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I need a drink or three, and you probably do, too
It’s been a little quiet around Slack Tide lately, even as the world rages on. Sometimes life gets in the way of our business. Business, for me, being stringing nouns and verbs and adjectives together (sometimes adverbs, which I try to do sparingly). “Life” this time of year, usually means fishing the shad run, though I haven’t been able to get to that either, since too many obligations have encroached. Trying to get the house in shape for our massive annual Easter dinner is always nerve-racking, giving me what I refer to as my annual aneurysm, and which my wife - a fine Christian woman – says turns me into “The Easter Dick.” Which is not to be confused with when she calls me “The Christmas Dick” (holidays don’t bring out my best).
First, I had to put some shutters back on the house that had blown off in a gale the other day. Then I spent a good half of a week trying to get my lawn tractor to work for the first cut of the year – always an iffy proposition. The grille cracked to pieces and its hood hinges busted off when I had a little front-end collision with a tree last year. My lawnmower shop told me the parts I need aren’t manufactured anymore. So now the hood is fastened on with three-dollar hardware-store clamps. The choke knob came off and the choke itself sticks half the time, so I have to wrestle it out with a pair of vice grips. And the battery died after a hard off-season in the garage, where its engine often serves as a winter getaway for rodents. My trusty Craftsman still runs like a racehorse once I turn it over. Though it has become the Joe Biden of lawnmowers – functional, but it could be off to the glue factory any day.
After finally getting the grass cut and the Easter dinner ordeal behind me (I made huge platters of cashew chicken and Thai fried rice with extra red chilies), then came the real pain, which I’m still going through as of this writing. I’ve been battling my accountant before tax day, who seems positive I need to be rendering unto Caesar much more than I’m convinced I do. I have, after all, written somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 words since launching this thing, and Caesar hasn’t composed one syllable of those. Yet the greedy bastard is still trying to carve off well over a third of my income. If I’d known what a pain in the ass it is to file self-employed taxes throughout the year, I’d have stayed a salaried employee on the payroll of my old boy band, Manufactured Outrage. (I wasn’t known as The Cute One or The Shy One, but rather as The Surly One).
And as I’ve been locked in mortal combat with my accountant - who I feel truly sorry for, it has to suck for him arguing with a words guy who is trying to do math - the world has kept managing to fall down around me. There’s indicted ex-presidents (or as the ex-president would have it in the full flower of his dementedness, the still-president). There’s Elon Musk – the man a keen observer (ok, me) once said “puts the ass in Asperger’s” – trying to cripple Substack on Twitter while having yet another of his man-baby tantrums. There was the usual array of mass shootings. Along with the predictable stupid reactions to it by Republican lawmakers with assault-weapons fetishes, who remain more afraid of the gun lobby than they are of seeing schoolkids used as sporting clays.
A part of me feels like I need to write about all this. But what am I worried about? My fellow Republicans will still be doing stupid, dishonest things tomorrow. So the larger part of me, the part that puts the “slack” in this-here Slack Tide, thinks what I really need is a drink. Or three. And I’m sure you do too, after this recap. Even if you’re a teetotaler.
So rather than leaving you high-and-dry as I put my accountant in a figure-four leglock until he submits to finding me more deductions, I thought I’d serve you a drink, of sorts, since I can’t serve up an actual drink through your WiFi. (The tech dweebs ought to get to work on that – it might be one of the only actual good uses of artificial intelligence.) Therefore, I’m going to run one of my favorite old pieces, as I periodically do here. It’s not new, but there’s about a 99 percent chance it’s new to you, which is kind of like newness. I’m not claiming it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing, but it is near the top of the pile as one of my favorite pieces of reporting. For it involved a nine-day scotches of Scotland trip, in which I drank roughly my annual salary at the time, free of charge, as barkeeps kept pouring beautiful, overpriced, peaty single malts down my gullet. I’m more of a bourbon guy by temperament and training, but I sucked it up and did my journalistic duty. I got so into the spirit of things, in fact, that I even started spelling whiskey wrong, like the Scots (“whisky”).
It’s only a short sprint – about 800 words or so – but here’s hoping you pour yourself a drink and enjoy. Even if it’s only early afternoon around my parts, Scotland is five hours ahead. So feel no guilt.
I generally don't advocate drinking whisky for breakfast. But on occasion, when necessity dictates, it does have a way of setting the world right. I was on the fifth day of a Scotches of Scotland distilleries tour, stewing in my Highlands hotel perched on a bluff overlooking Moray Firth. My cell phone was busted. My liver wasn't far behind. I was suffering guilt spasms over my self-imposed news blackout.
