I was gifted a bottle of Scotch on the occasion of becoming a father. Dalwhinne 15. Dalwhinnie, the town where the distillery is located, is smack in the middle of Scotland, not very close to anything of note like Edinburgh nor Glasgow. It’s about level with Aberdeen, which means it’s in the north, but it’s due south from Inverness. On a map, Dalwhinnie, Aberdeen, and Inverness from a perfect right triangle; Dalwhinnie at the perfect angle.
But I really don’t know anything about Scotch Whisky. In the order of whisk(e)y, Scotch is a close third to Irish Whiskey, which is a distant second to Bourbon. But I appreciate Scotch, because you are supposed to appreciate Scotch. I’m having one now. Dalwhinnie 15 in a small rocks glass with one cube that I let dissolve before my first sip. I didn’t make any of that up, and I didn’t create the way you drink a Scotch. I know there are those who drink Scotch on the rocks, a full handful of cubes to chill out the burn. Others think even a hint of water or ice might soil the purity of “Scotch Neat”. But I’ve always opened up Scotch, or Bourbon for that matter, with a little bit of water, or a cube. A cube is easy.
Whiskey, like all drinking, didn’t come easy for me. It eventually got too easy, but it didn’t come easy. Sneaking beers, airplane bottles, full Jack Daniels fifths out of a friend’s father’s coat closet. We never liked it. It was a drink that came only after rough pulls and mixing a little less the next time you tried it again.
Dalwhinnie 15 is a “smooth” Scotch, whatever that means. Because it was given to me as a gift I have shared it with most of the guys who have come by, usually with their wives, to bring us meals during these first few weeks of parenthood. After we briefly spend time in the living room with Laura and Mary Margaret, I usually offer the man a drink, and his eyes light up when I take the bottle out of its simply stated box. Usually we have only one, though sometimes two. I’ve only had two (not including this one) without a mate.
[I have offered it to Laura; she’s never been a fan of Scotch.]
We go out go out to the front porch or the front yard, remark about the leaves, look down at our dram and say how “smooth” Dalwhinnie drinks. Unlike some Scotches at bars, whose well is a blend, Dalwhinnie is a single malt, that is, from a single distillery. I haven’t had many blends with the exception of J&B, the preferred Scotch of Spain. I didn’t drink much J&B in Spain; I didn’t drink much at all on the Camino – the hangovers were too costly and beer replenishes calories. No, I drank J&B one summer, when my friend Graham returned from his summer of taking high-schoolers to Salamanca, and we’d pony up to this kitchen table: two men, one bottle, and one had to die. Or two. But we were drinking J&B in large glasses, full of ice, and we were getting hammered. Scotch on the front porch to celebrate your daughter’s inception is not pints of iced-down J&B.
For my 29th birthday I received a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, a blend, but a good blend. Johnnie Walker, despite sounding like it was distilled in Tennessee, is product in Ayrshire, not far from where Kilmarnock plays Celtic. I’d have a glass, on the rocks, every Sunday night while Laura and I watched Mad Men, back when we had cable. I learned there, like most drinking, that drinking is hard work. Like most things
It was on this bottle that I learned Scotch. Or at least blended Scotch, which to many may mean miseducation. But I did learn that if I gulped down too much in one swallow, a fire would mark the back of me throat. So I learned to sip Scotch and not to gulp.
Now some like the burn. I think the tequila culture, the rugby players I used to drink with on Thursday night, taught me that some like the burn. The burn, like good holy water, excises the lesser demons, all the while killing off the the good that is nestled in your brain. Most of these guys were drinking like rosters fighting over a hens in the yard, so it wasn’t real, but just a projection of what they had been doing on the pitch just hours before. Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Jesus Christ turned water to our wine and so it seems there is a certain eternal blessing on the drink-act, provided we remember later turned our wine into his blood.
Theology and drinking, specifically high-ball gin drinks and bourbon – lots of bourbon – was how I came to understand the passage from death into new life. I didn’t drink much in college, to tell the truth; I certainly drank less than I tried to in high school. It was not until my junior year of college were I learned that a good bourbon lasted the night. There my drinking was catechized, arranged into a discipline that served the conversation, not muddled it. Through bourbon I began to see the world still as a damned mess, but as a beautiful damned mess being put back together — over glasses of bourbon.
“The pleasure of knocking back bourbon” wrote Walker Percy, “lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one’s value system—that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of evocation of time and memory and the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, where as connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded simulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation.”
Connoisseurship is like that Augustine’s first foe, Donatism, those ancient schismatics who though they, through a second baptism, could discern a pure(r) body of Christ from the muddled City that lay before them. Knocking back Scotch or Bourbon or Dixie Beer is not about discernment alone, but about a table, a glass, and a mate.
Dalwhinnie Distillery in Highland, Scotland