There are drinks for joy and drinks for sorrow, and for me scotch is a drink for the mellow exhaustion of a rough day gallantly bested.
During a particularly sticky summer as a waitress, at the end of an especially sweaty and miserable shift, I would drag myself over to the late-night bar across the street. Counting out the small fortune of $9, I’d order a scotch.
The after-midnight hours were a brief neutral zone subject to neither work nor worry: now I was a queen, girdled in a mighty apron and perfumed with hyssop and burger grease. Queens do not fret and niggle about such bourgeois trifles as “rent money,” and “having electricity”—they fling purses and demand scotch with a silvery laugh of fathomless caprice. So it was with me.
The first sip tasted like rest, God’s most elusive gift, measured out in fingers. Or possibly it tasted like ordinary scotch, and I was too deep in to notice. Give your feet a moment’s respite after 12 hours punishing them, and, with a spirit of resistance to their taskmaster that we’d all do well to imitate, they’ll deal back punishment in equal portion.
The second sip, swirled and sniffed, was more considered, as the emotional residue of anxious labor drained away, leaving an achy, hollow feeling in the ribcage. With the third sip, warmth rushed in to fill the hollow, and coziness succeeded melancholy as night follows evening.
Most of the time, the only other patrons at the bar were other cooks and servers. Since every shift somehow exploded all previously recorded limits to human endurance, the midnight snifter became a ritual. These were the halcyon days of my scotch drinking. Like every other fool since Adam faced the flaming sword, I believed they would last.
Then I found myself in New York. Quiet comradely clinking, I thought, waited for me as faithfully in the happy hour of a sleek Manhattan establishment as in my shabby witching hour refuge. Scotch, like money, Latin, and batted eyelashes, was a universal language, intelligible even to masters of the universe beat all to hell from a long day defrauding widow and orphan.
“What kind of scotches have you got?”
A frisson rippled through the cologne-soaked air, as the row of suit jackets lining the bar tensed in anticipation. Blood in the water: had I noticed the hungry, dilated, black shark’s eyes into which the beady orbs of my fellow patrons had been transformed, I could have changed my order to an unassuming gin and tonic. I did not notice. Instead, I sat admiring the dim light reflecting off my glass, as, National Geographic tells us, baby seals so often do in their last moments before the chomp.
“Wow, you don’t meet many girls who drink scotch.”
“Mmmm,” I said, biting back the urge to suggest that perhaps they do not care to meet him.
“You should try”—here he named an expensive brand I had tried and disliked—“sometime.”
“Mmm” is a humble and underappreciated monosyllable, but it has yet to fail me in this exchange, which has been repeated so many times, in so many different bars, that I know what will follow it by heart. The man may be of any age and occupation. Almost always, he opens by pointing out that you are, in fact, a woman; this is perhaps a chivalrous impulse on behalf of the sexually scatterbrained. Sometimes, however, he will skip the pleasantries and cut straight to the expert recommendations. I cannot blame him. When one is a scotch evangelist, the hours in a day must always be in sparse proportion to the number of unchurched girls, wandering the earth in folly, asking for ice in their Macallan 18s.
Whatever his recommendation might be, he will not ask whether you have tried it, and he will not ask what kinds of scotch you like. If he asks what you are drinking, encouragement follows, delivered in an airy tone of noblesse oblige.
“Oh, yeah, that stuff is fine. Wait till you’re out of your ’20s, though, then you’ll graduate to Irish whiskey.”
A recent Punch essay lays these troubles at the feet of the Whiskey Woman, the ghostly siren who haunts your local hooch joint, whispering “not like most girls” into the ears of men and women alike. Only the purity of natural, unadulterated, inherent taste can banish her to the netherworld.
“‘Ordering whiskey as a woman is a statement. Or perhaps men read it as one,’ says Ivy Mix, co-owner and head bartender of New York’s Leyenda and Tales of the Cocktail’s 2015 American Bartender of the Year. ‘Hopefully, though, she’s ordering it just ‘cause she wants it.’”
Possibly, in a kind of reverse unicorn scenario, it is the taint of corruption that attracts the would-be scotch Svengalis. No inborn yearning guided me to the distillery. I did not crave the whiff of peat in my cradle, or lace mother’s milk with water of life. Instead, I stumbled across the stuff at 17, as part of a performance.
Gambling on the fact that many people will mistake a low voice and good posture for worldly sophistication, I had accompanied a friend to a bar from which I was by law and custom prohibited. My mission was to project an aura of such weary maturity that the bartender would feel gauche asking for my drink order, let alone my identification.
“Just the two of you today?”
Keep your eyes down lest they betray you. Nod slowly. The years weigh too heavily upon your fragile shoulders to permit perky bobble-head affirmation.
“Would you like to a see a food menu?”
A sad half smile is eloquent enough. Stare into the distance. Think of the men you killed in The War.
“What’ll it be then?”
At this point some demon familiar inspired me to add a French accent.
“I am vairy sorry—ze English, it is so difficult for me. Repetez, s’il vous plaît?”
As he posed the question more slowly, I saw him waver on the precipice of decision. The moment had come to play my trump card.
“A Laphroaig, please.” (Here I paid well for my deception, as anyone who has tried to pronounce Gaelic in a convincing French accent can tell you.)
Before the words left my mouth, I knew. I was in.
My meed, like that of so many sinners, was not in accordance with my merits. I entered the bar a small-time fraud and left a committed enthusiast. It was a first step into a larger world, as the beginning of taste always is: of smell and color and other purely physical sensations, but also of sentiment, of new filters through which the jumbled contingencies of life might become intelligible and communicable.
As we mature, we learn due appreciation for the formal nuances of drinks. But taste can never be a clinically isolated matter of chemical affinities as long as its objects have such potency to summon up a moment in time, a vanished person, a glimpse of other lives we might have lived.
It is both pleasant and profitable to catch women out in their barstool playacting. But I suspect that if you scratched the surface of all the Whiskey Men, you would find a moment when they tried something new as much for the sake of imitative admiration or ritual initiation as for any organic impulse.
I do not begrudge happy-hour Don Drapers the pleasure of trying on another world and self for size. All I ask is that their fantasies not impinge on mine, admittedly the most extravagant of all—ease for the weary and peace undisturbed.