Book excerpt

99 Drams of Whiskey

The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink

Kate Hopkins

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

To Ireland

 
I am in a surly mood.

 

One would think that a person who was off to distant lands to drink whiskey, and who was then off to write about the experience of drinking said whiskey, and who would then get paid for the aforementioned writing, would be as excited as a pug whose owner had just come home drenched in the odor of ground steak. And yes, a mere twelve hours ago, I was that thrilled.

 

But that was before the plane ride from Chicago to Dublin. About five hours into the flight, somewhere around 35,000 feet, and between the time when my "aisle buddy" started snoring and the child behind me began kicking the back of my seat and then sadistically counting along, I felt my anxiety slowly evolve into something more . . . menacing. This was never a good place for me to go, and quite frankly, it was only adding to the frustration that was my "Happy Travel Fun Day."

 

I have decided that everyone who claims to like to travel is lying. No one could like this torture, let alone love it. No, what they mean when they say that they "like to travel" is that they like being somewhere (Point B) that isn't where they spend the majority of their time (Point A). But to get from Point A to Point B and back again requires a long series of frustrating and degrading activities. What ever romance travel may have once held has now been stripped clean, dipped in an acid bath, and shoved out into the cold, where knowing businessmen point and stare at it, and say in hushed tones to their compatriots, "Hey, isn't that the romance of travel? I've often wondered what happened to it."

 

Like I said, I am in a surly mood.

 

As my annoyance swells, I am finding ways to blame anyone for my predicament. I could blame American Airlines, for having the cheapest flight to Ireland. I could blame the mother of the child behind me, who apparently has been born with a supermutant popliteal ligament and a predisposition for pulling wings off butterflies. Or I could blame myself, for not making enough money to afford first-class or chartered flights.

 

Instead, I do the reasonable thing and blame someone else—an anonymous man from round about Surrey, England.

 

On May 24, 2005, Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey, England, sold their only bottle of Dalmore 62 Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky to a regular patron of their hotel. Their bar manager negotiated the price. This wasn't an auction or a convention. This was a bar at a hotel, where this anonymous ruiner of my travels saw this rare bottle of scotch (probably on more than one occasion) and thought to himself, "I want that. No matter what the cost."

 

This anonymous buyer (whom I'll henceforth refer to as "Mr. Disposable Income") ended up paying £32,000 (or a little more than $70,000) for the honor of owning the bottle of whiskey, one of only twelve bottles of Dalmore 62 Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky then in existence.

 

Following the sale, Mr. Disposable Income opened the bottle and shared it with a few of his friends, including the bar manager. By the next morning, it was mostly gone. It is at this point that those who hear this story typically fall into one of three camps.

 

The first call Mr. Disposable Income insane for spending this amount of money on such a trivial item. Who in his right mind would spend that amount of money on a bottle of whiskey?

 

The second call Mr. Disposable Income insane for wasting such a fine investment. These are the collectors who most assuredly throw jokes around, wondering about the value of Mr. DI's urine soon after imbibing the rare liquor, and stating that the owners of the eleven other bottles of Dalmore 62 were most likely pleased because now their own bottles appreciated in value overnight.

 

Then there's the third camp. These are the folks who, upon hearing this story, think to themselves: "Damn, I bet that was the best £32,000 Mr. DI ever spent."

 

For reasons I cannot yet fathom, I find myself drawn to the people of the third camp. I'm not sure whether I am inquisitive about these types of folks in the way that Jane Goodall is fascinated by chimpanzees or whether I'm drawn to them because, somewhere deep within the darker recesses of my soul, I know that I am one of them.

 

What would drive a person to spend that amount of money on a drink? Breaking it down, there are only three answers I can come up with.

 

One: Mr. DI is indeed quite mad. If he is, then there's not much more to add to the story.

 

Two: Mr. DI wants to bask in the status afforded to him for having sipped one of the rarest of liquors. But since he purchased the whiskey outside the typical auction circuit, and he distinctly asked the management of the Pennyhill Park Hotel to keep his identity from the public, there's little status that can be afforded to him (outside that of those who partake of pricey drinks).

