College is a wonderful place to learn the medicinal value of fermented beverages and distilled spirits. To avoid debt, I took on a few jobs at a time, weaving them as the warp to my class schedule’s woof. One of those jobs involved some physical labor which would have made OSHA disintegrate in the heat of its own outrage, but the abuse was overlooked because we were teen-aged students needing the dollars; moreover, we enjoyed the adventure. One aspect of that job had us navigating the underground tunnels looking for leaks in the steam system. Pressurized steam is invisible, but a steam leak is usually audible. The thrill of the terror of possibly not hearing the leak was invigorating.
I went to a small religious school in Chicago, which is, I might suggest, a beer drinking town. I suppose that doesn’t make it terribly unique, but beer it was for our aching muscles and joints–also for the realization of the possibility of actual bodily harm, which youth, in its wisdom, suppresses until after the battle. The good people at the Miller Brewing Company had just introduced a fine concoction which they named “Miller Genuine Draft.” Pitchers of this golden elixir were available at an affordable price at a Madison Avenue bar which was not particular about enforcing the draconian and prohibitory drinking age laws, so we expressed our love for MGD, as it was known, by purchasing gallons of it at a time. On my twenty-first birthday, we celebrated by buying a pitcher of the more expensive Miller Brewing Company product, Leinenkugel’s Red.
Performance anxiety requires something a little stronger. My boss was a nice, rather muscular lady who enjoyed wearing coveralls and screaming unprintable epithets at us young men to ensure we were earning our pennies. At any rate, she was of Polish descent, and we were living in one of the Polish strongholds of Chicago, so I was introduced to cheap vodka, which was readily available, and I learned, through it, how to scream those same epithets with efficient effectiveness to mitigate anxiety.
In grad school, our more refined teachers–sorry, they like to be called perfessers–did not accept our invitations to drink Leinenkugel’s Red with us, which threw into question the very bedrock of our beliefs concerning the consumption of fine alcohol. What were they drinking? Well, the president of the school noted that in order to finish a PhD under a Jesuit regime, much Jack Daniels was required. He was from Texas. Bourbon? Others were seen to prefer red wines that came in bottles, always the kind with corks in them. Oenophilia? Too hoity-toity.
A respected and cultured member of our group finally introduced us to the gateway spirit: brandy. See, he showed us, look at all the accoutrements! He even had a brandy snifter shaped like a tobacco pipe which, by design, absorbed the heat from your hand, warming the spirits so that you could taste the highlights. To me it just burned my throat.
One of my teachers introduced me to single-malt scotch whisky, which had the same effect as the hand-warmed brandy, but I affected so that he would speak well of me during the defense of my dissertation topic. I did take note, however, that all my favorite teachers spoke of this single-malt experience as a transcendental thing, mentioning revealed doctrines such as “peaty” and “smokey” and “salty.” Someone even said “fruit.” It was all ciphers and numbers to me, bewildering. The men themselves had the look of smoke and peat about them, distilled countenances, as though they had endured some battles, which puzzled me, seeing that they were academics. As for me, my refrigerator was still stocked with MGD, and in my freezer was a plastic bottle of vodka.
My dad died very suddenly one day. He was a patriarch’s patriarch, which was very good in some ways, but in many others, very bad. Therefore, his dying was the unleashing of immeasurable energy throughout the emotional rails of the immediate family. An inordinate amount of pain rode those rails, as happens to some families. I found the dulling effects of cheap vodka to be quite comforting during the immediate aftermath, especially when it was mixed with cream and coffee-liqueur, just like Jeffrey Lebowski did in the greatest movie ever made.
Afterward, however, the cheap stuff didn’t do it; they were just dulling my senses, like treating aching joints and strained muscles, or like veneering over anxiety. Quantity, too, was required for the effect, which was terribly unhealthy and dangerous. What to do?
Single-malt scotch has a different effect, the same which some people find in fine red wines, or brandies, or bourbons: the aged stuff. It’s the age, you see, enduring the elements a few go-rounds, uncomfortable changes: expansion, contraction; evaporation, dilution. Endurance builds character. In a bottle of well-aged single-malt whisky is a particular character that shakes hands with mine. Indeed, I like the kinds of whisky which evoke salt, then spun sugar which floats atop sea spray. There is an abyss within this particular amber liquid, but a kind of cheery disposition toward the emptiness.
I like that. I can sit and watch something cultural, like a study of Henry II, who understood the abyss well enough to create an empire before he died of a bleeding ulcer–or I suppose the argument could be made he didn’t understand the abyss at all (I disagree)–and while I’m studying Henry’s desperation to achieve before the night fell upon him, the liquid floats me toward the same abyss, where I can lay eyes upon my father’s own desperation to achieve. Such visions, as I think we all agree, are mirrors.
Floating above the mirror, however, brings comfort that there is happiness amidst the desperation. I am reminded that my father, at times, took delight in his children. Regrets which long for more of that delight are attenuated while floating so that joy emerges from the abyss. This is far better than approaching the imminent end with my feet planted squarely on the ground. Such a posture, affecting strength, is no way to prepare to meet those forces.
A single sip of the amber liquid does the job, which makes single-malt scotch whisky a worthy medicine for the likes of me, who would prefer to delight for a while in some of the ordinary pleasures of the ground.