No one was more surprised than I was to discover I had a taste for Scotch whiskey. The child of an alcoholic, I grew up with a fear of alcohol and a dislike of being in situations where people were likely to be drunk.
I, myself, have only been drunk once: the night before I was graduated from Whitman College. Too many Singapore Slings followed by some nasty Madeira was an effective inoculation against alcohol of any kind. Thirty five years later I still don’t care all that much for gin.
Wine offered a safer field in which to wander. I learned how it’s made, how to savor it and talk about it; how to escape a wine snob etc. I had one moment at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Washington on the way to Walla Walla when I tasted their Apogee: an entire Christmas season passed through my mouth: the carols, the food, the lights, the warmth, the angels.
For one sip I understood what all the fuss was about. And immediately after I understood the meaning of “Sic transit gloria mundi” as well. It never happened again. Not in the second sip that day nor two years later when I was again on my way to Walla Walla.
I learned a lot about wine. I just never learned to like it. And wine, indisputably, doesn’t like me. I don’t get a warm glow or a nice buzz. I get stupid and slightly nauseated. It would be more efficient just to give me Rohypnal.
When Joan, my friend with the theological chops, the one with whom I have long conversations about spirituality, offered me some Lagavulin Scotch, it seemed a long way from throwing up in a toilet in College House on the Whitman campus. I took a sip. What a revelation! The Comforter had come. I didn’t brush my teeth that night because I wanted to fall sleep with that smoky, peaty finish in my mouth.
Fast forward a year or two. I was watching TV with Chris and Dee. Chris, the unclassifiable except she is an excellent cook and a CERT trainer. Dee who missed church this (and every) morning because she was out practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian. That Chris and Dee. And their four Chinooks.
“Do you have any hard liquor?” I asked.
Chris’ head swiveled. She thinks of me as a gluten-free vegan wimp. No wait, I’m the one who thinks of me as a gluten-free vegan wimp.
“I do,” she said. (I love it when people answer in the affirmative with “I do” instead of “Yes.” It gives me a frisson.)
She had some Laphroaig and, as a bonus, she knew how to pronounce it. Another revelation. I thought nothing could be smokier or peatier than Lagavulin but Laphroaig out-smoked and out-peated it. I wouldn’t want to brush my teeth for days.
I was over at Gwen’s the next day –Gwen, my neighbor who knows something about just about everything—trumpeting the delights of Laphroaig and asking her what she knew about cigars. That seemed the next step.
I have not advanced –yet –to cigars, but my birthday was two days ago and both Gwen and Chris gave me bottles of Laphroaig. I got out the Lagavulin as well. We sat outside with the salads and the gluten-free birthday cake and compared Scotches. They both have their charms. I’m not sure we came to any definite conclusions, especially not after I brought out the Absinthe.
My bottle of Absinthe is a novelty that will last me for the rest of my life even if I live to be 100 which I sincerely hope I do not. I bought it years ago when it was illegal to sell but not to own, go figure. Absinthe has fascinated me since college because I was an English major. I don’t think you have to be an English major to be interested in Absinthe. I think it works if you are an art major or have read a Graham Greene novel.
In any case, there was an article in The New Yorker a few years back called “Green Gold” about some Americans in France who were making Absinthe from 19th century recipes. I ordered a bottle from their website. The shipping cost more than the bottle itself. It was an extremely expensive proposition. It seemed the risk was all theirs. I clicked “submit,” and waited.
A week later at 5:00 in the morning, I heard a thump at my front door and the sound of a car speeding away. On the front doorstep was a package with a customs label that said “printed material.” I get things from across the pond now and again from my English cousins but this didn’t look like anything they would send. This looked like something out of a Graham Greene novel. It was my Absinthe! It had gone from France to England, sailed across an ocean, slipped through customs as “printed material” and was couriered across the continent.
Absinthe is (famously) chartreuse and (also famously) hallucinogenic although I believe that has been contested. I maintain that any alcohol can be hallucinogenic if one drinks enough of it which is not an issue with the Absinthe. It is so strong, it’s almost undrinkable. And once you’ve had some, you can’t feel your own tongue.
I pour a little in a bowl, everyone soaks a sugar cube in it, take a few sucks off the sugar cube and that’s it until the next time I entertain. Except I get to tell the story about how the bottle came into my possession. About 20 more years of telling the story and it will have been worth what I paid for it.
Now I have enough Scotch to last, well, a few years. So don’t give me any next Christmas. But I am running low on Drambuie and I like that, too.