sorting through some old notes, i ran across the following, headed “Recent Developments”:
i have now buttered something that is already in my mouth. as in, stopped chewing, took a knife, and spread butter on the mass that was currently in my open mouth, and continued chewing.i also undertook to call several SAQs to try to track down a bottle of scotch from a particular bottling that i was afraid was no longer available, which required the employees to search through their bottles individually to find the number i required.¹i imagine these both signify some sort of passage into some new part of my life, but i’m not sure it’s the same thing.
god, if only they weren’t indicative of the same thing . . . anyway, this reminds me that i haven’t really ever written about scotch before, despite it being, you know, one of the best things the world has going for it. seeing how as we are nigh on the one-year anniversary of the Scotch Club of which i am a part, it seems only appropriate to give the stuff a little love. all the more because the topic dovetails nicely with the “Food and the Imaginary” post that i wrote just recently (more on this later).
i would say there are three key moments in the history of my relationship to scotch. the first took place probably somewhere around the turn of the millennium, when i still lived in Prince Edward Island. a friend of mine who lived in a beautiful and expansive house in the country and also benefited from her mother’s habit of leaving town for summers at a time, decided to throw a Scotch Party, which for all intents and purposes was something of an “old timey” party. everybody dressed up and there were card games and a pool table, and of course scotch. ironically, this was the one party that was ultimately broken up by some nosey noser of a neighbour, and i can imagine their perplexity upon finding the house populated by dapper teens in ties and evening dress, listening to jazz and playing snooker or baccarat while sipping scotch, rather than the pantslessness and pool-ruining and weed and irresponsible meat-cleaver brandishing that might have greeted them at any number of the other parties throughout the summer. after most of the revelers were cleared out by the well-meaning imbecile who thought it would be a good idea to make a bunch of teenagers drive home from their booze-themed party, my best friend and i found ourselves alone in the basement, finishing up our game of pool. neither of us drank at the time (i was straightedge, i believe that he was “taking a break”), so we were mainly in it for the tie-wearing, but out of curiosity, my friend took a swig from an abandoned glass, and him gagging violently before then removing himself to the sink behind the bar to thoroughly wash out his mouth (this, from the man who brought us Mountain Moon Juice) provided my first association with scotch as a thing.
the second, more direct experience came years later while on a canoe trip in northern Ontario, when a jolly old English stereotype (i apparently consider anyone with a British accent to be a stereotype. i assume this will cause problems for me eventually, but so far, so good.) passed a bottle of Té Bheag around the campfire, and tasting it i remember thinking to myself “Hm, maybe I don’t dislike scotch after all.” i mean, i was on a goddamn island, already mellowed by barley stew and box wine, so it is no wonder i found the whisky very sympathetic, but what with the challenge that scotch presents to many palates, to say nothing of my pre-existing prejudices, my enjoyment was by no means a foregone conclusion.
Té Bheag is, i think, a great introductory scotch for how it hints at many of the notes that can be found expressed more fully in more expensive bottles, without being overwhelming, or tasting of bootwater like many of the other similarly priced blends (Johnny Walker Red Label, Chivas Regal, etc.). it is also mild enough that it makes for a good campfire-drinkin’ whisky; unlike some of the other Island and Highland malts (Té Bheag comes from the Isle of Skye, which is officially considered part of Highland territory, but many argue for the distinctness of the Islands – Skye, Jura, Mull, Orkney, Arran – as places of production), it isn’t overly smokey, so it’s not going to gang up on you with the fire, and the creamy, sort of butterscotch notes it carries before the touch of peat and rise of almost rye-ish heat are well suited to the back-country camp setting. (and possibly the best $34.95 you can spend on whisky at the SAQ. [Bulleit being the best $33.50 you can spend on whiskey, by comparison])
probably the most significant experience for my current relationship to scotch, that which should be considered the beginning of my love for it rather than a forerunner thereof, as i view the above,² was the first time that i tasted a well-made, well-aged single malt. for the moment, it is not important what it was,³ because at the time its identity meant nothing to me. i knew it was “good,” and that it was expensive, but i approached it as an unknown entity.
or, that is not precisely so. because i knew of course that it was a whisky, so not a total unknown, but in the initial tasting it opened up a space of the unknown.
which is to say that it did not immediately taste like anything i knew, anything that i had ever drank; for a moment the idea of what a whisky was or could be was banished, and replaced by this space of possibility – possibility in the sense of an uncertainty, of suddenly not knowing what it was that i was tasting, and having to devote considerably more attention to its ascertainment than i was accustomed. this is in part what i mean by food that asserts a “monopoly on the imagination” (see “Food and the Imaginary“). faced by a wealth of intense and unfamiliar (or strangely familiar) tastes, time slows down, the moment distends, as suddenly we must focus all of our attention on what is happening in our mouth. in that first drink there is a swell, a disorienting pulling of focus, and the world recedes into the background.
it is all the more challenging because of the borderline familiarity and peculiarity of the tastes one is encountering. indeed, as i have come to know scotch better, what is fascinating is how many of the tasting notes evoke flavours of things that we have never actually eaten, and in many cases cannot be eaten (or should not). tar, peat, straw, burning sticks, trawling ropes, scorched wool, brine and plastic buckets. to be sure, many of these could be more familiar to those who have spent time in Scotland or other maritime locales, but this too rests upon a collapse or disregard of the scent-taste distinction. scent is not taste, however inextricably the latter depends on the former. it is in the (mobilization) of the imaginary that these tastes become intelligible as such. the imaginary of the sea, the peat, the tar, the whatever, comes to stand in and do the important associative work of tasting. it can be quite remarkable, and i appreciate scotch for how it calls upon this faculty. which is in part scotch culture, which even in in its most casual of forms, permits and encourages these flights of associative fancy that are nonetheless still ostensibly rooted in what is happening in one’s mouth.
up next: start your own Scotch Club!
¹ Aberlour A’bunadh, batch 33. well worth the effort, although i haven’t been able to find a review yet that i totally agree with. sherry for sure, cocoa, dark chocolate, spice. sweeter than i had previously been able to imagine enjoying in a scotch, but there is so much going on that it doesn’t end up being cloying at all. also, i strongly advise against the adding of water, despite that being conventional for a cask strength scotch of this high alcohol (60.9%). i found that water actually stripped it of a lot of its more interesting notes and, surprisingly, left a lot of the alcohol burn, highlighting it, even.
² what is a forerunner of love? acceptance? affection? trust? did Té Bheag represent the beginning of my willingness to trust scotch? to eye it with warmth rather than wariness? let’s go with that.
³ it was a Lagavulin, although 12- or 16-year old i do not recall.