Not the usual title destined to attract attention.
But Uisge (pronounced “oosh-gae”) Beath was the original Scottish name for whisky. It is the Scottish Gaelic translation of “acqua vitae” – the Latin phrase meaning Water of Life.
Looking back over influences and influencers, my interest in whisky seems almost to have had a pre-determination for interaction with the water of life.
I interest in whisky didn’t really start until my later life, but the influences go back a long way. So here’s some observations about the influencers.
My maiden great-aunt was one of those people generally described as “larger than life”.
To my 10-year-old self she was a tall and imposing woman, of strong opinion and will. She was also equipped with a booming, authoritarian voice that shook the crockery and brooked no argument.
But she was always very welcoming, of a positive disposition and always happy to see you.
Aunty played golf quite well and drank whisky – also quite well.
Aunty was in the habit of ending a round of golf with rounds of whisky in the 19th hole, then driving home some ten miles in her green Austin A40 Countryman with the wooden trim along the sides and around the rear doors.
This was the “olden” days, when driving under the influence was not as antisocial as it is today.
But Aunty’s whisky habit eventually was the demise of the Austin.
One wet & dark evening, after the golf and the whiskies, she and the car met a telephone pole that had interfered with her intended line of travel. The pole, having previously been the victim of other similar attacks, had been reinforced by strapping a spare length of railway track to it.
Aunty and the Austin hit the pole smack on the car’s hood ornament.
The pole snapped. Then lowered itself none too gently along the length of the Austin’s geometric centre, starting at the bonnet and ending at the back doors.
Neither the Austin nor Aunty were improved by the experience. The Austin sadly was terminal. Aunty was appreciably damaged but fortunately survived, possibly as a result of having been more relaxed.
shortly after she recovered, she had a house built on the eastern side of Waikanae, looking down over the Main Trunk railway line.
My father offered to help her with the interior painting of cupboards and the like, taking me along as “helper” for the lower bits. My enduring memory of Aunty was arriving, paint-brush in hand, at her house at about 9am on a Sunday morning to be greeted by the booming voice enquiring whether my father would care for a whisky and milk, as she had just finished her first one!
My father declined.
Those of you who know of the brand will know that it was not of a quality to be giving as a gift to anyone who knows anything about whisky.
Not my granddad. Another grandad.
This gentleman was odd. I don’t remember ever meeting him, but I knew him from photos and the most interesting reputation- some parts of which have gone into family folklore and will likely remain there for years to come.
Grandad was born somewhere around the late 1800s, when things were slightly more rustic than they are now. His rural lifestyle required that he purchase diesel oil in 44-gallon drums and whisky in cases of two dozen bottles.
Disposing of the empty whisky bottles involved putting them into the empty 44-gallon drums and returning the drum to the supplier.
James was a gentleman.
He was a lawyer by profession. He was exceptionally mild-mannered, and extremely proud of his Scottish and Roman Catholic background. Apart from the lawyering, he was also very knowledgeable in matters single malt.
Knowing of his interest in whisky, a grateful – if slightly mis-guided – client expressed gratitude by presenting James with a carton of a whisky that was produced in the South Island in the 1960s and 70s.
Those of you who know of the brand will know that it was not of a quality to be giving as a gift to anyone who knows anything about whisky. It was more of a quality that would encourage anyone interested in taking up whisky drinking to switch to gin.
James’ problem with this gift was several-fold.
He couldn’t return it, as that would be insulting to the donor.
He couldn’t offer it to guests: he knew that you could only offer your best whisky to guests, and this stuff certainly was not in that class!
He couldn’t give it away, as that would be insulting to the recipient.
His very elegant solution?
He drank it.
Footnote: Aunty’s house in Waikanae had an unrestricted view of a lengthy section of the Main Trunk Railway Line. From her concrete deck you could see the smoke from the steam trains from the Waikanae River to Peka Peka, and the whole train for the best part of a mile.
I could sit there for hours.
And possibly for days, if I’d been old enough to have whisky.