Liquid diet: The cantankerous character of Scotch

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I developed something of a crush on Jameson Irish Whiskey last year. A friend bought a bottle before we left Victoria for the holiday season, and he and I drained it in good time. We drank it on the rocks. Though I’d had Jameson in the past, I couldn’t recall it ever going down so smoothly, nor tasting so good. It might have been that my academic semester had just come to an end and the excitement that swirled in the air helped to numb my taste buds. Or perhaps my years of crushing cheap booze had culminated in a palate that could finally appreciate a well-crafted spirit on its own — the way I believed real men were meant to consume their liquor — without the need to douse it in mix. During the following three weeks of Christmas parties and get-togethers, I purchased four bottles of Jameson and drank them down without so much as an ounce of mix.

But as the holidays progressed and I continued this Jameson affair, a subdued sense of guilt took hold. Being that my lineage is Scottish (albeit five generations removed from the motherland), I couldn’t help but feel a little traitorous, like I was courting the daughter of some sworn enemy. It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to redeem myself.

I have an early February birthday, and as I scoured the B.C. Liquor Store’s rows of spirits for something celebratory, I saw Dewar’s White Label Scotch Whisky on special — for a modest $23.75, no less. Not only did this smash Jameson’s price tag of $31.99, but it allowed me to nourish my Scottish roots. A potluck at a friend’s house was slated for the evening’s festivities, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

I wasted no time upon arriving home. As my girlfriend prepared potato skins, I poured a generous three fingers of Scotch into a rocks glass then added two cubes. A sniff of the beverage caused my nose hairs to squirm; my first taste had me puckering like a duck. The sip itself wasn’t all that bad, but the aftertaste hit me like a house fire. I tried another, and yet again my throat burned with smoky horror. “This can only get easier with time,” I thought. But after choking back the remainder of the first glass, I realized I was wrong.

The thing with me is, if I have a hankering to drink — and on that birthday evening, I certainly did — how a drink tastes rarely gets me down. The strength of my resolve usually strengthens my palate. Knowing this, and knowing that a slight buzz always helps, I decided to forge on. After all, the second glass couldn’t possibly be worse than the first, right? Wrong.

I got through about 1.5 of the next three fingers and reeled. With lower lip quivering, I glared hard at the amber liquid. It glared back. Fortunately, we had some Coca-Cola in the fridge. I’d just douse the next round or two and get on with it. But though I topped my remainder up with pop, I still couldn’t stomach it. Its harsh peat flavour punched through the sweetness of the Coke and almost made me gag. I’d officially been beaten. I spent the rest of the evening drinking my girlfriend’s sangria.

A couple of weeks later, my friend Lucas Russell, who’s something of a Scotch drinker, came by. Since my defeat, the Dewar’s had been gloating tall in our liquor/cereal cupboard. Each time I opened the cupboard, I tried to stare down the bottle. Each time I failed. Russell took one drink, twitched slightly and said, “That’s some finish.”

I told him how I’d first tried to drink it like a man, then how I’d resorted to pop — all to no avail.

“No, no,” he said, walking to the sink. “Just cut it with water. That’s the best way to soften the finish. And next time, don’t buy cheap Scotch.”

Lo and behold, it worked. Russell and I polished off the bottle, and I no longer felt intimidated when I reached for the Corn Flakes.

Recently, my girlfriend’s and my roommate came home with a bottle of Black Grouse Scotch Whisky. Though my first instinct was to shudder, I knew this would be a better representation of how Scotch should taste. At $35.95, Black Grouse is 51 per cent more expensive than Dewar’s was on sale. My first sampling proved to be 51 per cent smoother, too. It still has the smokiness of Scotch — that’s just something I’ll have to get used to — but it’s not nearly as overwhelming. And while the finish lingers, to be sure, it’s not with the same type of stiff-karate-chop-to-the-throat intensity that signifies the finish of Dewar’s White Label. I can hear you Scotch aficionados now: “But Black Grouse is hardly a good Scotch, either.” You’re probably right, and even though my ancestors may curse me from above, from here on I’m all Irish, all the time.

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