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On the pleasures and perils of whisky

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.

A long time ago I moved to England as a graduate student and enrolled in a whisky-tasting competition at my university. The event was sponsored by United Distillers to market their concept of the Six Classic Malts — whiskies representing distinctive regions of Scotland (Lagavulin for Islay smoke, Cragganmore for Speyside heather). We had to identify them, blind, and answer technical questions. I was quite familiar with all six brands. I was a bit older than most of my competitors and had the advantage of being, by then, a genuine piss tank.

I won the competition and was sent to Scotland for a final taste-off. Winners from various universities gathered at an inn near Edinburgh the night before the test. The bar was open to us. We studied hard. Beer for socializing.

I met the late beer and whisky critic Michael Jackson, who was going to judge the competition. I had regularly consulted his Malt Whisky Companion, loved the whiskies he most admired, and was a fan of his shorthand authority. His other writing on beer and whisky had an infectious enthusiasm and a sense of intellectual quest. He wanted to figure out why he liked this stuff so much. The sweet innocence of his approach was incongruous with his appearance. He had the look of someone who drank for a living: slow of speech, red-faced, pursy. He later revealed that his struggles with Parkinson’s disease often made people think he was drunk. In my excitement about meeting him I drank more. I felt a camaraderie with my competitors, as many women as men, though by morning I would despise them all. Altogether I drank nearly a bottle’s worth of whisky that night, the six varieties hot in my belly, head, and heart. Plus a few pints.

Evaporated Balvenie Double Wood 12

Evaporated Balvenie Double Wood 12

I went to bed at four a.m., and we gathered for breakfast three hours later — a regional Scottish breakfast, a two-by-nine sausage curved on my plate. They took me in a van to the competition at Glenkinchie. Sitting in front of a table of whiskies was like revisiting my worst relationships. We had to taste, sniff, identify, describe. Be poetic if we could.

One of the whiskies was advertised as poison. Don’t drink it, just tell us what went wrong in the distillation, they said. Flakes of metal swam in the glass as I stirred.

I posed for a photo with Jackson. I was told to hold a glass to my nose while he did the same in front of me, our eyes inches apart. While his face and body seemed to have swelled and burst along with his passion, his eyes, though drowsy and remote, retained something hopeful, constant. Two little boys singing inside a fortress of wet glass.

My brother and I were born to a drunk. That fact will sometimes color my mornings. The glass I had under my nose for that photo was the one holding flakes of metal.

Like many human endeavors, writing about alcohol has been specialized, categorized, and limited at the cost of broader truths. We focus on the reports of the tongue, nose, and eyes, but it’s the rest of the body that tells alcohol’s full story. I regret sometimes not hearing about the behavior behind the profession, the acts promoted by a critic’s curious thirst. What fantasies, mundane triumphs, and mistakes have played out as a wine writer puts her glass down? I remember wondering, with hungover melancholy, whether Michael Jackson missed that boy in his eyes.

I left my wife several years ago. I fell in love and left her and my son in Australia, and spent a long time hiding and crawling low like a dirty thing. I learned the kinship of death and divorce. Love, death, and too much whisky all produce a confused sense of time — or perhaps a more honest view of how poorly calendars and watches capture life’s shuttle and bewilderment. My son was very small when I left. I felt an imperative stronger than compassion, heavier than the potential for regret. If I paid any notice to time it was only to see how little there was left.

Evaporated Kilchoman 100% Islay

Evaporated Kilchoman 100% Islay

Buying old whisky, or any aged booze, is to some extent buying time. Those with enough money can dismiss their lack of foresight or knowledge, their inability to keep the cork in when they should have kept the bottle in the cellar; they can travel to a moment in their history, or to one beyond their ken. What interests me about the current flood of single-malt whisky is that many major producers are, with the help of benign tricks, ignoring time, silencing it, atoning for their lack of foresight, or finding a way to forget bad days.

When I was first drinking malts, many of the distilleries now thriving were almost bankrupt. Lagavulin’s stills were operating only two days a week in 1981. Ardbeg closed twice, in 1981 and again ten years later. Many closed forever. Wood and dye have been others’ salvation.

Single malts are the reward of barley, smoke, water, wood, and time. The type of peat, the volume of its smoke, the source of the water, the shape of the still, the place where the barrels are stored — all combine to evoke a sense of place, an approximation of what the wine wonks call terroir. Many distilleries now import their barley from industrial maltings, and some, like Lagavulin, do not store all of their barrels at the distillery,* so talking about terroir can be controversial. But alongside forty-year-old Lagavulin direct from a barrel in the warehouse, I have tried Lagavulin as a clear spirit, before it was aged in cask, and it was unmistakably a product of the place — of those stills, that air.

