These three days I’ll be enjoying the FtBCon from my desktop, sipping Scotch or Irish whiskey. A lot. Because I like Scotch. And Irish whiskey. I’m pretty much a Scotch and Irish whiskey man, you see. Beer, dull (even when it doesn’t taste like piss). White wine, eh. Red wine can be remarkable if it’s not crap (and “not crap” does not mean expensive…if you ever pay more than $20 for a standard bottle of wine, you’re a dupe…or suffer a needlessly expensive curiosity…it’s the label that counts, not the price). American whiskeys (especially bourbons) are mostly too sweet (I’ve recently been introduced to only one I like, because it happens to taste a lot like Scotch: Basil Hayden’s…thank you, Phillip!). Vodka is a mixer (oxymoron intended). Ditto gin. Tequila, when you get the right kind (the kind you have to know to ask for, the kind that doesn’t pay for TV commercials). Mixed drinks, sure, whatever. Saphire martini on the rocks, dirty, three olives.
But really, my favorite is Scotch.
For those who don’t know, Scotch is a type of whiskey. So if you’ve ever wondered what the difference was, whiskey is to Scotch as ‘mammal’ is to ‘cat’. Bourbon is another kind of whiskey (usually on the sweet side)…Rye is another kind of whiskey (usually on the bitter side). And so on. Many whiskeys are just named for their land of origin, so Japanese whiskey is just…Japanese whiskey (and yes, there is such a thing…and it’s a lot like Scotch). Canadian whiskey is from, you know. Scotch is, you might guess, from Scotland. But that also means it has distinct characteristics according to Scottish brewing traditions, which have become trade law (Wikipedia will get you up to speed).
(And no, there is nothing intrinsically better about “single malt Scotch.” Despite the awe depicted for it in film and TV, it’s just more expensive and thus “fancier,” and some of the best whiskeys just happen to be single malt, often because the more aged the better and some traditionalists think it’s criminal to blend decades old brews, but just as a red wine blend can actually be quite excellent if the blender knows what they’re doing, and in fact blended reds are becoming quite popular now [for good reason, IMO], blended whiskeys could in principle be good as well. Whether they are or not doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care whether what I’m drinking is a single malt or a blend. Just as long as I like it. And I didn’t pay a zillion dollars for it. For more than you ever wanted to know about Scotch, you can read the articles of Michael Dietsch at Serious Eats.)
When I’m just drinking at home and don’t want to burn through anything too expensive, but also don’t want to tolerate an awful whiskey (and I don’t…ever), I drink Jameson. Which is not a Scotch, because it’s brewed in Ireland, so it’s (as you guessed) an “Irish whiskey.” It’s a decent low-end commercial whiskey blend, from a region of the world that knows whiskey old school. Being everywhere, it’s affordable in large quantities. It has the barest minimum of what I like in a whiskey, so it will do, sitting on the bottom rung of Plato’s ladder from the celestial ideal in the hypothetical mind of God to the lowest worldly imperfection that won’t insult your intelligence. A little bit up that ladder is Tallamore Dew, which will often be my preferred bar drink. If they have it.
But what I really like is Scotch. I’ll usually like any that are naturally smooth (as opposed to, for example, Laphroaig, which, despite it’s outrageous price tag, is shear turpentine…I’d sooner drink jet fuel; if forced to swill it, cut it with a lot of water…BTW, even a good Scotch can become delightfully more aromatic with just a few drops of water, so that’s always recommended, but apart from that I like my Scotch neat) and not on the sweet side (so, Macallan, not my favorite).
I’m still exploring the endless options in the Scotch universe. But my top number one favorite Scotch so far is Glenmorangie, which I was just recently introduced to at INR3, and tried again at SSACon Las Vegas just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating how great it was. I wasn’t. Second to that is Jura, a lesser known Scotch from an obscure little Scottish island, which a school teacher generously shared with me at Skepticon some years ago (and if you’re reading this, give me a shout in the comments!). I’ve been a fan ever since. It’s unusually affordable for its quality. Neither are commonly stocked at bars, however. So I usually have to settle for something less impressive, like a Glenfiddich.
