Dalwhinnie is how he wooed me. At a cozy pub called the Irish Lion, I sat in a dark, wooden booth facing a bearded man with black, curly hair, a flight of amber Scotches on the table between us. One of the them, Dalwhinnie, was infused with a hint of heather; others had an undertow of peat. All were single malts, no blends.
Not that I would've known the difference between rotgut and Sheep Dip. Having been bottle-raised on Riunite and weaned on Rhinelander, I never had drunk Scotch before. But this evening proved pivotal: Oct. 1, 1996, marked the first date with my future husband (although I didn't know it at the time) and confirmed my introduction to real liquor. Real liquor signals the end of adolescence—I was 31—and fires the starting pistol of adulthood.
Single-malt Scotch, Dennis taught me, is to be sipped, not gulped. One does not partake in drinking games with single-malt Scotch. It would be a waste, for example, to throw back a slug of 18-year-old Macallan each time an N.C. State player missed a free throw in the NCAA tournament. Thirty-one shots missed; 31 shots down the hatch—more than an entire $160 bottle.
Last week Dennis and I broke out our dwindling collection—it's time for a restock—and discussed the beauty of Scotch.
SCENE: A living room in Southwest-Central Durham. Several brands of Scotch and tumblers sit on the TV tray. On the stereo: Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn & the Orchestra.
LISA: We're out of Macallan 12, so I guess we'll have to drink Macallan 18.
DENNIS: Well, that's too bad.
LISA peers at a nearly empty bottle of Balvenie 12.
L: Why did you choose Balvenie? Says here it's matured in two casks.
D: A few years ago people were talking about this Scotch being good. The first cask is a traditional oak whiskey cask. And the oak gives it a vanilla flavor. The second cask is a sherry cask. It imparts a fruity flavor to it.
DENNIS sniffs the bottle, pours glasses of Balvenie, Glenfiddich 12 and Macallan 18.
D: You can really tell the difference between them in the nose.
L: From light to dark, it's progressively more fragrant. And Macallan is the deepest amber. The Balvenie is a bit lighter tasting, but they are all smooth. What's the best Scotch you've ever drunk?
D: They're different and that's a good thing. To rate them in that way is an insult.
LISA drinks more Macallan.
L: Once you have Macallan, you can't go back.
D: Laphroaig is typically described in books as having a medicinal taste. The best description I ever read that defined medicinal was that it tasted like Band-Aids.
L: That's brilliant.
D: It didn't taste like it, but the nose on it had the same effect as a Band-Aid.
L: Yes, like when you're opening the box!
D: It's the smell of the peat, very acidic. It burns. One of my favorites is the rarest Scotch I've had: It was the Springbank 21. You got for me. It's extremely hard to find. I don't know how you did it.
L: I got it at the ABC store. Have you always drunk your Scotch neat?
D: Mostly, but you can take ...
Puts glass under LISA's nose. Dips two fingertips in water, sprinkles it in the glass, puts the glass back under LISA's nose.
L: It releases the aroma.
D: Do you know how I came to drink Scotch? I think it was in the '80s, but I'm bad with dates.
L: Not our date, ha-ha!
D: Somehow I came across a book by a guy who went by the pen name of Trevanian. It was about this assassin named Jonathan Hemlock (laughs). It turned out he was an expatriate. He left the U.S. because he couldn't stand what had happened to American culture, and of course, I related to that.
I had never drank Scotch in my life. Jonathan Hemlock, he drank this scotch called Laphroaig. I didn't even know how to pronounce the word. I thought well, I'll try it. I'll go see if I can get some of this. I bought some and went home with it. I opened the bottle and the whole house explodes in this peaty smell. It smelled like something in a doctor's office they'd put on you if you had an infected cut. I wondered if it was bad. But eventually I took a sip of it, and it wasn't.
The glass of Macallan is empty, as is the Balvenie. LISA switches to Glenfiddich.
D: If I were making a suggestion to someone who wanted to try Scotch, I would give them a range: Glenfiddich for the lighter; for the middle, the Macallan; and then the most extreme, Laphroaig.
LISA feels a bit dizzy.
L: What should we buy next?
D: Do you want to try something new?
L: The ABC store is closed right now. I'd look for that Springbank again. It's not new, but it's tried and true.
D: I can't believe they had a 21-year-old down there. How much was it?
L: It was expensive, but it was for your birthday. Are you really going to play Johnny Paycheck now?
DENNIS puts on Ben Webster.
L: Did you know you were going to take me to the Irish Lion that night?
D: I had no idea what was going to happen that night (laughs). I was going to be prepared for anything. It wasn't a plan, just an enjoyable evening.
L: It's something we can enjoy together; that's what I like about it. (Pauses.) What if I wouldn't have liked Scotch?
D: It would've gone something like this, "I have to go to the bathroom." (Laughs) I was already crazy about you. But I am glad you didn't order PBR.