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Belly up to the bar

The word of the week is sagacity.

The joke of the week is "Single Malt."



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (18)


Jokester McI.,

I got a good, and hardy morning chuckle out of THAT one, even though I'm not much of an imbiber of 'the brew'. Not that one necessarily has to be a drinker to appreciate the humor.

I trust that wily 'duper' could well have been a typical 'thrifty' Scotsman bellying up to the bar, and quickly downing that 'quadfecta' of top-grade Scottish single malt distillery fare? Fifty cents, indeed!

I had the distinct pleasure of rather leisurely checking out the storied River Spey Valley (The Whiskey Trail), southwest of Inverness, Scotland, back in the summer of 1996, taking the full tour of Glenfiddich distillery, w/ the ultimate end-of-tour payoff--- a wee dram (standard shot glass full) of their world-famed single malt brew. Warmed the cockles of my heart... it did. HA!

Prof. McI., no biggie, but couldn't you have at least thrown in Isle of Isaly whiskey, along w/ your assorted mix of Spey River 'all-stars'? Kind of a nod to our regular Brit, London-based blogger, Picky, who seems to have a fond taste for this distinctive Outer Hebridian single malt brew? HA!

Ducky Isaksson (aka ALEX) out!

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Ducky. He had the delicious Laphroaig. Nothing more splendid.

Sagacity, what a great word! I first ran across it reading Roughing It. It's in the short story "Dick Baker's Cat" where Twain says that Baker "always spoke of the strange sagacity of that cat with the air of a man who believed in his secret heart that there was something human about it - maybe even super-natural."

I had to look up the word then, but never since.


@Picky, old chappy, I guess I must have overlooked "the delicious Laphroaig" whisky works in my rather haphazard Spey River "Whisky Trail" trek? That wee aprês-tour swig of the light golden Glenfiddich elixir, while likely downed on an empty stomach, must have thrown my single malt radar off, a tad. HA!

Although, I did have the foresight to check out the Balvenie Castle ruins, (Dufftown environs), but unfortunately not their famous distillery. Quite the imposing, yet rather compact castle......... as Scottish castles go.

I was almost immediately struck by the incredibly lush, long, forest-green turf surrounding this solid, grey, stone-walled edifice; plus the rather quaint remnants of the ancient Scots of Balvenie's castle plumbing scheme caught my wandering eye. Curiously, the castle engineers/ masons constructed cleverly situated human effluent 'exit sluices' at various point all along the thick castle exterior (back) walls, where the waste (both liquid and solid.... Yuk!) would most conveniently drain to the outdoors. Beats ye olde outhouse, I would have to say. HA!

I don't know if this was some weird, foreboding omen, or what, but there were scores of cackling crows (or perhaps Scottish ravens?) hanging out at the castle. Several gorgeous jet black crow feathers were strewn all over the thick green, grassy castle grounds. I gathered up maybe ten of these great beauties (the feathers, not the birds HA!), and eventually brought them home to L.A. as a souvenir of my Balvenie Castle 'experience'. Still have 'em.

Frankly, Picky, as cool and impressive as Balvenie Castle was, I still regard Eilean Donan castle up in Rossshire in the west Scottish Highlands as my sentimental favorite of all the high-profile ancient Scottish fortresses. It's located at the confluence of three major lochs (lakes for the uninitiated), which I find very cool.

I must admit I have a strong Eilean Donan bias, in that it stands as the ancestral castle of Clan MaCrae, who are now the official keepers and protectors of the castle, following in the centuries-long tradition of the MaCraes being "the-coat-of-mail", or protective Constabulary for their long-time ally, Clan MacKenzie, who originally built and occupied the strategically well-situated castle.

Picky, as an astute student of British history, you likely know that Eilean Donan was attacked, and completely leveled during the Jacobite Rising by offshore Royal Navy frigates in the period of Bonnie Prince Charlie's failed attempt to regain the British monarchy, and return to official Catholicism. But thankfully, through the financial generosity, clan pride, and just plain force of will of philanthropist Lt. Col. John MaCrae-Gilstrap, Eilean Donan castle was restored to essentially to its original glory between roughly 1919 and 1932.

Of course, I visited, and explored Eilean Donan and its immediate environs on my 1996 first (and thus far, only) trip to Scotland. It turned out to be one of the most mystical and emotionally rewarding experiences of my life.

