The ‘angel’s share’: lost whisky, lost memories

Oban, 'frontier between the west Highlands and the Islands'

Oban, ‘frontier between the west Highlands and the Islands’

After sharing the same room, the same car, the same bathroom, I can see where Stephen King was coming from in his story about the writer Jack Torrance who collapses into alcoholism, writes nonsense, starts seeing dead people.

Charlotte’s going through The Dork Diaries like shit through a goose and Lily, The Hunger Games trilogy, having started it in Amsterdam and finished it in Inverness — Dawn, a business book called Mindset her colleagues at Microsoft are reading — and me, a book about Connemara from my friend Loren, and a collection of Chekhov short stories. We just keep accumulating books, so much we’re having to think about reselling or donating them.

The grocery chains are ganged together in the same part of town, everywhere we go — Tesco, Aldi, Lidl. The managers wear headsets, all have a distracted, disgusted, tired look to them, maybe just hungover.

They have glistening kidneys in the meat case, all manner of clean looking parts, and Lily is still threatening vegetarianism, won’t eat her bacon rashers — I make a cullen skink soup with smoked mackarel and cod using the remains of uneaten scraps we carry with us from town to town as we move hotels or flats — we’ve had to adopt a backcountry mindset of not wasting anything, not carrying more than we need to since our car is jam-packed with books and extra sweaters, a bottle or two of Scotch wedged into the folds.

At the Oban distillery we learn they reuse Hogshead barrels from American white oak — some law in the States that you have to use virgin wood for Bourbon-making, so when they’re done with the Bourbon they ship it to Scotland, where the casks are reassembled for Scotch, 250 litres a barrel.

Toward the end of the tour, the guide says we’ll get to taste something really special, and we gather around a barrel that’s on its side, she uses something that looks like a long steel syringe, called a whisky thief, to extract some of the whisky from the bottom of the barrel, squirts it in a glass pitcher and pours a small dram for each of us, sprays a little around the edge of the hole so we can run our fingers over it and smell it, and I’m tempted to dab some under my chin — it’s 56-point-something percent — because each barrel has a unique flavour, they have to mix the whiskeys from two or three casks to ‘standardise’ the taste, which makes me think of the workplace and individuals vs. portfolios, and people I’ve managed in the past who just wouldn’t conform to guidelines, what an aggravation they were to me then, and how I can admire and relate to them now.

About 2% of the alcohol goes missing every year, just evaporates or who knows what, and they call this the ‘angel’s share,’ and find loopholes to avoid being taxed on it.

Dawn and I talk about Chekhov, how we both came to him as actors first, and I didn’t get it, couldn’t stand the formal, long names or the sense nothing was happening, I couldn’t see it in the lines — but reading him now it feels like something is always happening even when it seems it’s not, because it’s so real, you feel you’re only scratching the surface, like life — just snapshots, how much of our experiences and memory we lose every day, every year, leaving us with more questions than answers.

And what it is for us to feel real, to have the luxury to consider the idea of a self or a soul, a calling that’s unique to us — or instead, to settle into a role that’s comfortable and commands a good wage, to feel accepted and valued with occasional praise, occasional joy?

There’s fresh snow on the nearby mountains now, and you can see it poking through the clouds across the loch on a nature trail by the sea life sanctuary outside of Oban, where I stand on the shore taking close-ups of the kelp and the shells to try to capture the texture, but I know I can’t. It’s enough to just stand there for a while waiting for something to happen and finding contentment when it doesn’t.

Our first flat in Oban'Cullen Skink," pot by Le CreusetBay windows overlooking Oban harbourThe Mountains of Argyll, Loch Creran -- a seven-mile long sea loch, setting for R. Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped"Estd 1794 in the centre of townGolden mats of kelp, sea shells"Your Journey Continues"The Argyll Mountains






Categories: musings, writing

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21 replies

  1. I love the idea of an ‘angel’s share’ .My stepmother always said when sowing seeds in the garden, each third handful should be for the birds – just accept and love the fact a third will feed such lovely creatures. Don’t know why evaporating whiskey reminded me of that – but it did đŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s nice Lynn — I always like leaving something undone in a town too, a reason to come back, something unseen. So much of that here, all around us. What a great place you have here, this UK! Looking forward to seeing more. And surprised (you’re right): you can buy olive oil here! I had no idea, ha! – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In the time just before I came to this, I read something by a retired professor who felt relief when ambition faded and he realized he was where he was meant to be. Then I was jotting down a note about two forgotten memories about my children and bathroom-related traumas that, really, I should recall. Is it only 2%? Sure it’s not more?
    Your journey continues.


