Tasting: An Introduction to Whisky

You might think that a heading like this would indicate another learned piece on malt, peat smoke, worts, and the effects of  age and barrels.

It doesn’t.

In the late 1950s, before air travel was readily available, Wellington was the geographic centre and transport hub of New Zealand.  The only way to get between the North and South Islands was by the overnight inter-island ferry that sailed daily between Wellington and Christchurch.  Everyone traveling had to pass through Wellington.

The ferry left at 7pm and arrived at 7am the following day, so people who lived in Wellington got a lot of visitors calling as they either waited for the ferry to take them south or recovered from the often bouncy trip coming north.

We lived in Wellington.

Like most men of the era, my father was a returned soldier.  He had seemingly hoards of ex-army mates, all of whom seemed to travel frequently from North to South and back again.  All these “uncles” used to call in on Dad and our family as they passed, and they’d frequently stay overnight.

Part of the ritual of their visit or stay was to have a dram with Dad.  Dad preferred a drop called Black & White, a blend of predominantly grain whisky.  The distinctive label featured a picture of two Scots Terriers on the label, one black and the other white.

The bottle top of Black and White whisky had a strange sort of arrangement to it.  It had a lever mechanism made of twisted wire.   When the lever was pushed down it locked the cap in place and released it when the lever was lifted up.  The bonus was that when the cap was locked down it was spill-proof.  It was a neat arrangement, particularly to a young boy with a slightly technical turn of mind, and I still find it fascinating.

My mother had been brought up through the Depression, a time when things were home-made rather than purchased.  She made a lemonade cordial for us kids, made as a concentrate and kept in a screw-top bottle.  We would pour half an inch (about 10mm) of the concentrate into a tumbler and then add water to taste.

One of our family rituals were picnics on Sundays.  And part of the picnic ritual was to make up a bottle of pre-diluted lemonade cordial to take with us.  And one of the good things about Dad’s whisky bottles was the clever locking, spill-proof cap.  An empty whisky bottle, with black and white doggy label and locking cap, was pressed into service as a container for the kids’ drink.

On the particular Sunday under discussion, an uncle (and possibly an accompanying aunt) were arriving in town on the way to or from somewhere or other, and they were staying overnight.  The family had gone on a picnic for Sunday lunch, accompanied by the pre-owned Black and White Whisky bottle containing diluted lemonade cordial.

When we got home after the picnic some of the diluted lemonade was still left in the old whisky bottle; the bottle was put into the refrigerator for future use by thirsty children.

Uncle (and aunt) had arrived for tea and to stay the night.

About 8:30pm in the evening Dad’s Black and White Whisky had been brought out to help lubricate the visit.

At about 8:45pm I was heading to bed (obedient young lad that I was!) and decided that I needed a drink of lemonade before retiring for the night.

And then I remembered the Black and White whisky bottle of lemonade in the refrigerator.  Aha, I think, I’ll have a glass of that because it’s already made up and I can just pour it out into a glass for myself.

When I arrived in the kitchen, I found the bottle was already out on the kitchen bench in all its canine splendour.

Through the green of the bottle I saw that it was still about a third full.  I remember thinking how quite unusually considerate whichever sister had got the bottle out had been to leave some for me!

I poured myself a nearly full tumbler from the bottle, put the locking cap carefully back on, and even thought to return the bottle to the refrigerator!

Then, as thirsty young boys do, I took a big mouthful and swallowed it in a gulp.

Can anyone see where this is headed yet?

Black and White Whisky these days is a 40% alcohol by volume dram.  I haven’t tasted it for a long time, but I suspect that it was probably 40% alcohol by volume back then, too.  Whatever, even at 40% it was still 39% higher than anything I had ever had to drink before that Sunday evening!  Even cough medicine wasn’t that high!

My anticipated gulp of cool, gentle lemonade suddenly seemed to have acquired a flame-thrower additive that I hadn’t been warned about.

My yell of astonishment/horror/shock brought my parents and the uncle (and probably the aunt) racing into the kitchen at high speed from their rudely interrupted comfort in the lounge.

They conducted a quick check of vital signs to make sure I had managed to regain the ability to breathe, that the screaming had decreased to acceptable levels and that no-one was going to cut themselves on the remains of the glass which I had thrown to the floor in my surprise.

On ensuring that there was no lasting damage, their interest turned to the bottle of Black and White (the whisky bottle, not the cordial one).  Their focus of concern now seemed to to have shifted, that the level of available liquid in their bottle had dropped alarmingly and that there may not be sufficient left for their evening tipples.

Charming!

Other than the broken glass, there was no lasting damage that I remember.  But it took some years for me to be able to look whisky in the eye again.

And I never gulp it!

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