Lessons in Whisky, the Muse of Scotland

Robert Burns once wrote: “Oh thou, my Muse!


One of the first nights of the trip, in Glasgow, we took the tube to the West End of the city and ended up in what from the outside looked like a locals’ bar. It was. Inside there were Scots doing work on laptops, a big taxidermied moose head and a nasty reek of BO. They didn’t have any good Scottish microbrews (or otherwise) so we settled in and drank Scotch. One drink turned into many. Talisker was a “consistent warmer”, as I noted at the time, “with peat and honey the whole way through”. Highland twelve was a disappointment, too subtle, watery at the front and “smooth like licking a pillow is smooth”. Lagavulin, I wrote, was “a fucking drink. Fiery, peaty, aggressive, building to a miniature tempest on the tongue.” We ordered doubles of the Lagavulin.

Jeremy followed a shy dog around the bar stools, trying to make friends. We debated Scotch and bourbon and scoped out the locals. Then we stumbled to a nearby gastropub and chowed down on burgers with chorizo, chips and fried fish fillets the size of our biceps. Before we left I tried a little research on the Scotch topic, seeing as our quest for the dozen drinks had failed. What did the Scots drink? I asked three well-buzzed bystanders what they favored. Turned out they were a Greek, a Czech and an Irishman. The Greek spelled out “I-S-L-A-Y”, the Irish snorted and said “Jameson”, and the Czech just walked away.

“Hw-hiss-key” — the Scots say it with such a beautiful lilt. It looks so damn beautiful held up to the light, Scotch. It fills the sinuses with memories of honey and ginger and caramel candy. It anesthetizes the tongue, halfway at least, melts the strongest muscle in your body like it was a piece of taffy left in the sun on a sweltering day. It burns and blushes your cheeks like a maid’s and turns your vernacular into a sailor’s. Or, as Robert Burns said in fewer words and with greater power in his poem “Scotch Drink”: “Oh thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink; / Inspire me till I lisp and wink / To sing thy name!” Think he was lit as hell when he wrote that?

The only social artifacts I uncovered about Scotch during the trip were washed away by the bouts of heavy drinking that got me unearthing them in the first place.

Come to Scotland and you’ll let Scotch whisky ruin you. You won’t have a choice. The practice of voracious social alcoholism is divine here, and it’s expected that you’ll drink it early and often — and not like a tourist drinks rum on a cruise ship. This drinking is part of your Scottish education, and it’s legitimate.

But it’s also murky. I tried to learn the local secrets, distill the place it has in Scottish hearts. I came away flummoxed. Scots don’t have much memory of when they started drinking the stuff (see my note above as to why); they can be incredibly loquacious on its glories when they’re drinking it. But then you’re drinking it with them — and we know how that turns out. The only social artifacts I uncovered about Scotch during the trip were washed away by the bouts of heavy drinking that got me unearthing them in the first place.

Yet you don’t need specific memories to know that drinking the stuff is important to learning the place and its people. All the Scots require to help you build this unexplainable feeling of brotherhood is that you like their whisky, and that you’ll have a dram with them, and that you pour your own damn water. That’s a sacred rite — I learned that pretty early on.

Ode to the Hangover


The hangover has the bitter sweetness of a love gone terribly wrong. It’ll break your body rather than your heart, but both situations are overseen by a longing for the past that’s understood. Things are horrible now — you’re about to vomit — but oh my, were they good back when.

Almost all the Scots we ran into had Scotch in their blood. These were disciples of Burns’s school: the dram was their muse. They’d studied it, practically and not scientifically — formally they knew their stuff, but they really blew the topic out of the water in a practical exam. Go into a real Scottish bar, buy your neighbor a dram of his choosing and ask him about the stuff. (This is not travel advice but life advice.) A Scotsman asked about his whisky becomes an old-school thespian, a wise elder and a shenanigan-inspiring drinking buddy all rolled into one. Whisky transcends age here. It seems to beat class and politics as well: A wrinkled old gentleman wearing a big “YES” button in support of Scottish independence proved that when he first engaged me, and then my neighbors (two younger gents who had voted “NO”) in hearty, comfortable debate at the long tables of the Edinburgh’s Bow Bar. All of this over a few drams, of course, and ended with big smiles, twinkling eyes and handshakes that meant it. I still haven’t figured out whether Scots are especially friendly about their whisky, or their whisky simply makes them especially friendly. Perhaps they’ve become inescapably intertwined.

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