Single malt Scotches and other tests of adulthood
by Joe Tarr
When I was a little boy, I used to stand in the kitchen in the dark and knock back shot-sized glasses of 7-Up, feeling the fizz burn against the back of my throat. I pretended the pop (as we call it in western Pennsylvania) was rotgut whiskey, and I was downing the shots in some Old West saloon, steeling my nerves for a gunfight that I might go on to win or lose, depending on my mood or fancy.
The first time I ever made a serious attempt to get drunk, I must have been about 14. My parents were away for the weekend. I pushed a chair up to my dad's liquor cabinet in the kitchen and poured a dash from each bottle into a tall drinking glass with Sylvester the Cat printed on it. I reasoned that all liquor tasted like hell anyway, so what harm would come of mixing tequila, gin, rum, bourbon, whiskey, vermouth, and vodka, along with a whole lot of Coke, and gulping it all down?
After a few sips and grimaces, I soon lost heart, and spilled the putrid concoction down the drain, returning to the comfort of television, where no doubt I watched grown-ups sipping wine or slugging whiskey.
Drinking was always one of those mystical things about adulthood that I was told was bad for me but somehow all adults relished. Every night after work my dad would mix himself a couple of Manhattansas much a symbol of manhood for me as his musky aftershave, gruff demeanor and large, strong hands. At family get-togethers, relatives would sometimes give me the rum- or vodka-soaked cherries from the bottom of their drinks. Even when these adults let the booze take controllike the guy who knocked over a lamp and could no longer stand up at the end of one of my parents' rare partiesthey belonged to a netherland of adult experience that was forbidden for me to cross into.
Of course, it was only a matter of time.
When I was 16, I discovered the sweet joy of Southern Comfort and Coke during a sleepover at a friend's house. With an alcoholic beverage I could stomach, I achieved my blissful first drunk, and my friends and I wandered the neighborhood past midnight, giggling and laughing at a world rewired and dizzy. Regular drinking started my senior year in high school, sharing 30-packs of Strohs around a campfire in the woods behind my friend's house, or at keggers.
I don't know if I drank in those early years because I wanted to feel more adult or to escape the inevitability of my adulthood. But I soon learned that there was a social order to drinking. And that drinking in and of itself wasn't necessarily adult. Throwing up from too much drinking left most teen-agers with a sense of embarrassment. There are adulti.e. sophisticatedways of going about getting drunk.
There are ways to distinguish yourself in the world of alcohol, a way of setting yourself off from the lusheswho would carouse and fight and vomit and ogle women and say crude thingsbut still enjoy the relaxed comfort of a buzz. Which is what all of us drinkers are after in the long run, is it not?
They take years to mature, can cost a fortune, and require (or so it would seem) a specialized knowledge in taste and smell. They intimidate neophytes, who are sometimes compelled to buy books or take classes in the appreciation of this exquisite hooch.
Of the two, single malt Scotch has traditionally been the man's drink. It's what Phillip Marlowe always helped himself to at those mansions he visited in Raymond Chandler's books.
I don't remember exactly when I first started drinking single malt Scotch. As with most things, a friend said it was really good so I tried it and was hooked, probably more on the ideaof a fine, simple drink to be savored instead of guzzledthan on the taste. Drinking Scotch imparts a dignity upon you, nevermind if it's unearned. It's comforting to have a bottle of good Scotch in your home for those cold or rainy winter nights when you can share a glass with a friend, or those moments of quiet desperation that hit most of us now and then, usually in the dead of night. It's perfect for backpacking, a drink you can sip after dinner around the fire.
Whether it be a gentle, mellow malt or a smoky, peaty one that burns slightly. I don't drink much of itmaybe one or two bottles a yearsince even the cheap bottles cost about $30.
But I jumped at the chance to attend a Scotch tasting hosted by a real Scotsman and mingle with real live adults, at the University Club (where they're allowed to serve booze because it's technically off-campus).
The Scotsman is Anthony Burnet, the sales director for Glenmorangie in all of the Americas. Part of his job is to travel around leading Scotch tastings like these to help people better understand the intricacies of single malt and, hopefully, get them to buy more of it.
Besides his checkered wool kilt, Burnet wears a black tuxedo jacket over a bow tie and white shirt. He has white knee-high socks with little fringes. Although he is fighting off a cold, Burnet is a good natured tour guide into the realm of Scotch whiskey.
He explains the basics. Single malt Scotch is made only from malted barley. (American and blended whiskeys are made from malted and unmalted cereals like corn, which mature quicker, but it's the same process.) After being distilled, the whiskey must be aged at least three years in oak in Scotland in order for it to be called Scotch whiskey. (Some Japanese distillers duplicate the Scottish method, but their spirits are merely called single malt whiskies.)
