ABERLOUR SCOTCH WHISKEY
Double Local Cheeseburger w/ American Cheese, Chili, Red Onions and Mustard
I told the bartender to sign me up, or whatever you do when you take the 69 Drinks Challenge. He, the bartender, is a sturdy, bearded young man whose name I don’t know. I think of him as Big Guy. The wait-staff at the Lead Penny is uniformly helpful and cheerful. BG dragged over a plastic milk carton, climbed on it and snagged a bottle of Aberlour Scotch whiskey off a high shelf. He handed me a 5 x 7 inch sheet of paper with 69 liquors listed, pulled out a pen and put a date and a signature on the paper. Sign it, he said. I nodded. You would think the occasion would be a bit more formal, maybe including a waiver that released the Penny from any legal obligations if you died of cirrhosis of the liver, but no, here at the Penny a man is as good as his word and decisions are made without dwelling on the details or calling your wife to ask for permission.
Why am I doing this?
As a book author and reviewer, I like plots with a ticking clock. Here we have the number 69 — the number of bottles to sample. If you were actually able to have one drink a week. (Yes, of course, one can drink much faster than that, but I intend to write a blog entry to accompany every drink, and it takes time to write a blog entry, though it may not seem like it.) That’s almost a year and a half if you adhere to a schedule of one a week.
When you’re my age, 72, there’s always the possibility you could drop dead tomorrow and no one would be particularly surprised. 72 –year-old men drop dead of natural causes all the time. So whenever I accept a task that has a time element, I’m aware that I am putting that task up against the number of days, months, years I have left on this earth. I find this interesting. I do not find it worrisome or morbid.
But that faint question of why still floats in the background.
Maybe it’s the commitment. At my age you need a few commitments. Especially ones that incorporate a ticking clock. In my mind I can hear Old Nick – Lucifer — scratching around, sniggering to himself, muttering in his best Devil voice, you know the one, low and gravelly and hot in your ear, Sure, go ahead cowboy, commit yourself, because you have no idea how long you’ve got. How much time can it take? 69 drinks. Months? Years? Are you sure you can finish the race? Let’s just see.
It’s true, my cohorts have begun to fall by the wayside. My beloved sister has recently left us for some other unknown plane. Occasionally the simple act of living has a tenuous feel. You want to make a commitment, go ahead, I think to myself. Mr. Irony, the Devil is right over there, offstage, waiting.
Go ahead and wait, Old Nick.
I’m from West Virginia. I was not born there, but was raised from the age of five in Parkersburg, a medium-sized town on the Ohio River. My mother was born in the country not far from Parkersburg. My father was from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a steel town. He was the son of a Lutheran minister, and he was a meticulous man, my father. Every night before climbing into bed he carefully combed his hair, so he would look his best, I guess, if death came to fetch him home during the night.
When I was around the age of 16, my father felt I needed some drinking advice. “If you’re going to drink,” he said to me, “you should learn to drink like a man. No rum and Cokes, no bourbon and Seven-Ups. You’ll learn to take your liquor straight. What you want to do after that is up to you.”
I was sitting at the end of the dining room table as if I was applying for a job or waiting to be punished. In front of me was a heavy shot glass 1/4 full of Cutty Sark scotch. “Go ahead,” Dad said. I took a sip.
I’m not sure what he expected my reaction to be. Maybe the purpose of the exercise was to cause me to spit out the vile liquor, the Devil’s Drink, and vow that another drop would never pass my lips again. But I didn’t. Not bad, I thought, and took another sip. I asked what the unusual smoky flavor was. I had nothing to compare it to. Peat, Dad tells me, and explains how the process of making scotch involves smoking it over burning peat. Or something. He wasn’t really sure about the process, but he spun a pretty picture of solid Scottish workmen wearing colorful tartan kilts, cutting peat, whatever that was, out of the ground and carrying it to the local distillery and setting it on fire. They also heated their homes with this peat. Who could have imagined such a thing?
The Big Guy sets a classy, low-ball cocktail glass with a generous pour in front of me. Behind which he places an identical glass, filled with absolutely clear ice about the size of Scrabble tiles. It’s a nice presentation. There’s a certain undeniable drama about it. It speaks to me. It says that we are a special few, these Club 69ers, serious men and women who have gone before, struggling against the odds, facing the big question square on: Do you have what it takes to plow your way through the list of 69, to persevere, to stay the course? Are you man enough for this? And maybe the most deadly: Are you too old for this?
I look at the amber liquid. Aberlour whiskey.
I raise the glass.