I glanced across the line of shelves filled with eye-catching boxes and broad-shouldered bottles, occasionally pulling one from the line-up to scrutinize with envious enthusiasm.
“I can’t confidently say that I’m an expert at this time, as it’s only been six months, but I figure another year and a half and most customers who walk through that shop door will find me to be a connoisseur of the craft—a malt maven, if you will.”
I glanced up at the twenty-four-year old soon-to-be scotch scholar and gave him an encouraging smile.
“I hadn’t envisioned finding myself in this position years ago when in school in Finland—working as Mr. Worrall’s apprentice—but”—he ran his hands through his buzz-cropped, fair-colored hair—“it seems the puzzle pieces just fell into place.”
“I see,” I murmured, pivoting from one tight space in the tiny London whisky shop to move past the long and lanky Finn toward another shelf filled with other amber liquids I’d yet to see or taste.
I picked up a bright canary colored box. “Huh,” I breathed out, twisting the carton in my hand to view all sides. A whisky made in New Zealand. I’d traveled to the country maybe a decade ago and had been disappointed to discover that the only distillation I came across was the furtive kind—with kerosene cans and rubber tubing. Nothing I could find on the shelves of duty free at the airport to take home. The box in my hand provided scant details.
“Where is this?” I twisted to glance up at The Lad McFinnland.
His eyebrows rose, and then quick understanding flooded his face. “Ah yes, New Zealand is a small chain of islands—two mainly—off the south eastern coast of Australia. Known for its mountains and glaciers generally.”
I stood silent. Then I looked around for something that would cost less than one hundred pounds to throw at his head, as this was a rare malt whisky shop that carried nothing one wouldn’t have to consider auctioning off a kidney in order to buy.
I sighed and rolled my eyes at the American distiller sitting in the corner, wrapping up business with the shop owner. We had developed a few signals during this trip to subtly communicate.
I was tagging along on his travels across the UK, helping him navigate his unpretentious and ballsy bourbon around a country filled with its exclusive, gentry-filled single malt scotch drinkers.
He’s a Virginian, whose teeth were cut on grits and grand plantations. I’m currently a Virginian—by way of a million little detours—who’s spent twenty-five years soaking up the Scottish, the Irish, and everything English.
“Your whisky tastes of marmite and ribena,” one distributer had said.
I’d leaned over to translate. “Yeast paste and black currents.”
“I’m getting a touch of candy floss.”
“That would be cotton candy,” I whispered.
“This one tastes of a water closet’s urinal cake.”
I looked at the distiller. His furrowed eyebrows halted my words. “Yeah, I got that one.”
I’m also here, immersing myself in a side of the whisky world I’m usually not swimming in—all for the sake of research. My newest novel in progress—a book about a suffering distillery on the verge of falling apart—has me seeking more than just the drinking of a dram. The more I know about the inside industry, the better the believability factor.
So, once again I’ve entered the world of spirits where the main players erroneously assume I have as much understanding and interest about the subject as I do about prostate cancer.
“We’re talking about brown spirits, darling,” one Englishman pointed out to me at a tasting event. “An utterly foul habit to the gentler sex.”
“Mansplaining is something we find even fouler,” I looked up innocently.
“Surely not,” he put a hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps we should get you a white wine?”
“A single malt, please.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said with another wry, all-knowing pat. “I’ll order you my favorite lest you find it distasteful. Then I’ll drink it myself.”
This industry has been slow to change. Like the pivoting of a large ship, the whisky world protects its stability. Women can make things tipsy—both literally and figuratively. And parts of the world I travel to are reticent to allow the hand of time to tick as quickly as it wishes to. But there is a growing number of “that gentler sex” that persevere, and for that I’m wholly grateful. As I believe it’s an alcoholic arena that many find too intimidating to enter, and we need a few to boldly clear the path in front of us.
I crave standing in the intersection of the two things I love most: writing and whisky. My aim for the last two decades has been to make it into an explosive crossroads, adding food and nature, folklore and peat smoke. To me, this is the best definition of scotch—purely Scotland in liquid form. It finds me weak in the knees and often at a loss for language.
Despite the heavy hand of doubt I’m usually greeted with on this male-dominated turf, I’d be remiss if I neglected to point out the bright moments where I’m caught by surprise and filled with delight.
“So,” a tall, Welsh actor beside me starts, “have you been dragged here by a companion you’re unfortunately in debt to, or are you as besotted with this juice as much as the rest of the poor SOBs at this whisky tasting?”
I turned and glanced up. I wanted to hug him. “Definitely not dragged. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
“Ah,” he nodded grimly. “Then I feel doubly sorry for you, as I’m sure like us, you’re continually searching for and finding the next Holy Grail, only to discover after a taste from that chalice, that it’s usually just a few too many precious pennies out of our budgets.”
I laughed and took a sip of the pricey elixir in my hand. Finally, a true compatriot.
He continued. “So what have you been dying to try that seems a little out of reach?”
I thought back to yesterday, in the rare malt shop. “Oh,” I breathed out dreamily. “A new single malt from New Zealand.”
His eyes lit with interest. “Really? Where’s that?”
I couldn’t help myself, and I snorted with laughter as the words tumbled out. “Ah yes, New Zealand is a small chain of islands—two mainly—off the south eastern coast of Australia. Known for its mountains and glaciers generally.”
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