Single malt Scotch has much more respectability than American whiskeys, but in fact much of the Scotch sold today has partly American roots. For instance, Glenmorangie makes its oak casks from forests it owns in the Ozark Mountains. After the barrels are made, some are rented to American bourbon makers who mature their brew in it. This conditions the barrels and will help flavor and color the single malt whiskey as it ages in Scotland.
Although each distillery follows essentially the same process in making single malts, many factors affect the flavorthe water, fermentation used, the use of peat, the type of still, the casks used, how long it is aged, to name just a few.
Before we start tasting, Burnet offers us this advice: "There are no rights or wrongs. I would suggest you trust your first reaction."
There are eight glasses sitting in front of us. Not enough to get smashed on, but enough to give us a buzz.
Burnet leads us through each one, describing them with more adjectives than seem possible. Of the 12-year-old Glen Moray he says, "It's straightforward, not complex. Although it's a 12-year-old, it's got a youthful character. It's a very gentle, quiet whiskey that doesn't stand up and shout." My nose isn't that sensitive, but his characterization makes me appreciate the drink a whole lot more.
His description of the 10-year-old 92 proof Ardbeg (an Islay distillery Glenmorangie owns) gets the biggest laughs, perhaps because it's the last one we taste and we're all a bit tipsy. "This is not for the faint of heart. It's the most heavily peated malt anywhere. There's no smokier malt in the world. It smells of medicinal corridors, football locker rooms, band-aids." Which is why, he says, at first sip, most people sour on the Ardbeg. But after the initial taste, the drink opens up an array of flavors and a finish that lingers and changes by the second.
When you drink something as expensive as single malt regularly, there's a good chance you'll have some pretensions about it. (Perhaps pretension is the cornerstone of all things adultan idea that age requires or produces dignity, which is itself a farce of self-importance and denial.) For many Scotch drinkers it is pure heresy to mix with single malt anything more than a splash of water (which opens up its notes).
Burnet is less uptight about this issue than some purists. He doesn't even mind if you're inclined to add ice, he says. "We don't bitch about the fact that you guys drive on the wrong side of the road, so why should we complain if you want to add ice to your single malt?" he says. "Now, I would string you up if you added Coca-Cola, but there's nothing wrong with water or ice."
When I first arrived at the tasting, I was a bit intimidated. I expected to have to schmooze with a bunch of snobby West Knoxvillians who made weekly or monthly pilgrimages to Ashe's in their Mercedes and BMWs to stock up on Scotch, red wine, cognac, and maybe a liqueur or two.
As usual, my stereotype turns out false. The crowd is generally middle-aged to retired, but there are guys in their 20s and women here, tooall of them friendly.
I wonder what got them started on this expensive habit. One says he was allergic to grain drinks. Most are here just for the hell of it. Most can't really afford to drink it all that often.
"You're talking $45 to $70 a bottle," says the retired Bob Chiles, one of the tasters who took his wife along. "I save it for special occasions."
"Most of my friends can't afford to drink single malt Scotch," says a young British chemist, a UT grad student who came mainly to hear a UK accent.
Others say drinking single malt isn't about getting drunk, so having the money to buy quantity isn't an issue. "When you put it down in your palate, that's the climax," another retiree tells me.
I suppose there's some truth to this, but I'm not entirely sure. Alcohol can lead to a great many problems for many people, there's no denying. But for most, drinking does not lead to death, job loss or any other great problems. Still, adultsAmerican adults, anywayoften deny they're drinking for effect. But truth is, the effects are generally quite pleasant. Is it childish to say this?
Last Christmas season, I returned to the snowy mountains of Pennsylvania. I spent some time with some old high school buddies at a hunting camp. We reminisced, and got drunk.
My oldest friend, Bill, has taken a liking to single malt, and he brought along a bottle. Another friend, Chris, is more of a guzzler when it comes to alcohol. He'll slam shots and chug beersstill competing to stay ahead of everyone elseuntil he gets too dizzy and falls asleep.
He's not one to sip wine or swish 12-year-old Scotch around in a glass, sniff it and then let it sit on his tongue as his palate opens up to a sensation of flavor.
Dumbfounded by our enjoyment of this refined drink, he demanded to be poured a shot. He fully intended to knock it back, showing us his mettle and endurance in the world of booze. His speech slurred, he growled, "Gimme a shot."
Bill and I refused. We weren't about to waste good Scotch on such an infidel.
Instead, I poured him another shot of Jim Beam. Soon after, we went outside to a forest covered with a foot of snow, and as Chris usually does when he gets drunk, he soon started tackling us, wrestling us to the ground as he giggled in our ears and the snow creeped into our shirts and boots. It was about then that I realized: I'm getting too old for this shit.
October 5, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 40
© 2000 Metro Pulse