The Irish have it over the Scots hands down when it comes to singing about the joys of brown liquors and sloe-eyed women. Meaning no disrespect to their kilted cousins (and indeed my heritage is heavy on the Scots and light on the Irish), but a people whose folk tastes run to murder ballads are unlikely to produce such a raucous lark as Tim Finnegan's Wake where whiskey is the agent of resurrection. No, The Cruel Mother (Child Ballad #20) is more their style:
"Oh mother, dear, when we were thine,
Oh mother, dear, when we were thine,
Stirling for aye
Mother, dear, when we were thine
About our necks you stretched the twine.
And bonny Saint Johnston stands fair upon Tay."
Mournful stuff, though just the thing if you're in the mood for a good lament. See Richard Thompson's "1000 Years of Popular Music" DVD and 2 CD set for a fine rendition of "Bonny Saint Johnston." The Devil seems to feature prominently in Scottish whiskey songs, while rogues and highwaymen caper in the Irish Reels unfettered by the chains of hell.
On the other hand, when it comes to the "water of life" itself, for me Scotch whisky in all its infinite variety has the upper hand. The Gaelic "uisge beatha" describes a vast array of whiskys both blended and single malt. The Scottish single malts are where my tastes lie, particularly those of Islay redolent of peat smoke, and therein lies a tale for one doesn't just up and lay down close to $70 for a bottle of 15 year old Laphroaig on impulse. Not early in one's drinking years at any rate.
It came about that I and my parents were driving north on the New Jersey turnpike one wet afternoon at the end of the summer, returning home from North Carolina where we had deposited my younger sister at Chapel Hill to start her first year of college. In a highly unusual seating arrangement, I was driving with my mother in the passenger's seat and my father doing paperwork in the back. I believe we were driving a Subaru station wagon of mid 1980s vintage. The traffic was heavy due to beach and casino visitors but moving along at 55 mph or so. A car passed us with smoke billowing out from the hood and my father remarked that its engine must have been low on oil and would likely seize up, which is precisely what happened several minutes later as I was passing a horse trailer and suddenly found both lanes screeching to a halt.
I brought the car to a stop inches from the bumper of the vehicle in front of me and had a moment of great relief at disaster averted when I heard the squeal of brakes behind me and the unstoppable mass of a bus-load of gamblers from Atlantic city took out all in its path. We were smashed on all sides and all I could think as I held the wheel screaming was how unfair it was because I had avoided the accident in front of me only to be taken down from behind.
When we spun to a stop we had just one door that could open. We were battered and bruised and cut by glass but mercifully were not more seriously injured. There were eleven cars piled up across the highway. I remember the television news team arriving before the ambulances, and in due course we were all shuttled to the emergency room to get checked out. Aside from shock and wounded pride, I was in pretty good shape, and as I sat waiting my turn I noticed a couple sitting next to me with strangely happy smiles on their faces. After introducing ourselves and figuring out which vehicle we had been in line (they had been in a pick up that struck us a glancing blow and bounced up the guardrail to the head of the line), I asked them why they were so cheerful.
"Well, on the one hand, we've lost our magic staves", said the grinning bearded man, "but on the other, it turns out we are expecting a child."
So that is how I met the John and Laurie Zeron, Druids from the Waters of the Brandywine Grove in Newark, Delaware. They were practitioners of Ár nDraíocht Féin, "Our Own Druidism", a neopagan religion started by (Isaac) Bonewits of self-described "polytheistic Nature worshipers, attempting to revive the best aspects of the Paleopagan faiths of our ancestors within a modern scientific, artistic, ecological, and holistic context." Waters of the Brandywine ADF Grove was different from its peers in that its liturgical language and pantheon were both Old Polish - a nod to John's ancestry and interest in eastern European goddess worship. Under his faith name Niszsa, John Zeron was the senior druid of his grove and also a liaison with the local police department to help them distinguish tree hugging, single malt swilling pagans from devil-worshiping cults.
Single Malt scotch whisky was their sacrament, drunk from ox-horn cups (multiple times) during their rituals. I kept up a friendship with the Druids for a number of years, and even celebrated the Winter Solstice with them in 1989 with a Bryn Mawr wiccan friend as my guest. Waters of the Brandywine was a working class congregation so they didn't shell out for top shelf, but still I found the complex taste and fiery glow of the single malt very enticing and embarked on an exploration of a more corporeal than spiritual nature into the marvelous world of scotch whisky.
There was a time at the Vermont Pub and Brewery when you could get a snifter of any of more than 20 single malts for 6 dollars. Viv and I used to side down by the fire on cold evenings when visiting her mother in Burlington and order 4 apiece and slowly refine our palettes until we knew just the style we preferred. She is more partial to the rounder, mellower, unpeated single malts like Dalwinnie, while I like mine all smoke and oil (Arbeg, Caol ila, Lagavulin, Lafroiag). Lots and lots of single malts out there to sample and explore.
Those who would use single malt in a whisky sour would serve caviar in a dog dish. Nonetheless I am intrigued to distraction by Dum Luk's Single Malt Marmalade and cannot wait to try some. I also plan to sample the music of Robin Laing , Scotland's one and in all likelihood only "Whisky Bard." If he can produce some homegrown music to match the highland malts I shall have to revise my opinion of Scottish whisky balladry. Laing himself offers this assessment:
"...Scots do not have a straightforward attitude to whisky. There is a lot of ambivalence. The Protestant Church has had powerful influence in Scotland since the Reformation, and there is a rather dour, strict, Calvinistic element in our National Character, which was always going to have a problem with whisky. (It's amazing how often the Devil appears in Scottish whisky songs). So how come the Scotch whisky industry developed the way it did? Well, drinking whisky might lead to damnation, (or should that be dram nation?), but salvation would surely be the reward, in the Calvinist scheme of things, if the production of whisky could be turned into a successful business enterprise."
"Whiskey you're the Devil" indeed.