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.

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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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