Within less than a mile from the castle I happened to have discovered a clearly long-abandoned old kirk (church) and adjoining cemetery, dating back to what appeared to be the late 18th-to-early-20th century. Totally by my lonesome, as most fittingly a typical light 'Scottish mist' steadily drifted down from the late-afternoon slate-grey skies, I began reading the various inscriptions on the gravestones (some were barely legible), and to my amazement, almost ever person who had been interred in that neglected graveyard was a "MaCrae", w/ a handful of "Matheson"s rounding out the long-deceased ledger. (Ironically, my late grand-mum's maiden name on my dad's side of the family, was Matheson.) Very spooky, indeed!

Picky, I regard myself as both a proud Canadian, born and bred, and an equally proud 'adopted' American, of sorts. Yet looking back, that almost eerie sojourn amongst those old abandoned grave markers kind of brought my core spirit back home to my ancient Scottish roots........... a strange, yet warm, and comforting feeling that I had somehow returned in both body, and soul to my ancestral home turf, where I truly belonged.

Well Picky, enough of the sentimental personal schmaltz, before I drive you to drink. HA!

Ducky 'McIsaksson'....... over and out!

Aaaaa, but Laphoaig is from Islay.

That stuff isn't schmaltz, Mr Isaksson, by the way, and it's nowt to be ashamed of. Good on you.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

from LITTLE GIDDING by T.S. Eliot

@Pinky, thanks much for kindly not making me appear like too much of a Scottish whisky doofus.

Clearly my aforementioned "single malt radar" was totally discombobulated, or totally out of commission, on this one.

No wonder I couldn't located Laphroaig distillery along the Spey River "Whisky Trail". It was actually way off to the southwest, nestled off the craggy Argyllshire coast, as you indicated, on the Isle of Islay. Got egg all over my embarrassed mug on that score. The yoke was on me. HA!

@Jokester McIntyre, sorry for my earlier admonishing you what now clearly was for nought, as that was a Speyside single malt 'all-star' TRIFECTA, plus a singular Isle of Islay whiskey shot that that sly cheapskate imbiber in your joke-of-the-week made such short work of. Picky was clearly happy w/ your nod to the Islay brew. My bad.

Picky, old boy, lesson learned. It pays to do one's research before spouting off, seemingly authoritatively, while in reality playing kind of loosey-goosey w/ the actual facts. Who said ignorance was bliss?


Ducky isaksson takes flight, tail between his legs........... to return, hopefully slightly more informed, yet another day.

Laura Lee and Alex, interesting stuff!

I've never visited Eilean Donan, and I'd long forgotten - if I ever knew, in my ignorance - that it was the home of your clan, Alex: why did you let those naughty Spaniards in? But I've seen photos, of course, and it must be amazingly beautiful.

I'm able to see a connection between the explosion of the Spanish magazine at Eilean Donan, the Blitz Eliot had just lived through, and the Inferno (though I'll leave Pentecost talk to TSE). 

There are some High Anglicans (perhaps heading for the Ordinariate now) who revere Charles I as a saint and martyr (apparently it's possible to combine the roles of saint, martyr and twerp). By the time of the Risings, though, the fighting (in Scotland at least) was between Geneva and Rome - insofar as it was about religion rather than power, and insofar as there is a difference. The Little Gidding community had dispersed a generation before, and High Anglicanism had its head down.

But how fascinating Alex's experiences in an old Scottish kirkyard, and the way they affect the way he sees himself as a modern North American. Exactly the intersection between time and place, and between time present and time past, that Eliot investigates in the Quartets.

I've never been to Scotland, but I have tasted Laphroig. I couldn't get past the taste of old ashtrays. My bad, no doubt.

Shame on you, Dahlink! Well, at least you're not driving the price up.

By the way, can you define "My bad" for me? Obviously I get the general drift, but can you pin it down? Sometimes it seems to mean something close to "My fault" and sometimes something like "I'm the one who suffers as a result". Or am I off-beam?

John McPhee, in an excellent essay on Scotch whisky, describes Laphroig as like drinking bacon.

"My bad" is an irritating American colloquialism that essentially means "my fault," and is supposed to be taken as one of those apologies that doesn't quite say "I'm sorry."

@Dahlink, I'm merely guessing here, but your perception that Laphroaig single malt tasted like "old ashtrays" may be because your were picking up a distinctive oakiness that has leached out, over 'maturation' time, into the 'brew' from the oaken whisky barrels/ casks. (A much desired chemical reaction for the character of most Scottish whiskies, i would think.)

