Memoir — From the February 2014 issue

The Oa

On the pleasures and perils of whisky

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Sour paste in the mouth, paper-cut eyes, a hint of burnt sugar in the nose of my mind, and anxiety no longer postponed by last night’s golden sips. This is a fairly typical morning. I am sometimes energetic, sometimes misanthropic. My mood is unpredictable, but the sore eyes and old flavors are a constant.

I really like whisky. I have been drinking single malt for more than twenty years, and for the past fifteen it has been the liquid brackets of my evenings: a taste before dinner, a deeper taste before bed.

I had my first memorable glass of single malt at the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. I was staying there with a family friend who looked after me when I was young. The whisky was a Balvenie, which in those days came in a uniquely shaped bottle with no shoulders and an elongated neck. It was a trumpet filled with honey. All malts have changed since then, become less distinguished, I swear, and Balvenie’s honey has never been the same — not faint and dilute, as it is now, but honey as a macabre, prickly miracle, barfed by bees, smeared on stings and walls and dripping from the legs of a queen. Whoever first discovered honey in a hostile hive would agree that finding sweetness in vicious places is one appeal of all good drugs and spirits.

Evaporated Bowmore Legend. All photographs by Zachary Burns

Evaporated Bowmore Legend. All photographs by Zachary Burns

In the same bar I tried the ten-year-old, twelve-year-old, eighteen-year-old, and twenty-five-year-old Macallan, and I haven’t looked the same since.

I was living in Canada when I first started buying bottles, in Montreal and Toronto. Cragganmore and Oban were cheap, in the low thirties, Balvenie even cheaper. The king for me was Lagavulin. Twenty years ago its smoke was thicker, oilier, and for most it was slightly more of an acquired taste. At forty dollars it was the most expensive of the available malts. In Toronto now, it sells for $110. Oban sells for $102.

I was a student when this taste developed, and because I was broke a bottle would last me a month. That seems cute to me now.

I have been a full-time novelist for around a decade, and consequently have not much more pocket money than when I was a student. I look at the prices of single malts and I feel sad, old, thirsty. I forsake important things to afford them, and I try to make friends with generous people.

I recently moved back to Toronto and persuaded myself that buying a number of bottles would be a legitimate moving expense. Here in my office I have a Kilchoman Machir Bay, a Laphroaig 18, a Laphroaig Triple Wood, and a rare bottle of Pibroch, which I bought at a post office in Islay. In the kitchen I have a Lagavulin, another Laphroaig 18, a Laphroaig 10, and a Laphroaig Quarter Cask. (When I was asked by a newspaper to choose my favorite word, I said it was “Laphroaig.”) I have a Balvenie Double Wood and Golden Cask, Aberlour in 10 and 12, a Benromach, an Arran, a Bowmore 12, a bottle of Ardmore’s Traditional Cask, Bruichladdich’s Waves, a Mortlach 16, and a bottle of Dun Bheagan, which is a name given to malts from various places (in this case an unidentified distillery in Islay) and bottled independently. The Dun Bheagan is my daily sip. I can barely afford a bottle, at forty-six dollars. The others I stare at. When friends come over I let them wonder. I direct them to the cheaper malts and pour them teardrop offerings.

I like drinking whisky with friends who care about it, who sigh or swoon a little when they have their first sip. I love drinking it with my partner. I like drinking it alone. I like it while I’m ironing a shirt. I never drink it in the afternoon, even though it’s especially good in the afternoon: so honest and undoing.

I drink it before, during, and after I speak in public. Sometimes it sharpens my wits. Sometimes it reminds me not to care about seeming bright. I worry less about my breath than I used to.

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’s latest novel, A Beautiful Truth, won the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

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  • August

    Thank you, Colin. The whole article was enjoyable. But especially starting with paragraph on our resemblance to other apes. Most readers will not find your writing comforting; I, however, did.

  • Saul Isler

    I love how you write, Colin, but, beyond the truth buried in it, I don’t like what you write. This business of Laphroaigs and Mortlachs and Dun Bheagans suggests that those who love the malt love it for its taste, not the mild or greater oblivion
    that lies therein. Taste is hardly as important to most drinkers as effect. Would
    you cherish your precious Laphroaig if it were, say, 20, not 40, proof? I never
    understood the fetish side of drinking. A novelist myself, who also occupied
    the Alcohology corner of the literary website till its proprietor got
    tossed in the slammer, I know a little whereof I speak. I can’t imagine you dropped
    all these names other than to assure your place as an expert in the field. Either
    be erudite or philosophical, one or the other. Buzz on or…buzz off. By the way,
    I’m a Gordon’s man. A quid’ll buy me a generous pour from a 1.75. Gets my where I’m going.

  • emanon

    It’s not often one finds a sort of infomercial cum
    consumerland article (per B.R. Myers definition in ‘The Reader’s Manifesto’) in
    ‘Harper’s’. What did ‘Harper’s’ reject to run this piece?

    I’m drinking Miller right now. The yellow looks like pee,
    there’s not much aroma. But just to name drop there’s Hamm’s, National Bohemian,
    Iron City, Old Milwaukee, Rolling Rock, and Genesse Cream Ale. I miss Billy
    Beer. And Rainer. At a tour of the Miller Brewery (we stayed in a motel) we met
    a retired couple from Teaneck, New Jersey. We had all signed up for the Miller
    Rewards Program, but our points had already expired, so we didn’t get anything.

    I’m drinking Stroh’s. I tried one of those craft beers
    once (Coors), but didn’t like that the suggested pairing was chitlins and hush
    puppies. Of course I’m an alcoholic.


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