This weekend I’ll be breaking out a “Speyside” 20-year single malt Scotch I bought at Costco (under their Kirkland label) for a disturbingly low price. There are speculations as to what actual distillery it comes from (Speyside is a region, not a distiller, encompassing dozens of private labels, including Macallan), but it sounds like it might be a Macallan that’s a touch less sweet than usual, something more in the direction of a Glenmorangie. We’ll see.
I often philosophize about the excellence of Scotch…and the fact that many people don’t get it–it all tastes like turpentine to them, whereas for me there is a universe of difference between whiskey that tastes like gasoline and whiskey that’s actually superb. I get the same split over red wine: for some people, it’s all bitter bog water that with every sip begs the question of why it even exists; for others, it’s a vessel of complex aromas and flavors that startles with its aesthetic complexity. Red wine can take me to another place, with its galaxy of smells and tastes. Good Scotch, too.
Indeed, the taste and feel of good liquor is the only reason to drink it. Getting tipsy or blasted drunk is just a bonus. But IMO, there really isn’t any good excuse for getting drunk on lighter fluid when you could do it on something that doesn’t taste like urine or turpentine. But wait. Ponder my inclusion of the word “feel” before. Good liquor is aesthetically pleasant to me not just because of the flavors, which really means aromas–like wine, a galaxy of them that radiate from your tongue into your sinuses, filling your nasal cavity, sparking neurons like no tomorrow. It’s also how good liquor feels. You’ll recall my use of the descriptor “smooth,” which you’ll hear a lot as describing a good brand. That’s that burning sensation liquor creates throughout your mouth, tongue, and especially throat…when it’s a pleasant burn, it’s smooth; when it feels like you just drank some displeasant acid-like choke-a-goat fire-water, that’s not smooth.
When I ponder the possible future technologies of android bodies replacing or standing in for our biological bodies (because, you know, that’s the kind of weird thing I think about a lot), I’m often brought back to the question of how the aesthetic experience of whiskey can ever be reproduced. It won’t be a straightforward matter of replacing taste buds in the tongue and airborne molecule receptors in the nose. Sure, we could “taste whiskey” in simulated universes (where we don’t even need actual bodies to interact with actual whiskey molecules), but to replicate the experience in real-space is not so simple. We could program our nerves to make anything taste like Glenmorangie…even water. Or rat urine. (So we won’t have to actually waste resources brewing fine Scotch for future androids.) But that wouldn’t be enough. What exactly is involved neurologically (not just in the brain, but, even more importantly, in the mouth and throat) in the felt experience of downing liquor? There is clearly a lot of complex neurophysics and chemistry there. What exactly is going on in the throat after a smooth drink of Scotch?
Something to think about.
I’ll just close today with one debunked myth and one word of advice.
First, the myth:
No, silly, alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells. That’s pseudoscience. If you thought about it (and have learned anything about chemistry and physiology) you’d realize that’s impossible (it makes no more sense than power lines causing brain cancer). A drink that regularly killed cells of any kind (especially brain cells) would be an actual poison. I know liquor is sometimes called “poison,” but um, no. It’s not. In fact, as David Hanson, Ph.D., points out in “Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?,” the science is clear that “the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills and memory than is abstaining from alcohol,” and “drinking doesn’t kill brain cells but helps the brain function better into old age.” Alcohol still reduces your physical coordination and reaction time, however, which is why it’s dangerous to drive even under mild influence. And of course, drinking enough to be visibly “drunk” produces a state of global cognitive impairment. But it still doesn’t kill brain cells. You have to abuse alcohol to an extreme degree to suffer health problems from it (like damaging your liver: alcoholic liver disease requires maintaining such a sustained state of inebriation that your liver starts to burn out from the incessant heavy lifting). Drink responsibly. And don’t worry about it destroying your skills, memory, or intellect.
Second, the advice:
Anytime you spend the night drinking heavily, chug a tall glass of water before going to bed. Literally, chug the whole thing. Tall glass. Top to bottom. Don’t wimp out. Hangovers are just the symptoms of dehydration. Get that water in your system before you hit the sack. Your brain’s sleep centers will slow down your kidneys while you doze (SOP for the renal system), and all that water will settle in where it’s supposed to go. Then when you get up, you’ll have one hell of a pee. And feel a lot less hungover than you otherwise would.
Be excellent to each other. And party on. Smartly.