* This phrase has been corrected online. It originally read “do not store their barrels at the distillery.”

The wood is the giver of shadow and light. The spirit takes on color, draws stories from the oak, and if the wood has been soaked in other spirits it translates them. The Macallan has long been admired for this boozy metempsychosis — its sherry casks imbue the whisky with the sweet orange heat of Spain, an elegant and romantic expression of the yearning for warmth in Scotland.

When single malts suddenly became popular, in the mid-1990s, Lagavulin didn’t have enough of its trademark sixteen-year-old on hand to meet demand. Its price skyrocketed, and a twelve-year-old variant appeared. Of Ardbeg’s current range, only one whisky carries an age statement: a ten-year-old.

Macallan, the third-best-selling single malt in the world (after the bland Glenfiddich and Glenlivet), has released a new line of whisky with no age statements: its ten-, twelve-, fifteen-, and seventeen-year-olds will be complemented by colored varieties indicating flavor profiles (flavors normally associated with age).

This trend has a lot to do with the manipulation of oak and the use of caramel coloring. Distillers use smaller, flavored casks, sometimes combining a variety of them. Small barrels speed the maturation process by providing proportionally more surface area: the more contact a whisky has with the wood, the older it tastes. And color is added because the darker the whisky, the older it looks.

To purists, the current range of single malts can look like a parade of impostors: Caribbean casks, Pauillac finishes, triple woods, quarter casks, the liquid often colored with Caramel E150a. Where oak once provided whisky’s color and deeper dimension, the drink is now manipulated by a makeup artist, who stands between the purists and the true spirit.

The whisky world is full of wet-lipped finger-waggers who complain about whatever has come between them and their innocence. I admit to being one of them. We gripe about the uses of wood, chill filtration, dilution, and caramel coloring, and generally talk about whisky with little recollection of the pleasures of drinking. Perhaps there is an invisible John Knox at the bottom of every bottle, like a mezcal worm.

I suspect that the culture of malt whisky embraces and supports more anoraks, nerds, and pompous demipontiffs than that of any other drink. There also seems to be an inverse relationship between the compositional simplicity of single malt and the level of analysis it prompts. Here, for example, is a discussion of oak from the blog Whisky Science:

Oak tannins are more hydrolysable than the more stable wine tannins from grape skins and thus more volatile and active during maturation. Ellagitanins consist of vescalagin, castalagin, or their variations such as roburins or grandinins. . . . Other important aromatic oak extractives include different eugenols (clove, cinnamon), ?-damascenone (fruity, peach, cooked apple), cyclotene (toasty, caramel), hexanal (grass), trans-2-nonenal (sawdust, greasy), 2-octenal (green leaf, untoasted oak).

In a world of ancient oak, mystery, and romance, I see forest nymphs scattering, pouring themselves a vodka, and longing for handsomer strangers.

What are the pleasures of drinking?

I was raised in a household haunted by battles with alcohol. My grandfather, a Scot who loved Glenfiddich, used to wake up my father by pouring beer on him. He was a gigantic, moody drunk who bullied my grandmother into alcoholism and drank into his eighties, liquefied, incontinent, dying in a house full of feces. My father’s upbringing produced a few healthy fears of drink and an unlikely sense of discipline that took him through university and into the Canadian diplomatic corps.

He was posted to many exotic and comfortable places. My mother was quite a bit younger than he was, a childhood sweetheart who had still been a teen when they married. She, too, was raised in a house of Scottish drunks and random abuse, and on paper it looks like a fairy-tale outcome: two young people escaping bad soil and taking root in foreign countries. But I think it was too much too soon for my mother. From Edmonton to London in 1968, and then to Hong Kong, with my brother born after they arrived and me not long behind. There would have been a strong need to find home.

The right drink conjures a temporary haven. I’m sipping my Dun Bheagan right now, and it is easy for me to recall warm memories and ignore a host of realities. My mother drank a lot. She was in love with someone else and wasn’t where she wanted to be. She left when I was around six years old, just before my father was posted again to England.

My brother has more vivid memories of her than I do. Her moods and stumbles, her telling him he was no good. She took us swimming before we could swim and passed out cold beside the public pool. When she awoke she took us down the road to a bar and left us sitting on the sidewalk outside while she topped herself up. My brother was six when we lived in Denmark, and he recalls coming home from school with me and finding her asleep on the stairs.

