How to drink Scotch

If Scotland is the shape of a catcher’s mitt then they entered through the thumb, ferrying from Holland to Newcastle, the A68 to Edinburgh, a right at Dundee. Scotland didn’t look any different than England. Drab and colorless, what you’d expect for November. They had their used car with German plates loaded with toys and clothes, kids in the back, an acoustic guitar (kid sized). And plans for the next 90 days to road trip through the UK.

His wife worried about his newfound interest in Scotch though, would it become a problem? But he waved it away knowing it would, it always was, like any good secret it became more powerful the longer it stayed hidden. It started with the first stop in Arbroath, the first bottle. Blended and cheap but real Scotch, real in that it came from Scotland. He’d get into it and then follow with beer or wine to be more sociable. The kids would be off entertaining themselves with mom while he was off doing his thing.

And it made sense if you spent a month in Scotland to do that, especially in November, the most melancholy of months. Whatever strain came from driving in a foreign country with two kids, he used that to sooth himself at dusk, which started early in November, in Scotland. And later his psychiatrist said that made him a maintenance drunk, meaning he drank to maintain his drunkenness (as drunks do) but his problem was less obvious as he worked hard to conceal it.

And so he did, for all of November and December until it was suggested he take the month of January off. January they’d be in England, and their rate of travel would slow to a few dedicated stays. First Stratford, then London, ending with a week in a small village outside of Bath called Combe Down. Even the sound of it seemed apt, ‘calm down.’

The month started optimistic as new years do, with hints of spring and long muddy walks through the English countryside. The clarity from not drinking combined with a daily writing practice made him feel renewed. He substituted his afternoon drinks with hot baths, the closest he could get to that same comfort. But as the month wound down he started to count the days and imagine his reentry. Not to mainland Europe, but to drinking. And crossing from Dover into France he bought mini-bottles of Scotch he imagined sharing with his German friends. And so the cycle resumed.

November was a shit month weather-wise back home, which made it a good month to commemorate their time in Scotland by featuring Scotch as his go-to drink each November. The Scots had been pretty clear about how to drink it, starting with the fact that you never add ice. The ice destroys the flavor (and all the hard work that went into it). Next if you add water, be sparing. Bartenders used eye droppers to administer water in cautious drops, insisting “once you put it in, you can’t take it out!”

And there was something to that, the addition and subtraction. You could even apply the four basic operations of math to drinking. The more you added and multiplied the behavior, the more it subtracted and divided you from others, from yourself. Like any good addiction it came as a paradox, the more you put in the more it emptied you out.

But none of this mattered on their first November in Scotland. If they’d entered through the thumb then they’d exit beneath the pinky on the other side, a remote place called Stranraer. They’d celebrate Thanksgiving in a refurbished Victorian castle, the private home of an earl and countess, in the chauffeur’s flat. And he’d find a turkey or Cornish hens to roast, potatoes smothered in duck fat, a good bottle of Port or brandy. A dram of the best Scotch.

The layering of these behaviors was something to unravel when it came time to quit. Because the neural networks in his head, whatever wiring existed there, were largely drawn and defined by alcohol. The pathways to pleasure were like motorways on a map. Either he had to stop visiting those towns or find a new route.

He didn’t wrap the glasses, he fit them in a box and moved them to the garage with haste. Now that he’d removed the glassware it was surprising how much of the kitchen cabinet was empty, how much real estate was devoted to drinking. The tasting glasses from that distillery tour in the Orkneys. The wine glasses, champagne flutes, brandy snifters, it went on and on. He hoped it would feel that way in his life now too, more room.

But there was only so much space in his heart for others. Drinking was a selfish act, and the over-indulgence paradoxically reduced oneself. Did drunks start as selfish people or end that way? He had to learn to give more of himself, for that feeling of fullness that comes through giving. There was a Christian love to that, but he wasn’t Christian and didn’t believe in recovery programs of that sort. Instead he quit cold turkey. But those new, empty spaces didn’t feel like they gave any more room. They just felt empty.

The kids were now old enough you could imagine them moving out one day. He had that now, evenings he could spend time with them before bed. The youngest interrupted him talking to her older sister, something about her new shoes being too small. They weren’t, she just didn’t know how to use the shoe horn, hadn’t loosened the laces right. So they went downstairs and he knelt to demonstrate, narrating the proper technique in a gentle tone. They did fit after all. She went back to her room humming and closed the door. That’s all it took sometimes.

He didn’t have any regrets, or was too stubborn to allow any. You had to be careful with how much you let in, the self critic. If they could go back in time he’d do it all over again. Would maybe start with a better bottle in Arbroath.



Categories: Memoir, travel

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27 replies

  1. Reading this with my morning coffee, I began to see that it defines me, at least to some extent. Over-extracted and bitter? I hope not.

    A lovely twist to close –
    the fitting of the shoes.
    I liked that, I really liked it.

    Thanks Bill.

    DD

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good day David! So glad to be part of your morning coffee ritual, that’s lovely. Yeah, and glad you can relate (I think). How is it we can be so complicated and utterly simple at the same time? “Life goes on bra…la-la, how the life goes on…”

      Like

  2. Wonderful and insightful and inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post – great perspective on stopping a well-ingrained alcohol habit – tough choices can yield riches. Our brains are capable of flexing, rewiring beyond expectations. And yours is very adept at mixing story-line and message 😌

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So may layers of ‘wow’ here, Bill. The arithmetic metaphor, the recurring November, drinking real estate… Third person narrative.

    I think this is my favourite thing I have read of yours. Steely-eyed yet warm, gentle yet penetrating, insightful yet… what’s the word I want… unassuming? Humble? Fully engaging yet just a little detached, protected.

    If this was a creative non-fiction competition, I’d stop reading other entries right here.

    love, Bruce.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I love that I blogged through the period when I quit. It’s astonishing to see the hold alcohol had on me. I’m over that now and I’ve lost my desire to drink. Scotch? A wine and beer guy here. Was.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very nice. I like how the third person makes it more personal.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The most striking detail here for me is the “math” of drinking–how adding and multiplying the behavior subtracted and divided how much he had to give others, and the bartenders’ warning that once the water is in it can’t be taken out. That made me think of what distillers refer to as “the angel’s share”, the portion that evaporates in the process of aging.
    Limiting oneself to a better bottle also has its advantages. Good Scotch is expensive which is a good reason to limit one’s intake.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christopher! Yes I remember learning about the angel’s share on one of my tours there. We went to Highland Park up on Orkney and Oban, in the town of the same name. Nice reference…and glad you liked the math metaphor, I had that idea and then built the story around it. You and I are into words but it’s funny how much of our existence boils down to numbers too. I like that. Hope you had a nice holiday and your life is good…be well. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Aha! That some fucking hell of a writing and every word weaved like lyrical hymn lent to novels. I love my Scotch and having Ballantine currently. Also, didn’t know if you put ice it takes away the flavor. I have my scotch with ice and water, except fully ice for whisky on the rocks.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, there you go. This is brilliant and I’m glad I took time to savour it.
    Quitting drinking doesn’t make you right but it helps clarify what’s wrong. Ten-plus years on for me, I don’t feel I’m a better person, but I think I would have been worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Great to hear from you always, happy you caught this too. Caught me mid-Egger on a blissfully unemployed Monday. Hoping your well, sending moonbeams your way and smiles. Good words, yours…thanks for sharing them.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fabulous post! The tips you have shared though this post are really helpful. Highly appreciate your efforts for updating such an informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

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