting and savoring of those smoky nuances.
There is whisky, like in the black and white movies. The guy goes into the bar, says to the bartender “give me a double,” and the double the bartender pours is the house whisky, usually a blend of various malts and grains, made with all sorts of other ingredients, sometimes tap water. House whisky is the least expensive bottle of the hard stuff you can buy. It gives a nasty hangover too, compared to the more refined Scotches I am talking about. Whisky is not sipped with pauses for smiling appreciation, you toss that fire water back. It doesn’t necessarily taste terrible, but you’re not drinking this stuff for the flavor but to get a worse taste out of your mouth.
“Give me another one, bartender,” says the drunk loudly.
“What are you drinking to?” asks the bartender, hesitating to serve the obviously sloshed man.
“My first blow job,” says the drunk sloppily with a wistful smile. The bartender pours him another.
“Here you go,” he says, “this one’s on the house. This is a special day for you.” The drunk tosses back the shot, waits a few seconds, shakes his head.
“That’s it,” he gets up unsteadily, “if six shots don’t get the taste out of my mouth the whole bottle ain’t gonna do it.”
Guy gets on the A train with his four kids at 14th Street. They’re wearing suits and dresses, like they’re going to church. The kids immediately start screaming and throwing themselves all around the train. They are slamming into other passengers and shrieking in people’s ears. climbing on the seats, swinging from the bars. The father is just sitting there with his head in his hands pretending he doesn’t know the kids as the kids run riot.
Finally I turn to the guy, after getting kicked again by one of his screaming kids and I say, “do you mind taking care of your out-of-control kids?” and the guy is still looking down.
“I owe you an apology,” he says. “I’m sorry and I feel very ashamed of myself. I should not subject you and everyone else on this train to this, but I can’t control them. We’re coming back from their mother’s funeral, she was hit by a car yesterday, and none of us know what to do with ourselves.”
So you got a crude guy walks into a bar joke or a vignette providing an illuminating change of perspective, the unnoticed miracle that happens in life once in a while. Things that once you learn change the whole picture for you, improve your perspective, help resolve painful mysteries. My father as an infant being whipped in the face by his mother. The wild children wildly grieving their young mother’s atrocious death.
That’s the difference between drinking whisky and enjoying fine single malt scotch, a quick, cheap laugh, or a nuanced laugh and something to ponder (even though the second anecdote above was lifted from a wonderful talk I heard a few years ago).
Scotch has to be grown– grain, malt, all other ingredients– distilled, aged and bottled in Scotland, apparently, whereas whisky is whatever you can ferment anywhere to make a brownish tan intoxicant of approximately 50% alcohol.
I recall a great Scotch tasting not a decade ago, in London. The occasion was the fiftieth birthday of a guy I’d known since we were seventeen. I was not the only guest to arrive with a bottle of fine Scotch, I think I brought Glenmorangie. There was Laphroaig, Glenlivet, Johnny Walker Black, a few others. We set them all out on a long table with enough small glasses for everyone.
“Johnny?” we all said, and nodded and tasted the Johnny Walker Black. It was smooth, it was rich, it was tasty. We all agreed it was delicious. Then we tasted the rest in turn, savoring and evaluating each. It was hard to pick the best, and that was hardly the point, even though I think there was some consensus at the time, which I don’t remember. If you like a smoky, peat taste to your Scotch you’d probably prefer Laphroaig. The Glenmorangie aged in the sherry casks was special, I recall, someone else had bought that one, which is the kind I look for once in a while.
But, thinking about it now, those friends, like the last of the 12 year old Macallans I just poured, are all gone. When I recycle the empty bottle only the memory of drinking it on special occasions over the course of several years will remain, if that.
Merry Christmas to all, don’t drink and drive. Don’t drink alone. Leave the single malts to the experts. And peace on earth, boys and girls.