Drinking Like A Man

At this point in my life, I’m married, own a house, have a job, speak 3 languages decently, and can tie a bow tie.  The only thing that I’ve missed in the quest to become a gentleman is being a Scotch drinker.  Now, I’m resolved to take this final step into manhood.

My first encounter with Scotch wasn’t pretty.  I was probably 20, and my Dad offered me a swiggle of his Glenfiddich.  It struck me as unnervingly similar in smell to the polyurethane I use to seal my wood floors, and the taste wasn’t much better.  The impression it left me with was overwhelmingly negative – I didn’t intend to get to know it better.

Some years later, I met Scotch again at a Christmas eve family gathering.  My uncle Rick got a bottle of 15 yr old Scotch that he insisted I try.  I held my nose and took a tiny sip.  It burned,  but I managed to get the whole thing down.

Fast forward to last week- I got to try a 20 yr old Scotch, and it was delicious.  Tradition dictates that Scotch should be enjoyed slowly and carefully, but I was the first one to finish my glass and would have asked for more, if it weren’t so damn expensive.

Yesterday, I picked up a bottle of 12 yr old single malt Glenlivet from the good people at Sam’s Club, and this evening I’m trying it out.

So far, so good.

It still burns, but I find that a little water in the glass helps ease the burn and lets you taste a bit more of the flavor.  The flavor itself is very difficult to define – slightly sweet, and a little fruity.  The predominant tastes are almond and honey, maybe some smoke.  There are other tastes too, but they’re too subtle for me to grasp.

Like so many things life, knowing a bit about Scotch helps to enhance my enjoyment of it, and, I hoped, would help me figure out what I was tasting.

The Scotch I’m enjoying is a single malt, meaning it comes exclusively from barley, a grain seemingly capable of anything.  The early stages of Scotch production are almost identical to beer – the barley is sprouted, which ramps up sugar production, then dried and ground into coarse bits.  These bits are then steeped so the sugars are released into water, and becomes malt.  From there, the path diverges from beer a bit, and I don’t quite follow all the ins and outs of fermenting and distilling.  Eventually, the unfinished Scotch is put in barrels, and must be aged a minimum of three years.

If you’re thinking that honey and almond don’t quite follow from boiled and dried barley, you’re quite correct.  My hypothesis is that yeast is a major player.  In the brewing world, the choice of yeast can have more influence over a beer’s final flavor than all the other ingredients put together.  Those little critters can somehow impart flavors of fruit, bread, flowers, you name it.

A little more research shed some light on how the drying of the barley takes place.  Instead of using plain old hot air or convection to dry the sprouted barley, some Scotch distillers burn peat in kilns and use the smoke to dry the barley.  The centuries of cumulative biomass in the peat introduce all sorts of interesting flavors, which I guess collectively comprise all those unnameables I mentioned earlier..  It’s just the sort of wacky behavior you’d expect from the folks who invented golf.

As I finish this glass, everything that went into it seems so clearly connected.  The land, the crop, the bottle, and the ceremony all belong together.  It’s humbling to think that this particular Scotch was made when I was 16, thinking about who I was going to hang out with this weekend.  Now, my thoughts turn to the men in my family who drank Scotch, and what their lives were like at 28.

Mostly wondering what they would think of me now.



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