Yes, yes, we all know in excruciating detail of the perils of that Demon Whiskey, how it’s ruined lives and started wars and provoked gunfights and ruined marriages. It clouds men’s minds, they say. There are a million country songs about it: “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound”, “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down”, “C.C. Waterback”, “Whiskey River”…
That last one has…something about it. Figures Willie Nelson would absolutely pin down, like a laboratory frog, what it is that whiskey feels like when you’re down and desperate and looking for answers…
“I’m drowning in a whiskey river
Bathing my memory’s mind in the wetness of its’ soul
Feeling the amber current flowin’ from my mind
And warm an empty heart you left so cold
Whiskey River take my mind
Don’t let her mem’ry torture me
Whiskey River don’t run dry
You’re all I’ve got, take care of me…”
Blessing and curse…bottled bravery and the weakling’s crutch…fortifier and destroyer…yin and yang, all in one amber bottle. Whiskey is Danger. Stipulated. But what’s left out of all the songs of woe and destruction is that human frailty is more to blame for all that than the liquid resting quietly in the bottle. Those who use whiskey carelessly, extravagantly, or as a cure for life’s ailments invite disaster, both for themselves and those innocent bystanders in other cars, other bars…and in the next bedroom.
And it’s all true. Whiskey has been the ruin of many a po’ boy, and, God, I’m glad I’m not one.
But, for those of us who drink whiskey not for a cure-all or to loosen our inhibitions – the old “Liquid Courage” dodge – whiskey is a few other things, too.
I wasn’t raised with whiskey and, for most of my adult life, my dual fascinations with beer and wine held even my beloved single-malts at arm’s length. But as I passed 50, I started to think on it, broaden my attitudes about what goes into great whiskey, finally “discovered’ Bourbon – the ritual drink of my Allegheney Mountain people – and finally appreciate what it is that makes whiskey, properly made and judiciously used, one of adult life’s great pleasures.
For me…whiskey is soulful. It’s deep and contemplative in a way that neither beer nor wine will ever be. Sure, some truly transcendent wines make us stop and understand what the term “great” actually means and let us know that genuine greatness, even borderline profundity, is just not something we are privileged to experience often…for those less fortunate among us, possibly never. I’ve had some beers do that to me, too; my first sip of Samichlaus comes to mind and the first time I tasted Parabola and The Abyss. But whiskey…well, it’s different from those things; more deliberate, more thoughtful, more involved with and reflective of the passage of time and the virtues of Patience.
Whiskey is the moment Jimmy Page leans into the dark, sinister, weeping guitar fills in “Dazed and Confused”. It’s the voice of George Jones – in practically any song he ever sang, from “White Lightning” to “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” – as heard from a distance, coming out of a car radio on a summer night when your team lost in the ninth inning and you just busted up with your girl. It’s the rain drumming on a tin roof, as you lie in a hammock and watch the distant lightning. It’s wind blowing with fiendish intensity across the moors of Scotland and the cry of a caribou across the Chugash Range in Alaskan . It’s waves crashing onto the rocks at Point No Point on Vancouver Island. Whiskey is Black Humor in a Bottle; the cutting remark delivered with vicious timing. It’s laughing past the graveyard, late at night, when you feel someone behind you and turn to find…nothing.
Bourbon is the smell of alfalfa and horseshit and wildflowers in the morning mist outside Paducah. Canadian whiskey is hooves rattling the ryegrass on the plains of Alberta and the furtive laughter of young girls as they sneak peeks at the cowboys. Scotch is the sound of distant singing that bounces off the hills, one by one, until it seems to come from everywhere… and nowhere. It’s the sound of a woman crying, alone at 2 a.m., as heard across an air shaft in a New York tenament building. It’s the cries of the geese, far overhead, riding the air currents south, ahead of another hard winter. It’s the weary happiness of a job well done, the sadness of a love lost, and the silence of the grave. It’s a newborn baby crying at o-dark-30 and the groan of a new father who’s had too little sleep. Whiskey is hearing B.B. King doing “The Thrill Is Gone” on the radio, after too long a time without his music in your ears, feeling that soul-deep pang that’s like yearning, and suddenly thinking “What the fuck am I doing with my life?“
In thinking about all these things, whiskey is, if you’re a careful and deliberate type, a spritz of intellectual lubricant, something which slows the mind and lets us think more deeply. In the wrong hands, it’s an unsweet oblivion and Consequences.