She kept stashes of vodka in bathrooms and linen cupboards. By the time she left, in her late twenties, she already had cirrhosis and had been hospitalized for delirium tremens. She tried to kill herself by jumping out the window of the hospital; my father remembers blood on the window and the bed.

You never see us drunk was a phrase that echoed through our house for years afterward. My father and stepmother counseled moderation, taught us how to sip and what to avoid. We had champagne at Christmas, and I was allowed a taste of beer or wine from the age of ten or so. I wondered what this stuff was that had reportedly driven my mother from our home. My father and stepmother would regularly have a drink in the living room after work, which was usually when she would say you never see us drunk.

We also never saw them happy. As I sit here beyond forty looking back at my self-made disasters, I am loath to judge. But there was a lot of anger in our house, and fear. We were screamed at, taunted, and hit — cuffed round the ear, as my stepmother would say. I remember going to school with one ear twice the size of the other, a cut on my cheek from the kitchen knife slapped across it. I was a superstitious boy, always repeating certain actions that had once led to peace, or avoiding certain songs or thoughts associated with harsh times at home. I was ashamed to admit to friends that I was scared to be there, all the more when they saw the result of a missing bike or a wet towel left on the bed.

In a way my stepmother was in the same predicament my mother had been in — thrust into foreign places with no sense of escape, and with the added difficulty of looking after two kids not her own. Between her and my father lay many ill-expressed needs. My brother and I gained an early understanding of human bondage, of how durable a relationship can be when two lovers are perfectly wrong for each other.

For most of our childhood, my brother and I were afraid. As adults, somehow, we both fear very little. We also both love whisky.

Part of the reason I’ve bought all this whisky lately, and why I have received some as a gift, is to celebrate the publication of a novel and to toast a new start in Toronto. The novel is about chimpanzees.

I believe that realizing we are apes is a crucial part of enlightenment. Until we see the extent to which our behavior, institutions, culture, and ethics are the product of ape biology, we can have no true understanding of ourselves. I am fascinated by how political the lives of chimps are, and how much they are defined by tyranny and revolt. When a leader or a bully exerts relentless force over a group, the group lives in fear. There is submission but also constant deceit and subterfuge among those trying to find some small satisfaction behind the back of the alpha.

Many of us are lucky enough not to experience oppression on a large scale, but our lives are a pageant of tiny tyrannies, of people real or imagined forcing their will on us: husbands, girlfriends, kids, bosses, governments, people who tell me I should be on Facebook. Our lives are spent negotiating the wills of others and imposing our own in turn.

At twelve, I was often charged with pouring drinks for my parents, and I would experiment with quantity. If I mixed extra gin with my stepmother’s tonic, would she be peaceful through dinner?

As I watch that boy pour, I see a balance of power. I see my stepmother coming home from her job as a civil servant, telling stories of colleagues who had lost or triumphed in their own small battles with their own small alphas; she felt frustrated, no doubt, insignificant, and wanted to impose her will where she could.

Bullies will want a drink, and the weak ones will pour it. The strong ones will pour the drink, and the weak ones will drink it.

I’m sipping a Laphroaig now, in honor of all things memorable and their opposite. Laphroaig really is the perfect whisky. Salt, blood, hospitals and fire, toffee-sweet comfort and undersea peace. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that says Laphroaig was the only single malt consistently imported during Prohibition. Its notorious scent of iodine would persuade customs officers that it was medicinal.

Laphroaig has traditionally been the most polarizing of all single malts, and it comes from a polarizing place. The official tourism website for the island of Islay summed it up quite frankly:

There are eight distilleries on the island, all coastal and battered by strong salt-winds. . . . Among their products are the strongest flavoured of all malt whiskies, a property which endears them to some and disgusts others.

(That last phrase has recently been changed to “is less appreciated by others.”)

It was a decades-old dream of mine to visit Islay, to see the place where these tastes were made. Somehow it was a dream of coming home. I am not one of those North American lovers of Scotland you see at weddings, in kilts with giggling genitals, nor do I mourn my remoteness from the cradle of my ancestors, but I do feel an unthinking connection with its climate and landscape. I suppose I have spent many years drinking the place.

Of the few alcohols that genuinely speak of a particular ground and climate (I think of wine, primarily), single malt stands out for the way its very liquid has traveled through the soil. The water that runs through Islay, from lochs and reservoirs in the hills, looks brown when you stand on a bank looking down at it. The island is mostly made of thoroughly steeped peat. If you dip your glass in a pool or stream, the liquid is already the color of whisky. Distillers like Laphroaig claim that at least 15 percent of the whisky’s flavor comes from the soft, peated water.

