A word of caution: If you struggle with alcohol addiction or are in recovery, the contents of the blog below may be a trigger for you. Please use your best discretion.
I love scotch. If you’re like me, reading that sentence conjured images of Ron Burgundy singing his famous jingle. I couldn’t relate when I first saw Anchorman back in 2004 but now, I get it. It’s a somewhat unlikely partnership, I’d say – after all, if I’m to believe my own preconceived stereotype of the demographic of scotch drinkers, you’d be reading the words of an old, salt & peppery, white gentleman, sitting in a recliner by a fire, wearing a tweed jacket… which I am not. If I’m being honest with you, I don’t even really know what tweed looks like. That’s my journey.
So how did I get here? Well, I didn’t drink at all until college – beer was the obvious choice. Though absolutely disgusting to me at the time, it was cheap and effective. My early days of boozing took me from party to party on the campus of the University of Delaware, gulping Natural Ice as quickly as possible so I didn’t have to taste it for too long. Until one night, a most gracious host blessed the party with a keg of sweet nectar: Yuengling Lager, my gateway beer; the first beer I ever sipped and had the realization “you mean I can get drunk and enjoy the flavor of my beverage?” It was a revelation. Beer and vodka-and-whatevers carried me all the way through college and several years after.
In 2009 (I think), after four years of living in Atlanta, I met one of my best friends to this day. A lady I most affectionately refer to as “Nuge,“ as in: “You just got Nuged, son!,” “Nuge all up in your FACE!,” “You can suck my huge Nuge balls!,” and the like. Sweet lady Nuge is one of the smartest and kindest people I know and she will drink your motherfucking face off the planet. So confident she was in her badassness, I strived to emulate her level of cool and asked her to introduce me to bourbon. Before I knew it, after a brief acclimation period to adequately leather my mouth from the whiskey sting, I was drinking bourbon neat.
“Woodford,” I’d say to the bartender who would wait for a moment for me to choose a mixer before I dropped “neat” on her ass and sat back in my chair like I owned the place, while she tried to hide the smirk that revealed her admiration. In those moments, I felt a small fraction of what it’s like to be as badass as Nuge.
Now, I’d had one or two drinks of scotch before and I just didn’t get it. My palette, though tempered by bourbon, was not refined enough to appreciate it. That is, not until I visited a man who isn’t my brother but might as well be: Walter “Baby Powder” Johnson (don’t ask), in Chicago. Walt pulled from his cabinet the bottle that changed my life – the first landmark scotch of my journey: Johnnie Walker Blue. One sip of that and I instantly understood the fuss. My taste buds literally left my face, packed a rucksack, and went on a spiritual journey of enlightenment, only to return having the capacity and world knowledge to explain to me what flavors really are. Until then, I’d never had a drink that took my palette to so many different places.
I think of it like this: Bourbon is like dropping a stone into a lake – a large splash, a smaller splash and some satisfying ripples, catching the moonlight and glistening on the surface before slowly settling to a stop. Scotch is like skipping a stone on that lake – a chain of significant splashes creating one substantial ripple after another, which merge together as one ripple dances off of the momentum of the last into a spectacular, shimmery finish. A ripple of sweet collides with an earthy peat which commingles with peppercorns, rolling through burning brush.
That said, scotch can be a really expensive buzz. Luckily for me, when I moved to the wonderful city of Philadelphia, my wife introduced me to my homie, Srikanth. You see, Srikanth has a bit of a problem collection. And Srikanth, in all his benevolence, enjoys sharing that collection with those who truly enjoy and appreciate a fine scotch. The genius of his generosity is that he is deliberately creating a community of scotch advocates within his friend group so that when he visits their homes, he is sure to have a delicious drink. [We’re on to you, Srikanth].
The way I see it, Nuge gave me the map to Peatopia, Walt flew me there, and Srikanth gave me the guided tour. I like to think of it that way because, in my mind, it mirrors the flavor experience of the scotch itself – a series of distinct points en route to a magnificent destination.