Could your 'ashy' take on Laphroaig perhaps be construed as more of a smoky flavor? The fact that smoke from smoldering peat is often used to pre-treat the whisky malt might also account for its distinct smoky quality. Yet your perceived "old ashtray" flavor strikes me as a more extreme, harsher take, than just plain smoky, no?

I might suggest Picky, as a bit of a connoisseur of the "uisye beatha" (water of life in Gaelic), particularly the isle of Islay varieties, could shed more light on this Laphroaig 'mystery' of why it comes off a shade on the 'ashy' side to your palate. Picky, what say you?

Dahlink, you MUST get over to Scotland at some point in your life's journey. It will enrich your very being in countless, unexpected, and truly marvelous ways. Scotland's often harsh, and ever-shifting climes, its hardy, and hospitable people, and breath-taking glens, lochs, and bonnie braes will make you wonder why you hadn't made the journey to Caledonian, the land of Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, David Livingstone, and Sean Connery (HA!), many years earlier. So much history, so much ancient beauty, and in a weird sense, an air of drifting melancholy. It's all good!

@Picky, If I may jump in here. "My bad" appears to be yet another casual, fairly recent, popular U.S. teenage turn of phrase that has kind of snuck into the general American lexicon, and as you suggested, is a perfunctory admission of guilt, or "fault". And, I would offer, is an attempt to smooth over some mutual misunderstanding, or conflictual situation---a better-late-than-never apology, if you will. You rarely hear, "My good". HA!

So Picky, as per usual, you are, indeed, on-beam. (Former Olympian Nadia Comenici (sp. ?) would be particularly proud. HA!)

Ducky isakkson.......... over and out!

Well, blimey, I am absolutely not an expert on Scotch - can't afford to be - though if I had ever learnt, I should have been a true proficient, and that's my ambition for when I grow up.

First, I'm not sure the oak casks alone give Laphroaig its special flavour, Alex. The Islay malts are generally strongly flavoured, even those matured in sherry casks, although it's true they - the sherried batches of Lagavulin, for instance - are strongly influenced by the casking.

Several of the Islay distilleries, however, produce single malts which can be described as unusually peaty and smokey, which I think are two strands of the same flavour, derived from the peaty soil in which the barley is grown, but particularly from the peaty water.  I suppose this smokeyness accounts for that nasty ashtray comparison.  I always think Caol Ila tastes the way sheep droppings smell (but it's wonderful, all the same).

Added to that is a saltiness. I've heard it said that this derives from salt spray blown across Islay and into its streams and peaty soils. Seems a simplistic explanation to me, but what do I know?  Anyway I guess salty plus smokey gives you the line about drinking bacon.  All a matter of taste, of course, and almost all single malts are triumphs of civilisation.  I happen to like very peaty ones; if not from Islay, then Talisker from Skye will do very nicely. Cheers!

I am obvious not an expert. Perhaps with time I could come to appreciate the peaty nuances. But more for you, my friends!

Picky, what a great Pride and Prejudice allusion! Thanks for the opportunity to smile.

Ta, Tim; Austen has something of a sharp peaty nuance herself, hasn't she?

For peat's sake!.........

........."peaty nuance", indeed!

( Hmm.........A scratch-'n-sniff compilation of Jane Austin's works. Sounds absolutely fabulous. John Waters, are you available? HA!)

Picky old boy, you are a real corker! (or more aptly........ an uncorker. HA!)

Ducky "Olde Sod" Isaksson.......... Ta! Ta!

@Picky, my lad, you are far too modest re/ the depth of your Scotch whisky expertise. I suspect you know a lot more than you are letting on.

By-the-by, I loved your descriptive 'speculations' on what gives the tasty Laphroaig, and other Islay varietals, their distinct, yet ofttimes 'peculiar' taste(s).

That Caol IIa wee factoid re/ the "sheep droppings smell" was maybe a bit too much to fully 'digest', but your curious observation re/ the prevailing salty breezes coming off ye olde briny perhaps influencing the local fresh water and peat used in the Isaly spirits distilling process sounds very intriguing, and moreover, quite plausible. At least i'm buying it. HA

Hmm.... I'm wondering if any of those popular Canadian Scotch whiskies have a bit of that renowned Canadian back-bacon flavor in 'em? (Kosher whisky? McManeschweivitz? HA!)

Picky, once again you've come thru in the clutch. Thanks.


Ducky "Canucky" Isaksson........... bidding adieu.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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