A Clean and Darkened Place—When to Drink Whisky

Current Whisky Collection

I was watching James May Drinks Britain, the episode where he tries some ridiculously strong Scotch whisky that should make him blind. James made a comment about how drinking whisky took him to a dark place.

Now if you’re like me, you might be confused about how to spell this drink. I know that it’s sometimes whiskey and other times whisky. Apparently, this is an issue of great debate. The Scottish take the spelling of their honored drink pretty seriously. They omit the e, making it just whisky. American bourbon, and other like spirits, are whiskey.

I believe whisky to be a noble drink, right up there with the finest of wines. Apparently fresh distilled whisky is clear and very similar to vodka. It’s the aging in wood casks that gives the drink the amber color and distinct flavor.

That got me thinking. When would you really drink whisky?

If it really were just an aged vodka, you could toss it into any old concoction and have yourself a fine cocktail. But it’s not that easy. If you frequent pubs, I imagine whisky might be one of the many drinks in your arsenal, along with the various beers and liquors. Yet if you live in Southern California, and in my case, southern Southern California, then you really have few pub options. I think there are only three or four real pubs, and they’re about 30 miles north. Typically, Corona and Budweiser engage in a never ending war for converts.

I don’t imagine you’d order a glass of whisky with your average meal. It’s not that kind of drink. It requires commitment and a degree of reflection. I think this is what James May was after when he spoke of dark places. A good whisky will close in around you like a warm blanket, leaving you only with your thoughts. You wouldn’t interrupt this with a side of fries and a burger, would you?

But what about the Manhattan, you say? That has whiskey in it (notice the spelling). Yes. And also bitters and vermouth. It’s a standard cocktail. I really don’t think you’ve be mixing single malt with anything but water.

Okay, a quick aside. If you’re confused by single malt, this means that the whisky comes from only one distillery and is not mixed with any other whiskies (called a blended whisky). Single malts come in fancy corked bottles with those Scottish or Irish names that just roll off the tongue, like Caol Ila and Te Bheag (Kool Eela and Chay Vek respectively). The prices start at about fifty a bottle and easily shoot up to the two-hundred range.

So back to the Manhattan. Yes, you mix whiskey into the drink, but it’s a blended whiskey at best. Single malts are for solo drinking. And that leaves late at night, in the dark, where your thoughts can unravel into lumps of yarn and lose fabric.

My current list of single malts include the following:

Dalwhinnie 15 years
This is the first bottle I ever bought. I still have it.

Macallan 10 years
I haven’t had a Macallan I didn’t love. So sweet. Devoured almost all of this bottle.

Balvenie 21 years (Portwood)
Bought this after finishing my first middle grade novel. Great mix of peat and sweetness. Nearly drained after two years.

Ardbeg 10 years from Islay
From one of the islands off the coast of Scottland. Islay produces a very peaty bunch of whiskies. First I didn’t think I’d like the peat. But I’ve warmed to it. Bought this after finishing Tarot novel.

Caol Ila 18 years also from Islay
Bought this on my last trip through London, about six years ago. Most is still in the bottle. Super peaty.

As you can see, I tend to purchase bottles to commemorate finishing first drafts of novels. I admit that I rarely imbibe. That’s how some bottles stay around for so long. The reason is as I detailed above. Add to that the fact that I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I’ve even fallen asleep while reading. Out loud. So I typically drink caffeinated coffee right before I go to sleep. (No trouble going out. Head hits pillow and I’m gone.)

Only the occasional late nights, when I’m wide awake enough to last the drink, do I partake of whisky. When I do take the opportunity, the lights are dimmed and I sit in the dark with a small glass of amber liquid. Then the thoughts simply flow, clean and pure.

Tim Kane