Saturday, 18 October 2014

Dry spell

A month without alcohol?  Can't be that hard, can it?

In a fit of reckless inspiration after speaking to a friend who had successfully completed 'dry July', I suggested that our own household embark upon 'sober October'.  We decided not to be too uptight about it: we had a special night out coming up and wanted to enjoy the pre-show meal with a glass of wine, and another friend who was also a connoisseur of pinot noir was staying the following weekend - we weren't about to make him feel awkward by sanctimoniously abstaining.

It was more about interrupting the routine of pouring a well-earned glass of crisp sauvignon when we got home from a hard day and a long commute - every evening.
The fact that October has so far been deliciously summery, just made for sitting out on our deck after work with glass of wine in hand to enjoy the last hour of sunshine, has caused me to condemn this as the 'stupidest idea' I've ever had.  But we've passed the half-way mark, and are somewhat relieved to find that we've broken a habit - not cured an addiction.  The beginning of next month marks our silver wedding anniversary, and we'll certainly celebrate that in traditional style - not just falling, but gleefully dive-bombing off the wagon again.
In the meantime, to make it really hurt, here's an essay praising the many virtues of 'the water of life'.

Sweet drams are made of these

The first time I tasted whisky I felt as if my chest was starting to glow from within, like ET’s ‘‘heart light’’. Initially a slightly alarming experience, in the time this warm radiance took to spread to my extremities I had become a convert.

Carbisdale Castle - scene of my eternal dram-nation. 

Living about 50 kilometres north of Inverness, in the depths of the Scottish highlands, is probably the best place to be introduced to whisky. My wife Rose and I were working in a remote youth hostel, which also happened to be a castle, overlooking the beautiful Kyle of Sutherland. Sneaking across this large estuary, via the ‘‘strictly no trespassing’’ railway bridge, the hostel staff were often drawn like thirsty moths to the lights of our local – the Invershin Hotel bar.

I had come to social drinking relatively late and was somewhat naive, so I almost got banned from that establishment, if not Scotland itself, when I tried to order a brandy and dry. There was only one liquor consumed around those parts and after workmates took me aside to have a quiet word, I hastily amended my request to a glass of everyone’s ‘‘usual’’ – Glenmorangie single malt whisky.

This was distilled a few kilometres south, and had a fierce following among the local population. After just one taste I remain to this day a fan of this smooth, somewhat spicy ambrosia.

It was winter’s final days when I became initiated, and for me this dark, smoke-infused time of year is linked to a warming nip of single malt. Enjoying a good whisky with friends in front of a roaring fire makes the gloomy, cold months something to look forward to.

By a process that the Scots admit originated elsewhere, but was perfected in Scotland, the pure, natural elements barley, peat and water are magically transformed by malting, fermentation and distillation, then matured into uisge beatha – the ‘‘water of life’’ to us non- Gaelic speakers.

Glenmorangie was only the beginning. I visited distilleries and sampled single malts all over Scotland and beyond – I even shared a dram while gazing up at Everest from the base camp in the Himalayas. Please note, this was Scotch and not the local Nepalese whisky (Ye Olde Earl), which admittedly does chase the cold away – and probably several years of your life, too. Enjoying a single malt isn’t just about the taste, marvellous as it is. The nose – the aroma of the whisky – is almost half the experience for me.

As my other faculties have started to falter my sense of smell remains acute; which is to be expected when you steer a nose the size of mine around. Smell is incredibly evocative; whiskies distilled on the Isle of Islay have an undeniable seaside frisson about their flavours and aromas, unfailingly reminding me of a driftwood bonfire on the beach. Glenmorangie, on the other hand, always evokes for me the peatiness, heather and bracken of the Kyle of Sutherland.

Whisky has accompanied many gloriously happy times in my life, but I’ve also learned the hard way that it commands respect. The penalty for treating this esteemed and venerable elixir with over-familiarity can be at least a day of your life wasted: curled up and braced for an impact which has long occurred, groaning and flinching from any light and sound under a crumpled duvet.

It might be thought that a return to New Zealand might quell the passion for this most Scottish of drinks, but the case seems to be quite the opposite.

Locally held whisky-tastings have been well supported by me and my friends over the years. These are curious but always enjoyable affairs, beginning with typically muted Kiwi reserve and six drams of whisky per attendee, and ending with a raucous din and empty glasses everywhere. As a non-partaker, Rose was often tasked with having to pick us up afterwards. Her reward was to become the one sober person at the party, then to endure what seemed to the rest of us to be uproariously witty banter all the way home.

The final tasting for the year would bloom into a fully-fledged Burns supper, complete with haggis, tatties and neaps (mashed potatoes and turnip) – a meal I honestly find is delicious. Less enjoyable was the traditional address to the haggis. My slight form would ensure I was always picked to represent the ‘‘poor, unfit, spindle-shanked foreigner’’ who ignorantly forsakes the ‘‘great chieftain of the pudding race’’ in this peculiar ritual. It hurt more that I was probably the only Scottish-born person there – but the traditional ‘‘participant’s dram’’ eased the pain a little.

There are many dusty quotes about whisky but I’ll end with a reflection from illustrator Ralph Steadman: ‘‘Single malt whisky is a drink to be respected, treasured, savoured and even kept for half a lifetime. It gathers momentum with every passing year. It fires dreams in the depths of despair and it gathers stories inside itself, as rich and dark as an ancient peat bog.’’

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