 

So that leaves me with the third reason: He felt that the drink, and the experience that it brought him, would be worth the money he had paid for it.

 

This conjecture on my part leaves me with several questions: Can a bottle of whiskey be worth this amount of money? What properties or characteristics does such a whiskey need in order to be considered "worth it"? Is the price paid for such a drink a reflection on the quality of the whiskey, or on its rarity? If it is the quality, does the price reflect that the whiskey is close to perfection? Is there such a thing as a perfect whiskey?

 

I am vexed by what a £32,000 bottle of whiskey means to my inner philosopher.

 

In the years after I heard this story, I created an agenda for myself. I needed to learn about whiskey as well as the associated passion for it that Mr. DI, and those like him, carry. I arranged various tours of whiskey distilleries and interviews with several folks who carry their own obsession for the spirit. I asked a friend to come along so that I wouldn't have to drink alone and so that she could, if needed, let me know when I was getting too obsessed about the drink. Finally, I made travel plans that would get me to the various destinations I had planned . . . which is how I ended up on an American Airlines 777 at around five o'clock in the morning Greenwich Mean Time getting kicked in the tuckus by Timmy the wonder kid with ligaments of industrialized rubber.

 

I decide to get out of my chair to flag down a flight attendant. I shoot Timmy a look that shows him a version of his future where he's forced to let me take a swing at his seat, and then I try to wake his mother.

 

"Your boy is kicking my chair. Could you get him to stop?"

 

She looks groggily over at her son and says, "Jons, bhve or tel dad," which I interpret as a passive- aggressive threat to Jonas that Dad is about to get involved, and apparently that means something dreadful. Jonas pouts to himself as I head to the flight attendant's station.

 

"Would it be possible to get a drink?" I ask. "For nerves," I add, as if I needed a reason.

 

The flight attendant nods in the affirmative, and I walk back to my seat with a tiny bottle of Glenlivet, an empty plastic glass, and a separate glass of water. I pour the Glenlivet into the glass and add a minimal amount of water. Life is a little better. There's no more kicking, there's no more snoring from my aisle mate, and I have a glass of whiskey.

 

I take a drink. It goes down nicely.

 

But there's no way in hell that a bottle of this stuff is worth £32,000.

 

Why am I heading to Ireland to start this journey, instead of Scotland? Isn't Scotland often seen as the preeminent area for all things whiskey? This needs a bit of explaining.

 

Whiskey is an item that engenders a fair amount of regional pride. Ask an Irishman where whiskey came from, and he'll state with pride, "Ireland!"

 

Ask a Scot a similar question, and he will also claim his land to be the true originator of the drink.

 

Ask an academic who has the best claim and he or she is likely to shrug and mumble, "Hell if I know. That part of the world wasn't too keen on keeping records of who was doing what." It's this lack of evidence that allows either region to claim whiskey as its creation without fear of contradiction.

 

So in the spirit of brotherhood, not only will I support both the Irish and Scottish claims that they are the originators of whiskey, I'll also support any future Welsh claim to the spirit, if only because there's no evidence saying they're not. They may as well add their name to the history books. What the hell, let's add the English, too.

 

The reality is that whiskey wasn't discovered at a specific moment. It evolved from a series of events that involve a wide array of characters, most of them alchemists, traders, and monks. Everyone from a Shia Muslim chemist to an Iberian alchemist to an Irish physician plays a part in the tale. But to connect these dots requires a bit of exposition.

 

The process of distillation is quite old. Early forms of distillation were known by the Chinese around 3000 BC, by Babylonian alchemistsin Mesopotamia, where the process was developed sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC, and by Egyptian priests around 2000 BC. The Greeks were known to dabble in the process, and they were the first to attempt to develop large- scale distillation appliances. The first exact description of an apparatus for distillation is given by Zosimus of Alexandria in the fourth century AD. Distillation was further advanced by those renowned party animals, Muslim chemists, especially by the Arab chemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, in Iraq, around AD 800. The alcohol distilled would have been used in medicine and in the creation of perfumes.

