The title of this article is: How I Learned to Love Scotch Whisky. A better title might have been: Why Did I Learn to Love Scotch Whisky? But right off the bat (if you’re new to whiskey) you might point out that I spelled whiskey wrong. Whisky versus whiskey. Non-Scotch whisky is usually spelled whiskey with an “e” but Scotch whisky omits the “e.” If you’re interested here is a great article on the subject.
My first taste of Scotch whisky was in a sleazy bar in the Patpong red-light district of Bangkok, Thailand in 1967—and I absolutely HATED it. I was a very young (and naive) nineteen year old Marine Corps Sergeant on a three-day R&R from Vietnam. I was revelling in the fact that I was back in civilisation if you could call Patpong civilised. But my hotel had hot running water, western flush toilets and clean beds—civilised living conditions.
Living conditions in Vietnam were not civilised. No hot water, pit toilets, lousy food and dirty clothes were the order of the day. Hot and humid weather just compounded a bad situation and made for really lousy living conditions. R&R offered a brief respite from all that and I eagerly boarded my plane in Chu Lai. On the flight out of Vietnam to Thailand (on a vintage Marine C-47) I had hooked up with two other Marines heading to Bangkok for R&R like me. In case you’re new to the term R&R stands for Rest & Relaxation (in Marine-speak getting drunk and getting laid). Both would be a new experience for me—I was both excited and nervous. Like I said, I was naive.
The three of us were sitting at a table in the bar and wanting to get drunk (great ambition, right?). There were over 200 girls out on the dance floor and each was wearing a number. For a little company you simply asked the waiter to bring over the girl with the number you pointed out. They would order a drink but it was always tea at alcohol prices (standard procedure for a B-Girl). If you wanted all night companionship rates started at $11 USD for a twenty-four hour period. Your new girlfriend would act as tour guide, translator, dining companion and bunk-mate—all for $11 USD. For lonely young Marines a long, long way from home it didn’t seem wrong.
With maturity, social awareness and the current focus on the evils of human trafficking the practice now seems barbaric. But in the context of the times it passed for normal. Most of the girls I met in Asia performed these tasks voluntarily, they were not kidnapped or held prisoner. Most were Buddhist and there was very little (if any) stigma attached to their profession. It was good money, they got to meet foreigners (mostly American servicemen) and had an opportunity to learn English. Many sent money home to their rural families and more than a few used the money to go to college. I’m not making excuses, I’m just stating the facts in the context of the times.
Back at our table I was trying to figure out what to order in the way of booze (I had absolutely zero experience). The father of one my young comrades was a lawyer and always drank Scotch & Water—so we all thought what was good for a lawyer should be good enough for us. We all ordered Scotch & Water (on the rocks). It really sucked. It was harsh and made my lips and throat burn and the girls laughed (with their tea) when I scrunched up my face. But by the time I emptied my glass and ordered another one I was feeling pretty good. Very sophisticated and grown up. From that point on Scotch spelled class in my book (lawyers drank Scotch).
Once I started sweetening my drinks with Coke or 7-Up things really improved and a lifelong love-hate relationship began with Mr. Al K. Hall. But in the back of my mind I suspected real men drank Scotch. Alcohol freed my inhibitions (I was and am a bit of an introvert) and relaxed my social interactions. All of a sudden I was the popular guy I always dreamed of being: witty, charming and urbane (or at least I was all those things in my mind’s eye). I was medicating even in the beginning, a habit that would follow me for years—stress at work or at home was medicated with booze. And besides everyone in my generation either drank, did drugs or both (I never got involved with drugs other than alcohol).
I’ve always been a whiskey drinker, bourbon mostly. But every few years I would try Scotch whisky again. To me it tasted like someone had dumped a cup of dust into good bourbon, it tasted old and musty. I was responding the medicinal taste of peat in the Scotch. Peat (harvested from the many peat bogs in Scotland) is used to varying degrees in the distilling process of Scotch whisky—none more so than the fine whiskies from Islay. It’s definitely an acquired taste and has become my adult beverage of choice. While visiting other countries I will often drink the local brew: tequila, mescal, rum, pisco or whatever is customary.
However, I always come back to Scotch whisky like an old friend. I don’t drink to medicate anymore and it’s not about the buzz or the freeing up of social inhibitions—today I drink Scotch whisky because it tastes good. To me Scotch represents sophistication, class and style. With increased palate awareness and education comes discernment and appreciation—not unlike fine wine aficionados (or cigar aficionados for that matter). Scotch is one of the finer things in life. Due to availability and cost while travelling my Scotch consumption has been cut drastically. When convenient I will imbibe the brew but more often than not I find myself drinking good local beer.
I don’t drink all that much anymore. In fact during my Buddhist phase I gave up alcohol, cigars and meat entirely for over 7 years. Mostly it’s beer these days—finding Scotch while trekking the world can sometimes be difficult and when you do find it is expensive. Since returning to the USA for a visit I have enjoyed my Scotch again, though in moderation. I will admit I’ve been tempted to overindulge with the recent loss of my granddaughter Lianne but I haven’t succumbed to the temptation. I’ve found over the years that alcohol doesn’t make the pain go away, at best it only numbs it for awhile. SFD