I don’t drink a lot of whiskey. Never have. To me, whiskey is an ounce and it takes 20 minutes to drink it. It’s the contemplation of how that lovely, aromatic, caramel-tinged pleasure came to be in my hands. Ten, fifteen, twenty-five, forty years ago, a weary guy in a Scottish attic, choking on barley dust, his nose full of the sweet, high, bready smell of the malting grain, wheeled a ton of the stuff into a room mostly taken up with a huge kettle and dumped it into a large quantity of water. It moved from there to a still, where it dripped out and was poured into wooden barrels, sealed in for a long journey into a future that seems, from my vantage point, to have been pre-ordained for this glass, this table, my hand.
As I recently sipped The Balvenie 15 Year Old Sherry Cask Scotch, all this flowed through my head leisurely, like the motion of a lazy creek. All those images above, drifting by slowly enough for my careful, meditative examination. As that lubricant goes, The Balvenie Sherry Cask 15 is about as good as it gets. This is a big but nimble, swaggering but graceful, complex but down-to-earth Scotch; one that delivers the virtues of a great single-malt with benevolent authority. Good whiskey burns a little…“You always hurt the one you love…“…But it has to. It’s an oblivious companion; the friend and running mate who does his own thing and doesn’t pause, even as you scuffle to catch up. The burn is a part of great whiskey and those who attempt to eliminate it are, I think, missing the point, a bit. The Burn is the initiation, the admission ticket, the rite of passage that all spirits exact of us before they will unfold their charms. The burn of this whiskey is certainly present and immediate but it’s not a reckless, unbridled feeling that leaves you gasping for air. The bounty of rich, complicated wood, candy, nut, and Sherry aromas lead to all of that and more on the tongue. The flavor of the wood is vivid and immediate and the obviously-wet barrels Balvenie used let the Sherry character – I’m guessing a well-aged Oloroso – suffuse this with the nutty, fruity fervor that a great Sherry must have. Even the oxidized nature of a fine Oloroso comes across, here. Roasted Brazil nuts, almonds, treacle, fruitcake, dark caramel, pencil shavings, grilled bread, and a melting, candied finish make this a total sensual experience, from sip to swallow. And the Burn is the Gilded Edge of all that, the frisson of near-pain that accentuates the pleasure.
This is a splendid whiskey. Yeah, that’s just the term…Splendid. According to Webster’s, “…marked by showy magnificence.” That’s what you’ll find here. Yeah, I romanticize great Scotch. Figure that fact in when reading this and make your buying decisions accordingly. But that, also, is the nature of it. The Balvenie seems to have a long-held and admirably complete handle on this particular aspect, this terrifying romanticism, of their country’s primary temptation. The Balvenie, as much as any other whiskey I’ve ever tasted, carries in it the firm and unmistakable residue of Time; of that awful patience and the sense of history and continuity that enables a person to barrel up what they’ve crafted with their own two hands, knowing full well and with what has to be some regret that they may very well not live long enough to taste the fruition of their skill and labors. That’s what I meant above about “the virtues of Patience”. In the making – and drinking – of whiskey, history, tradition is a non-negotiable part of the bargain. Fifteen years ago, someone – possibly someone who has passed on to Their Reward – placed this in a barrel…for me. I think of them when I sip it and call it shameless romanticism if you like…but it makes it taste that much sweeter.
Of all the single-malts I taste in any given year, I find that it’s The Balvenie I remember most and most fondly. This gorgeous edition promises to be with me quite a while and I strongly suggest, if you love any of the art forms known variously as “Single Malt”, “Scotch whiskey”, or “Romantic”, you find this whiskey and try it, ASAP.