 

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan lived sometime between 721 and 815. He was a prominent Shia Muslim polymath, chemist, alchemist, pharmacist, philosopher, astronomer, astrologer, engineer, physician, and physicist. He is seen by many to be the "father of chemistry" and had influenced and/or created a number of important processes used in modern chemistry, including the syntheses of hydrochloric and nitric acids, crystallization, and, for connoisseurs of aged spirits, distillation. His improvement to the alembic still is important to the history of whiskey, as the alembic was the precursor to the pot still. The pot still is a crucial tool in the development of whiskeys whose first use occurred somewhere in the British Isles, with the best guess being Ireland.

 

The question is, how did the alembic still, created by a man in Persia, end up as a pot still in the British Isles?

 

There are several thoughts, but the following seems the most likely to me.

 

In AD 711, the Moors conquered the Visigoths, mainly in Christian Hispania. Under their leader, an African Berber general named Tariq ibn-Ziyad, they brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule during an eight- year campaign. The Moors ruled in the Iberian peninsula, the largely Basque regions in the Pyrenees, and North Africa for several de cades. They likely brought their technologies into Europe at this time, with many of them eventually ending up in the hands of the Catholics. The still would have been one of those technologies.

 

The still ended up being of prime importance to monks, who often took responsibility for all things medicinal in Catholic hamlets and villages. Soon this new technology was introduced in the far corners of the Catholic empire—including places like Ireland and Scotland. That's how the still got to the British Isles. But who decided to make whiskey with it?

 

Arnaldus De Villa Nova, a Moorish alchemist, lived on the Iberian Peninsula during the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. He was fluent in both Latin and Arabic, and translated much knowledge from the Arab world into the Catholic one. Most assuredly in these translations were notes from Jabir ibn Hayyan concerning his process of distillation. But with regard to whiskey, it was his experiments undertaken around AD 1250 that are critical. For it was then that De Villa Nova first distilled wine, the end result of which was a precursor to brandy, meaning that De Villa Nova was indirectly responsible for the Busta Rhymes hit "Pass the Courvoiser Part Two."

 

Once the translated Arab texts became available to anyone who wrote and read Latin, it's likely that both alchemists and Catholic monks got their hands on most (if not all) of De Villa Nova's work. It was either the monks or the alchemists who posed the question: "If De Villa Nova could distill wine, what would happen if we distilled ale?"

 

The answer to that was the first production of whiskey. Somewhere in the British Isles, someone, either a monk or an alchemist, decided to distill beer.

 

It's probable that this is how the Beaton family in Ireland picked up on distilling. The Beatons, a family known for their various forays into alchemy, were renowned among tribal and clan leaders in both Ireland and Scotland. For generations they were the go- to folks for all things regarding converting one item into another. They were also likely well versed in both Latin and Gaelic, and could have translated various texts written in Latin by other alchemists, such as De Villa Nova.

 

It is due to this Irish family that I decided to wait for my friend Krysta at Dublin Airport instead of Edinburgh's. If pressed, I'll hedge my bet and state that whiskey was discovered/invented in Ireland, and not Scotland. Of course all of this is simply my own conjecture, based purely on well- known yet still circumstantial evidence. The fact is that the current lack of documentation makes tracking any evidence supporting either Scotland's or Ireland's claim impossible.

 

However, for those of you who are feeling their blood boil at my supposition, I do believe that the whiskey industry was formed in Scotland. The whiskey industry as we know it today can be traced back to the monopoly that James IV gave to the College of Barbers (later College of Surgeons) in Edinburgh. But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

 

Airports are a place of constant transition, an ever- changing dynamic fraught with emotional baggage as people either part with sadness or meet with joy. At least this is what I tell myself as I sit in the food court of Dublin Airport, waiting for Krysta's plane to land. Jet lag and anxiety often lead me to wax poetical.

 

As I take a bite of a chicken tandoori sandwich that I purchased at a snack shop, I begin to think about my own past with whiskey.

 

In the interest of saving my own reputation, it's best to assume that I have limited experience. On a scale of one to ten, with one being a drunken frat boy and ten being a master distiller at an award-winning distillery, I fall somewhere between a five and a six on this completely arbitrary scale. I know how whiskey is made and could name probably about three dozen different brands without looking in any literature. I've been able to pick up a decent read on its history, enough to annoy people at most whiskey tastings.

