I had my first taste of whisky when I was a sophomore in college, on the porch of a section-8 apartment in Brooklyn Park. I had just gotten word that a dear friend had eloped with her boyfriend of four months – a boyfriend who, whether fairly or unfairly, had earned universal disapproval within our social circle. It’s hard to describe my emotional state in that moment: some cocktail of shock at the news, anger at the perceived betrayal, helplessness. Unsure of what else to do, my buddy Jonathan bought a bottle of Black Label and we each took a two-finger pour with three ice cubes in our tumblers.
We sat on that porch, huddled under blankets to stave off the lingering cold of a Minnesota winter, looking out over the dimly-lit courtyard. Abandoned Tyco trucks lay scattered, half covered in snow. We talked about the future, and in doing so we accidentally unearthed an absolute truth: with a glass of whisky in your hand, the past doesn’t matter.
The union between our beverage and our circumstances was perfect synergy on the one hand and sheer luck on the other. Not everyone has their first experience with a worthy spirit like Johnny Walker Black. Most people don’t drink their first dram on a day designed for whisky. And few have the fortune to drink alongside someone who knows how to take their time, to taste the grain, to let it linger.
When all is said and done, any story of whiskey is one of transformation. Cut away the snobbery of status – whether blended Scotch is a lesser drink than single malt, for instance, or if “the only way to drink whisky is with a drop or two of spring water” – and what remains is something elemental, timeless, but always pointing forward. All forms of whiskey go from grain to mash, from fermentation to filtration, but the magic happens in the maturation. The harsh barrier of charred oak gives the spirit its character, imparting aromas we can recognize as vanilla and clove. The combination of time and environment settles it down and mellows it out. It remains a testament to grain, but becomes more than the sum of its parts.
American popular culture tends to portray the whiskey drinker as either a stuffy sophisticate or a rabble-rousing outlaw. (Think: smoking cabin on the Titanic or a saloon in the old west; white bowties or ten-gallon hats.) The drinker, though perhaps not always male, is always masculine. It’s no coincidence that Don Draper, the intersection of these two archetypes, orders an Old Fashioned in his very first scene in Mad Men. Perhaps this perception held some truth in the past, but I think it’s time for a rebranding. Whiskey is no longer just a drink for the elite or the dastardly. It is for the people, men and women, who can acknowledge where they come from but recognize they are not bound by their history. It is for the people who want to be more than what they were. It is for the person so focused on what lies ahead they are not inclined to worry about what fell behind.