I have nearly two hundred single malts in my pantry. I don’t run a pub or a whisky bar from the back end of my kitchen. I’m just a girl who long ago fell in love with Scotland, and desperate not to leave behind the indelible mark it imprinted on my soul, continued to search for ways to make sure it stayed there.
Whether it was poetry, literature, music or seeing men who could qualify as buildings with feet draped in sheaths of tartan colors, the one thing that repeatedly braided all of these majestic components together, and did so in the magical form of only an ounce and a half, was whisky.
Scotland in liquid form.
But this article isn’t about Scotland, nor whisky.
Sitting in Dublin, a city vibrant with music, art, history and religion, and determined to shine whether the sun participates or not, I finished a week-long experiment where I endeavored to pay tribute to whisky’s older sibling.
At first, many who have toured my scotch stockade are usually left slack-jawed at what they deem to be perhaps an impressive overindulgence. They secondly view it as an opportunity to give my husband the calling card of their personal shrink.
Most are given a thirty second lecture injected with pure, unadulterated enthusiasm about the regions, flavor profiles and intriguing distilleries that contribute to the makeup of my collection.
As a last minute part of the tour, I proudly show off my minuscule squad of others: Japanese, Welsh, Indian, Swedish and even (albeit hesitatingly) an American. But those are six out of a bazillion other bottles.
No one has come into the pantry and uttered the painful truth I realized as I was preparing for my first trip around Ireland … I’m a Scotch Snob.
Not one Irish whisky made the shelves. Not one glimmer of Gaelic green. How come?
Having studied the process of whisky making from afar (as a keen observer), first-hand (as a willing participant), and of course up close and personal (by inhaling and ingesting), I learned that I was not as gifted as some. In fact, not gifted period.
There are folks out there who have sophisticated palates and amazingly talented olfactory systems, allowing them to smell delicate aromas, taste subtle flavors and pick up notes of whisky components that are so layered and complex, their descriptions are like a tapestry of fine silk threads, unseen by the naked eye.
I really want to hate those people. Instead, I truly envy them.
But I also realized I needed flavors to be bold and obvious. I’m no Richard Paterson. I can’t pick out the filaments of bumble bee fur sliding off the heather notes. Nor can I identify the sweet breath of Castlemilk Moorit sheep that obviously grazed in the field next to the growing barley.
I want to.
I really do.
I just can’t.
But I’m pretty sure the whole of Ireland does. And that fills me with a little bit of trepidation when being offered a dram of their finest.
In seven days, Sir Sackier and I traversed flatlands, mountains, valleys and torrential rivers to allow us a visual and gastronomical experience. I like to eat and drink my way through a country one county at a time. I figure if you ingest enough of it, you begin to get a real sense of it.
My excitement was dampened only by the one other experience I’d had tasting Irish whiskey. I’ve always joked with my dad that the bottle of Jameson’s in the back of his tiny liquor cabinet was our gin rummy last reserve. Only when the cabinet was scraped dry of Scottish single malts would I force myself to pop the cork on the dusty bottle in the back.
If and when it happened, and it happened once or twice, I felt as if a million eyes were watching me, waiting for my assessment and the gushing adjectives that usually accompany any dram tasting I’m a part of–welcome or not.
I’d turn to him. “I’ve got nothin’.”
“Nothing in your hand?” he’d ask.
“No, I mean nothing in my mouth. Did you water this down to make it last longer?”
Tongue clucking followed. Whether over the fact that I knew nothing about Irish whiskey or that I sucked at playing cards is still in debate.
The only whiskey review I’d read before heading to Ireland was about Pernod Ricard’s recently “recreated” 1960s Yellow Spot–single pot still expression. It sounded delicious and it’s what I asked for everywhere. But no one had it.
So each evening (okay, and a couple early afternoons and even one late morning at the Jameson’s distillery tour) I tried a different whiskey. One after another swirled around my tongue. I chewed, I breathed, I added water to open them up, I tried them with food to nudge the flavors to present themselves. The best I got was menthol. How could I tell the barman his country’s whisky was a little like sucking on a cough drop? I’d be run out of town with a pitchfork.
I was ready to give up. It had been days and days of trying expensive drams and finding nothing more than internal toasty warmth and a phenomenal bar tab. Clearly I have the taste buds of a Neanderthal.
My last night, we arrived to the hotel after a long day of travel, where minor family emergencies waited impatiently to be dealt with. Skype refused to work, the bathroom pipes sung like a Wagnerian opera, and the television, which we desperately clung to for news of a three day wrecking ball of a summer storm that wiped out great chunks of my family’s area, refused to cooperate even after half of Poland came to take a look at it in the form of either an electrician or a plumber moonlighting as an electrician.
I picked up my iPad and leapt back from a hairy, nine-legged spider who darted back beneath the bedclothes. I unpacked my suitcase as Sir Sackier phoned the concierge again. Half listening to him try to speak broken Russian, or at least English with a Russian accent, I finally pushed in the last drawer and stood back. He put down the phone and told me to repack. The hotel was moving us to another room.
God, I needed a drink.
We were already late for dinner in the hotel’s fancy shmancy restaurant, but they called to say take your time. Please come clean.
Arriving at the oak-paneled, peat-smoky bar for a pre-dinner tipple was just the thing I needed when I remembered my promise to drink only Irish whiskey while in Ireland. I sighed, thinking myself a loser because I’d decided to return to my scotch snobbery roots.
But opening the bar menu brought a small smile to my face. There, at the bottom of the lineup was Yellow Spot. A little pricey, but present.
Did I dare tell Sir Sackier I was ordering one more wasteful whim? One more glass I’d sip half-heartedly knowing I’d cast away another chunk of cash on something I wasn’t sophisticated enough to taste?
The assistant general manager of the hotel came by, shook hands, apologized for any earlier inconveniences and told us he was buying us a drink on the house, “Whatever you’d like.”
One Yellow Spot, please.
I will not tell you what I tasted. I will only tell you that after all of this, I will be welcomed back to Ireland, back to the first home of whisk(e)y. More importantly to me, Ireland will be welcomed to the whiskies of my home.