The first time I met him, he was drinking whisky. A double of something on ice. When the barkeep presented the drink he dipped a finger in it, placing a drop behind each ear as women once did with perfume.
He asked what I was having. "Whatever you're having," I bluffed. He asked me how old I was. I told him, and he laughed, and bought me a soda.
Acquired taste worth acquiring? I'd never been with an older man. Soon after we were lovers. Twice my age, twice as big, educated and well-traveled. And he put back whisky like it was mother's milk.
Well, why not? He was scion of a family where Jack Daniel's was practically secreted by the womenfolk. Bourbon and whisky: given at every holiday, drunk at every meal, the tawny stuff that kept them going and brought the day to a close. The Johnnie Walker blends, based on Cardhu single malt. The legendary B-21 liquor store on US 19 employed more people than lived in town. An off-license on the border of Florida and Georgia, because the state north of us was dry.
We drove to Panama City to sit on a particular beach, drink a particular drink. I was embarrassed by my unconscious reaction to alcohol: wrinkled nose, curling lips. But I loved the way it warmed from the inside and the way people watched me as I tasted it. I was still five years below the drinking age.
He had the best bar game: pick any three whiskys or bourbons from the bar. Pour a measure of each. Bet you twenty bucks he could tell them apart.
I learned. The shape of the glass matters. The temperature of the glass matters. The measure, the pour, the ritual. Swirling it round, a caramel wave of liquor clinging to the inside of the glass. It retracts slowly like the damp line of the falling tide on sand.
Ice in that? Water? Not for me, thanks. A few years later, sitting on a friend's sofa. A tumbler of Laphroaig, my first sip of the harsh Islay malts. Like starting all over again. But the feeling afterward - not drunkenness, not lightheaded. The opposite. Grounded, focused, full.
One year I spent more money on whisky than on rent. Two vintage bottles in Scotland, dozens of nights out, hundreds of nights in. A miraculous pub in Flagstaff, Arizona. A neighbour who worked bar at a hotel. No wrinkled nose any more. It tasted of melted butter. Golden syrup. An acquired taste worth acquiring.
I moved to Scotland and swam in the thickly peaty rivers Findhorn and Spey. They tasted like sweet, aged whisky. I drank up honey-colored light. Scared off the cold of the evenings with a glass of malt. Sat up on the longest night of the year with a friend's father, drinking and playing the mandolin. The sky at midnight was the color of barley.
In London one evening for a date with a woman and her boyfriend. I was early, they were late. Waited at the bar drinking a single malt finished in a rum cask while the underpaid, overcool staff looked me over in pity. Ordered another and the couple whisked in, silver and scented and fabuloso. Later, when I'd made her come twice before dessert, the waiters couldn't fill my glass fast enough.
But you never forget your first. I never did. Years after we were no longer lovers, a decade after putting a glass in my hand, he was married. At the wedding his family and friends eyed me suspiciously. 'How grown-up you are now,' they said. I smiled, pinned a corsage to someone's lapel. Who ever said heartbreak is a cliche? When he said his vows I felt a spasm in my chest. Afterward I drank long and hard. The taste will always remind me of him.
What does it taste of? Like mother's milk, I say.
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