To learn how the world was passing me by, I checked the Drudge Report. The headlines screamed that President Bush had taken a spill on his mountain bike. John Kerry wondered whether he'd lost his training wheels, and journalists were fretting whether it was on the record. Such epochal matters of state drove me straight back to the Glenmorangie, newly mindful of philosopher-king Tom Waits' maxim, "I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me, than a pre-frontal lobotomy."
The free bottles came courtesy of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and its member distillers. Some call them the liquor lobby. I call them angels. They call me "junket whore," but I'll live with it, in order to trek off with them every few years on one of their liquors-of-the-world tours, a scheme they devised to sell writers on the glories of spirits-consumption. It would seem unnecessary. Most writers I know regard "drinking responsibly" as not putting ice in their 15-year-old Laphroaig.
It's hard not to behave like a tourist when you see glorious Scotland in May--to not take snaps of the shimmering lochs or yellow fields of rapeseed, or of signs like "Glenlivet Primary School" (they start them young over here). It was enough to make us go native, in a fake touristy sort of way: to eat haggis straight out of the intestinal bag, to spew bad Highlander dialogue ("I'm a MacLeod from the clan MacLeod and I cannot die!"), and to inflict CDs like my "Pipin' Hot" bagpipes collection on our Scottish bus driver. ("If I see another fow'kin' bagpiper, I'll shoot 'im in the neck," threatened Jimmy.)
But it was whisky we came for, and whisky we were given, from the Scotches known as the Lowland Ladies to the smokier, peatier "barbecues in a bottle" of the western isles. Mostly traveling in Speyside, in the central Highlands, we were taught by the Scotch masters how to nose it and taste it and hold it on your tongue, or, as Dalmore's Richard Paterson puts it, to "give every tooth a say in it." He does not so much drink it as have a conversation with it: "Hello, how are you? Quite well, thank you very much." When he's pouring us a wee dram of a $46,000-per-bottle 62-year-old Scotch, he makes clear that knocking it back fast with ice is a sin akin to throwing your snoozing grandpa out in the cold, naked.
At first, our group went in for all the descriptors lavished on these single malts--words like "fruit-forward" and "pork crackling" and "new cowhide"--till the absurdity overtook us and we fashioned new absurdities of our own ("nutty and slutty," "third-world clinic," and "smoldering rope that's been extinguished in a glass of Diet Pepsi"). It all seemed a bit fruit-forward to waste time discussing these whiskies, rather than drinking them.
Instead, they fueled us for our nightly No-Talent Show in which colleagues would pull back the furniture to play "air-clarinet" or Morris-dance or--as one demure correspondent from Today's Black Woman did almost nightly--belt out a glass-rattling rendition of "The Impossible Dream." They were soirées of the kind one would expect in the company of people who appreciate good whisky and who can drink copious amounts of it without wearing the lampshade home. Each night, sober formality dissolved into convivial intimacy, as at the Kenmore Hotel, where Crooked Jack, an ornery, tartan-wearing, guitar-playing folkie, took requests and then refused to play them.
There, I conversed with an old friend, Gary Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology. A 52-year-old Brit, he's an ideal drinking companion and a bartender's bartender. If you need to know how much gin goes in a Monkey Gland, Gary's your man. Since I'd last seen him on a bourbon junket, he'd lost half his tongue to cancer. He has a new tongue now, fashioned from his forearm skin, and a new lease as well. A lifelong atheist, he'd found God. "And you know what?" he said, looking to cut the earnestness, "She's got a great set."
I should've decked him for sacrilege, but there was no time. Not with Crooked Jack finally relenting and playing "American Pie." Around about the time the levee went dry, I threw my arm around Gary and offered to buy him something meaty and peaty and 12 years old. Or I would've, if the whisky hadn't already been the best kind of all: gratis.
Epilogue: The bartender’s bartender mentioned above, Gary Regan, died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 68. RIP. Here’s an old Robert Burns toast, dedicated to him:
Here’s a bottle and an honest friend –
What would ye wish for mair, man.
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man.
So catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man.
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.
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Bonus Tracks: I know what you’re thinking. The easy way out, considering the headline, is to go with Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” But I’m not going to do that. I love Willie. But I zig when others zag. So you can do Willie on your own time. Here instead is my youngest son and fishing buddy’s favorite drinking song, the great Tyler Childers’ “If Whiskey Could Talk” off his Bottles and Bibles album. It’s also a great cheatin’ song. So kind of a twofer.
Here’s another of mine, the Drive-by Truckers’ “Women Without Whiskey” off their Southern Rock Opera album. A very conflicted drinking song, partly about trying to put the bottle down. Which, if you think you need to, you probably do. Don’t fight it, even if I’m an enthusiast.
And here’s a gloriously beautiful Scotland-flavored song from an American band, Nickel Creek. “Sweet Afton” is the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ 1791 ode to a small river in Ayrshire, Scotland, set to music. Rivers and music – they’re practically synonymous.