I was invited to a book festival in Edinburgh and used that as an excuse to visit Islay with my partner. We stayed at a two-room B&B in Port Ellen, the second-largest town on an island of around 3,000 people. Port Ellen is essentially a row of white-and-brown buildings curved around a bay. It was quiet, and smelled of peat fires at night.

Islay was settled some 10,000 years ago, but whisky probably wasn’t made there until the fourteenth century, leaving roughly 8,800 years of chilly misery between the hope of a new life and the relief of a good drink. The place was so inhospitable, and subject to politics so tumultuous, that even though the Excise Act levied taxes against distillers throughout Scotland in 1644, it wasn’t until 1797 that a gauger or exciseman dared set foot on the island.

Wine and whisky are agricultural products. As they sit on elegant tables, conjure fancies, become fetishized as objects, and fetch huge sums, it is easily forgotten that they came from the ground through the interference of dirty fingers. There was a sense of humility about Islay generally; nothing pretentious or remotely luxurious. When you consider that this tiny island produces millions of liters annually, and that the whisky industry generates $1.5 billion per year in tax revenue alone, you would expect a glimmer of Swarovski somewhere, a restaurant selling salmon poached in Lagavulin.

Our true goal was to visit the Laphroaig distillery. For years we had been so-called Friends of Laphroaig (there are now more than 500,000 of us). We had submitted the bar codes of bottles we had drunk, and these entitled us to a putative plot of land on Islay — one square foot. As rent, Laphroaig promised a free dram whenever we lairds visited our land.

We walked the few miles from Port Ellen to Laphroaig and breathed the land we loved to drink. At the distillery we befriended some nice, young, obviously wealthy San Franciscans. We had a drink together. One of them paid a terrifying sum to taste a thirty-year-old Laphroaig. It’s not particularly enjoyable to watch rich people find disappointment, but it is cheap. We drank a little more, and after touring the distillery completely we were given some wellies and two tiny bottles of Laphroaig to prepare us for the hardships of a visit to our domain. We chose some three-inch Canadian flags to plant on our land and were directed across the street, where we found that our property was in fact a bog. The flags of hundreds of other countries were scattered over the plashy green acres. We planted our flags and drank.

I went for a run on our last day in Islay to see a different part of the island, and to sweat some poison out. It was sunny. I ran past the quiet buildings of the Port Ellen Distillery, now defunct, and around the bay to the west, toward a peninsula called the Oa. The name is pronounced as one round syllable, “O,” like a realization or a modest orgasm. I had had the word “Oa” in my head already from William Golding’s The Inheritors, in which Neanderthals use the word to describe a state of peace and unity with things greater than themselves.

I’ve noticed an unexpected optimism growing in me over the past several years. I make very little money, rarely see my son, have lost many friends, have a lonely job, often awake hungover, and probably spend a good part of each day behaving and looking like a miserable son of a bitch, but I feel real joy to be part of this noisy, contradictory species.

My mother came to mind as I ran along the coast. The empty buildings of the Port Ellen Distillery probably conjured ghosts. I don’t know her, but I loved her that day. My blood, my fellow struggler, another one who left. One hour into every run I feel a reclamation of self. Other people’s demands on me fall away; I have obligations but I am not owned. I think my mother’s drinking was probably the lazy or shadow side of this. It was her private claim, a way of coming into herself, a flight while staying put. We all need our sugar. We’re the predators who will only stay still for so long — the ones who feel good for running.

This, for me, is a pleasure of drinking: if I set aside the delights of taste and smell, and ignore the enjoyment of relaxing or celebrating with others, what I like is a sort of suspension — not oblivion or escape, but a moment where my needs and the needs of others are at peace.

I ran around the bay and onto the peninsula, through a coastal graveyard whose stones were marked with names I’d encountered among the living elsewhere on the island. I hopped over rocks to avoid the ocean. The next land over was Ireland, invisible. It seemed a small world for humans and vast in every other respect. I tried to make it all the way to the Oa, but my knees hurt. I’d drunk too much the previous night.

We went back to Laphroaig to visit our plot once again. We had both been surprised that our passion was shared by so many people, surprised to have found all those colorful little flags. When we returned to our land, we couldn’t see the grass or any of our claims. It was a lake, the bog freshly soaked, every flag and story drowned.

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

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