 

I think about what could be my weaknesses with whiskey, and tasting immediately comes to mind. My palate is . . . okay, but it could be much better. Mostly this weakness is due to a lack of comparison.

 

Whiskey has been in my life since I was a youngster. My father was a fan, with bottles of Jim Beam, Cutty Sark, and J&B appearing in the liquor cabinet at one time or another. As I grew older whiskey became a means of releasing a bit of stress and pressure common to college students across the world, and was likely the cause of my C grades and extra year and a half in school.

 

For a while after college, I did not drink at all, finding that losing control and then waking up with a hangover was not the way I wanted to go through life. Instead, I became interested in tastes and flavors of all things, not just spirits. It was the chasing of these flavors that led me to start my Web site, Accidental Hedonist, which allowed me to document my travels that concern all things food.

 

By the time I had reached middle age, alcohol was a treat to be respected, and whiskey was one that provided interesting flavors and contrasts. It became fun and compelling trying to determine its relevance in the world by examining its history. In short, I became a whiskey nerd. And it was in a nerd's quest for knowledge that I had arranged my trip to several whiskey- producing nations. Ireland, Scotland, the United States, and Canada have all added something to the history and culture of whiskey, and it was these four countries that I had decided to visit.

 

I had decided to omit from my journeys other countries that have minor whiskey production, either because they replicate processes already established elsewhere, as is the case with Japan, or because their processes deviate so far from established ones that I felt their products were no longer whiskeys in the traditional sense (such as in India, where sugar is used).

 

I asked Krysta to be my partner in crime on this journey, as she is a well-seasoned traveler. I felt she could help me with some of the basics of international travel, important things like companionship, shared experiences, and, of course, helping defray the cost of hotel rooms and car rentals.

 

She has told me of her own unique experiences with whiskey. She started, like many folks, drinking straight from a bottle or shot glass in her teenage years. By her thirties she was drinking it neat from a glass. She rates her knowledge of whiskey as a three. She can name about a dozen or so brands off the top of her head, and admits to being a "huge fan" of Bushmills white label. She has great memories surrounding Bushmills and sharing a bottle with another close friend one night in a graveyard near the University of New Mexico. Now, every time she goes group camping, she brings a bottle to share among her friends in hopes of replicating that evening in New Mexico, even if only a bit. From my perspective, she's the best person to bring along on this trip, as she's a fan of whiskey, has a great curiosity for it, but is aware of how much she doesn't know. To me, she best represents the consumer that every whiskey company should be aiming for. She'll drink the stuff for life, and will likely stay loyal to only one or two brands. She drinks for taste and not for the effects of alcohol, and will share her passions with all of her friends. To ignore her and those like her would be a huge mistake for any whiskey seller to make.

 

I hadn't seen Krysta in five years, since I fled Washington, D.C., for the damp confines of Seattle. It was she who encouraged my writing, it was she who led by example in regard to traveling. And it was she whom I first thought of whenever anyone mentioned the word whiskey. From my perspective, she absolutely had to come along.

 

And now, here I am waiting for her outside the gates of the customs lines at Dublin Airport, the doors emblazoned with ads for a better life in Dubai. For a second, I note the irony, as two women in Dubai would likely never be able to share in the experience on which we are about to embark. Seconds later, Krysta, with her shoulder-length and jealousy- inducing straight red hair, exits from customs, her eyes widen in excitement upon seeing me, and she drops her bags next to her ever- present Doc Martens. "We're in Ireland!" we both exclaim as we raise our arms in excitement.

 

We have arrived in the world of whiskey.

 

Excerpted from 99 Drams of Whiskey by Kate Hopkins
Copyright © 2009 by Kate Hopkins
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press

 

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Ex-stand-up comedian KATE HOPKINS’s food blog The Accidental Hedonist has been named one Time Magazine’s 50 Coolest Websites. She also writes a food column for Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger and lives in Seattle, Washington.