There have been a few landmark scotches on this journey that I’d like to highlight, just in case you find yourself on the same path and maybe want to invite me over for a drink sometime please, I-don’t-ask-you-for-much-thanks. Everyone’s taste buds are different and I am, by no means, claiming to be an expert. I’m more-so highlighting the fact there is so much variation in this category that it’s worth reflecting on the specific scotches which stick with you.
The Balvenie 21: Never had I imagined a whiskey could be so smooth. It’s worlds away from the experience you get from a Johnnie Blue but perhaps even more dazzling in its subtlety. I knew this one was special when my wife (who is more of a espressotini kind of gal) took a sip and genuinely enjoyed it. It’s mellow sweetness and smooth all the way down.
Description: Ok, so you’re dead. You get to heaven and ask God for a cup of water. God points you to a patch of dirt. You approach it, and as you do, the most perfect and lusciously green blades of grass emerge from the soil, deliberately and almost symmetrically besprinkled by heavenly dew, each droplet shone by an individual ray of heavenly sunshine. You examine your hand to find the holy grail itself, which you skim across the blades, collecting the precious liquid. You sip. You die again. Happily.
Ardbeg Corryvreckan: This was such a “what the hell is this” moment, in the best way. Ardbeg has become my favorite distillery because I love the peaty flavor of an Islay scotch and Ardbeg is masterful at creating such wildly different and tasty scotches based on that flavor. It’s peat and pepper. Thank you Srikanth.
Description: Ok, so you’re dead. You get to hell and ask the Devil for a cup of water. The Devil scoops the skull of an irredeemable tyrant from his pile of skulls of irredeemable tyrants, next to his pile of skulls of bigots, and dips the skull into his river of molten hellfire. Just as the Devil orders you to drink it, God shows up and explains that there has been a mix-up and you’re supposed to be in heaven. The Devil protests a bit but it says right there on the paperwork: “Send to hell heaven.” You’re transported instantly and realize you’re still holding the skull, but hellfire can’t exist in heaven. Instead, the contents have transformed into a silky, honey-crystal colored, perfectly translucent liquid, which can only be born of a hell-to-heaven transportation. You sip. You’re reborn.
Bruichladdich: Port Charlotte: I was shopping for something I hadn’t tried before, to bring to a scotch tasting party so I consulted my Peatopia tour guide, who’s always down for whiskey-related conversation. I started listing the unfamiliar options on the shelf and when I got to Port Charlotte he said, with glee, “OH, GET THAT! But don’t bring it to the party. Save it for yourself.” Sage wisdom, as it still resides in my collection, only to be brought out on special occasions. It’s explosively fruity up front and a peat party in the backyard. The glory.
Description: It’s like you just bit into a pear-stuffed tangerine while your nose is plugged with raisins. You walk downstairs to the basement that’s slightly damp and a little musty from days of intermittent rains. You fall asleep for about 10 minutes and awaken. The fruit flavor has been marinating in the musk and now you’re experiencing it all together. The fruit fades away as you slowly ascend the stairs, out of the basement and into a pasture as the fleeting wafts of musk give way to the fresh prairie before you.
Ardbeg Grooves: This is my baby. This is the one that made me love peaty scotch so much. It’s increasingly rare and no longer being produced so find it and cherish it. This is not for folks just entering the world of scotch – it’s not a try-scotch-for-the-first-time type of jawn. It’s taking a bite of a tree that was on fire in a swamp. It’s an explosion of peat and smoke and if you don’t like it, kindly give it to me.
Description: Well here we are – at the end of our journey. We’ve braved the wintery bluster together. Our extremities chilled to near immobility, yet we persevere. We’ve seen the fires of hell and the shimmery summits of heaven. The collection of experiences, both trying and delightful, leave us emotionally worn. We’re almost home – no turning back now. At the brink of death, all we want to do is feel alive again once more. Only one thing will do. And just like that: reincarnation.
Good evening, friends. With peat and smoke and love. ~Truejest