    • It’s so much more than 2% to be sure. And better for everyone involved, we don’t remember as much. I’m trying to find ways of saying things that feel deep, heavy, all that…and here, it’s about how much we leave on the proverbial table in life, how much we just can’t take with us, and how wonderful that is, to feel that kind of urgency and loss. And there I didn’t say it any better, but that’s the point. I used the ‘angel’s share’ because it was convenient, but it’s probably a deeper theme. Thank you for reading and sharing your comments Ross – hope that comes across more heartfelt than it sounds in a comment box, or on your phone.


  3. pass the books along, read as you go, and be part of the reason for the 2%.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I continue to enjoy reading your writings. Thanks for sharing. A Liberal Art type education/lifestyle is so interesting. It’s a salvage racket, isn’t it? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s what I think I love so much the secret, that there’s just all this power, and beauty, and knowledge, just sitting out there waiting to be read. The more you read you realize it’s not even necessarily the content, at all, but the form, emotions, patience, pain, thoughts, consciousness, which is dragging it along. You get that in the booze appreciation too, it flavors, details, experiences, which push this, it is something greater than the sum of its parts There’s other people between these words, when they’re done right. I get that in reading your writing, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For some reason, I misread it as “a sullen skink soup.” And I could almost taste it.


    • It is a great soup for the kind of weather you likely never have in your part of the world, where I imagine it dry and shades of sun your meteorologists have to talk about, rather than ‘rain changing to showers’ as we know in the PNW – or certainly here right now, in Scotland. It’s a warm, ‘feminine’ rain here on the heels of some tropical storm: a drenching rain, but no wind to speak of or chill, so it’s kind of nice. And goes well with the soup, which is fun to make and requires no amount of artistry. – Bill


  6. I am really sensing a The Things They Carried theme on your expat sojourn, and I love it. Go with it. I also love the angel’s share. My husband often chomps square of chocolate from our boys as Dad tax–but I love the idea of fighting dissipation for tax purposes. It’s so practical and yet whimsical. Too many themes, Bill. I love them all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a deep compliment Dina – thank you. My wife Dawn reminded me we read that story in a writing class she took a couple years ago. I couldn’t remember the story when you mentioned it but she reminded me, and I really liked it. Thank you. So happy you’re enjoying our tales. Best to you and yours. – Bill


  7. As much as it pains me to write this sentence, you guys need e-readers. e-readers suck wind but in your case they might be a necessity.

    Would love to know the rational behind the virgin wood law. Is there a logical reason for it or is it just government red tape?

    I think we all know what “…or who knows what…” means. Wink-wink. Love the language used. The ‘angel’s share’ and ‘whiskey thief.’ Wonderful, evocative phrases. Why can’t I write like that?


    • Dude you can and do write like that; we come from the same ilk I think. We do have e readers too. Nuts. A tablet and four laptops, a few phones, an old iPod, a D90…all I forgot was my manual typewriter. Thank you for the nice words and the insight on the 2% that goes “missing.”


  8. Been reading an excellent book called “Writing Fiction” which references Chekhov quite a bit. Here’s a quote about his short novel, The Duel, for example: “I can think of no more masterful use of chapters in all of fiction than you will find there. Each chapter prepares beautifully for what is to follow. Groups and clusters of chapters drive to intermediate conclusions which are in turn incorporated into the movement towards the novel’s climax. Anyone who plans to write a novel owes it to himself to study thoroughly the organisation of this masterpiece.”

    Included in the book is Chekhov’s short story The Lady With the Pet Dog, which the author dissects thoroughly and illuminates as excellent.

    Is it weird, me talking about Chekhov? Because… well, you know. I’ve always assumed that most people wouldn’t recognize it. I could be wrong though. You did.


    • Yes, I have that story about the little dog in my collection, I’m looking forward to it. It’s viewed as one of the best. I guess I’m connecting with the realism aspect to it, because I like that style. I get that in your writing too, the bar scenes you were doing there a bit ago. I hope people can see aspects of their life or think about their lives differently based on scenes I try to depict, because that’s what I enjoy most in stories I read. We’ll see, time will tell. It always does. This one here keeps clicking, I need to get the kids up and start school, get out and see this new city, Edinburgh. Bye for now, Walt.



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