Friday, June 13, 2014

My Passion for Scotch

I love scotch.  And I love malt whisky.

Single Malts, Blended Malts.  Speyside, Highland, Islay.  Japanese, American, Scandinavian.

It all started on a trip the UK.

I am, or was, the typical American.  I had never really left the relative "safety" of the United States.  I'd been to Canada, visiting Montreal on many occasions.  I loved Montreal, and I still do; but it's still a North American city, despite it's old-world feel.  And Montreal represents what's most "foreign" about Canada for Americans, in many ways visiting Canada can feel like visiting a different region of the US - the difference between New England and the Deep South, for example.

(For my Canadian readers, I am not drawing comparisons or saying Canada is the US.  I'm saying that it's not "foreign", any more than the US is "foreign" to Canada.)

My first real international trip was to Great Britain - England, proper.  There is no better way to appreciate just how diverse people are than to make Britain your first international trip.  Every illusion you have about your perceived commonality with the British will be shattered within minutes of your arrival.

I was there for work, part of a technology deployment team delivering infrastructure and applications to support a new facility.  We were staying at a small boutique hotel in Bath, with every room occupied by a team member; this effectively gave us run of the place.  It had both a small restaurant and a small bar in the basement.  We spent a fair amount of time in the bar.

While the hotel manager was clearly unimpressed with his American clients, doing little out of his way to make our stay comfortable, much of the staff were absolutely enamored.  They had two general staff, basically bell/concierge, who did everything they could to spend time with us and ensure we were entertained.

One night, we had a group sitting at the bar; 5 or so.  Our bartender was a young Portuguese man, one of the hotel staff that greatly enjoyed spending time with the Americans.  We were unwinding from the day, engaging our bartender in the conversation.

At the time I only drank beer, typically mid-color (Ambers, reds); I didn't like (and still don't like) stouts or porters, which limited my options.  That had led to a conversation about the difference between American and British beers, and the difference between Irish beer you can get in Britain vs the US.

(There's a huge difference.  Trust me.)

As we're chatting, our Portuguese friend asks if anyone had tried some of the liquors that were on the shelf.  The answers ranged from "never had hard liquor" to "tried most everything", mostly "only a few" or "no".

He grabs a bottle of a local British liquor, "How about this?"  Everyone said "No."

"Let's see what you think!"  He pulls out a tumbler, pours a shot, and hands it to the person at the end of the bar.  The tumbler moves down the row, each person taking a sip to various reactions.

And that's how the rest of the night went.  Thank goodness it wasn't a work night.

We tried everything...gin...bourbon...cognac...tequila...all sorts of liqueurs...mixers.  Several hours of sipping various liquors.

Somewhere along the line, an amber liquor worked down the row.  I had missed what it was, distracted as I talked with my neighbors about the last drink.  I suddenly realize it's there, so I turn and take my sip.

Oh.

My.

God.

The taste sparked something in me, something hard to describe.  I suddenly felt like a part of me I never knew awakened.  It was a sense that this was right and true.  It was fundamental to me, like it touched a part of my inner being; my soul, my spirit.

It was GOOD.

I'm suddenly single focused.  "What is this?"  Famous Grouse.  "This is INCREDIBLE.  What kind of liquor?"  Scotch.

From that point, nothing else mattered, nothing else compared.  I lobbied for more scotches to work down the line.  Only succeeded once: Johnnie Walker Black Label.

And so it began.  From that day forward, I had scotch in the house.  An expensive habit, I have to take care to manage how much I consume, but I always have it for those moments when I need to feel whole.

Despite that, I'm still a novice - I still am today - so I continue to drink the less "respected" scotches, mostly blends.  I slowly expand my palate.  Dalwhinnie.  Laphoraig.

I have the greatest respect for my grandfather.  It's funny how our parents can do no right, yet our grandparents can do no wrong.  I love him dearly, and could only hope to be half the man he has become.

With that in mind, I always am at my best when I'm around my grandfather, moreso than I am in virtually any other situation.  I had been told his father struggled with alcoholism, and always felt that left my grandfather with a poor opinion of drinking.  I never talked about my drinking, and it took many years before I'd even order a drink in front of him.

(My respect for my grandfather only grows.  His ability to not just tolerate but accept and be at peace with the ways of those around him is one of life's true lessons.)

It was by accident that my preference for scotch came up.  It was in typical family conversation, talking about what's going on in our lives - good, bad, or just "is".  My dad mentions that I have taken a liking to scotch.

I cringe.  Yes, your grandson drinks hard liquor.

"Oh really?" says my grandfather.

My dad continues, "Didn't you drink scotch?"

!!!??!!

"Yes, I used to have a drink after coming home from work."

!?REALLY?!

Things start to click into place.  I suddenly have images of my grandfather sitting in his chair after nightfall, smoking a cigarette in the dimly lit living room of my family's home with a tumbler in his hand.

I am my grandfather's grandson (minus the cigarette).

I learn my grandfather's drink of choice was a Haig; today, Haig is best known for their Dimple 15-year blended scotch.  It's a relatively good blend, especially good for the price.  Of all the selections of scotch I keep in the house, they all have similar palate and follow to Dimple - oaky, lightly spiced, lightly sweet, malted, with only slight touches of smoke.

The love for scotch jumped generations, skipping my parents to land squarely in me.  My passion is another homage to my grandfather; it's in those times, when I sit in my chair and sip at my tumbler, that I am the current reflection of my history, a reflection of man I'm proud to call my grandfather.

I have a passion for scotch.  And now I understand why.

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