One Year, 70 Scotches, and My Father-in-Law

Standing on a verdant sea cliff in the Scottish Highlands, the briny breeze in our hair, warmed by a blanket of local single malt whisky—that’s where we were supposed to be. It was March 2020 and, like all travel, our trip to the UK was canceled. My husband and I found ourselves instead sheltering in place with a toddler, venturing no further than the refrigerator to crack another stress beer. If you’ve never been in quarantine with a toddler, it’s best compared to the movie Snakes on a Plane: They’re everywhere, they bite, and there’s no escape. So when two small bottles of amber liquid appeared on our porch with a note, “Zoom scotch tasting,” we welcomed the distraction.

We live around the corner from my father-in-law, who’d long been trying to recruit us for the nerdiest possible version of a drinking club: a single malt scotch study group. We were ambushed by scotch documentaries and an alphabetical whisky classification system. A daunting grid appeared with axes like “smokey/peaty” and “winey/sherry.” This was no surprise coming from my father-in-law, whose grocery list is printed and collated, organized by aisle, alphabetically. As someone who sometimes forgets to buy groceries entirely, I had no hope of mastering the painstaking details that surely awaited.

Then lockdown hit, and I wasn’t about to turn down an excuse to start drinking early. Unlike us, my father-in-law was weirdly prepared for this pandemic—he worked from home, had a monthly meal calendar, and was an accomplished handwasher. As a bachelor at the peak of his career, he could also afford a hefty drinks budget. So my husband and I parked our kid in front of Elmo and poured the scotch.

We let it breathe, one minute for every year it spent in the barrel; twelve is a lot of minutes to stare down your first drink of the day in quarantine. We began to “nose.” One sniff ferried me from the stuffy confines of house arrest to the shores of a Scottish isle, perfumed with sea-funk, tar, and salt. The first smokey sip warmed my belly like a cup of tea wishes it could. Tasting notes and bad Scottish accents flew. We found ourselves pouring a second dram, carefree for the first time in days, immersed in something other than apocalyptic headlines—something beautiful. I never wanted to not do this.

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We agreed (tipsily) to the mammoth task of tasting 85 of the world’s best single malt scotches. We watched Scotch: A Golden Dream on Netflix and studied the scotch tasting bible, Whisky Classified. Particularly delightful was the “tasting notes” section, which read like the back of a Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans package: nail varnish, christmas cake, gun oil, butterscotch, waxed raincoat, venison (leave it to the Scots to find deer in their whisky), and, of course, vomit. We came up with our own descriptions, agreeing that Laphroaig 10 Year smelled like riding in a tuk tuk in Delhi traffic. My husband made use of all those college poetry classes, finding notes of “barbecued sushi roll” and “mushrooms in a rotting tree,” as I made use of all those acting classes by not laughing.

For this outlander, the world of scotch was not intuitive. The names contained enough grunting noises and disregarded consonants to make French seem logical. And for every scotch there was another that sounded exactly like it. For Ardmore there was Aultmore. For Bunnahabhain there was Bruichladdich (say that after four fingers). Seemingly half of them started with “Glen.” We studied as if for a weekly test, which it became as my father-in-law left unlabeled mini bottles on our doorstep for pop quizzes. I mostly failed, but finally managed to blindly identify the letter group of a single malt. It was a “Cluster J,” the kind of peaty, smokey whisky that’s like a punch in the mouth from Jamie Fraser. Once you know it, you can’t unknow it.

Every Sunday was the same: Eight ounces of single malt appeared on our doorstep, proof we’d survived another week of lockdown. Sometimes we got a bonus round midweek. The project made us feel like we were worldly sophisticates, rather than hanging-by-a-thread parents drinking a considerable amount of whisky.

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Summer approached and our scotches became lighter, more citrusy and floral, served over a hunk of cocktail ice at my father-in-law’s house, which had been transformed into a scotch hoarder’s den. Eventually, we formed a pod with immediate family. This made for an interesting social life, because every gathering was the same exact 11 people. Thanksgiving? Invite the fam. Birthday? Invite the fam. Super Bowl? Pretend we have Covid.

My father-in-law brought a bottle of whisky to every celebration, expanding our project to include my blended, Scottish-descended side—everyone talking and laughing over each other, kids squealing, way too much food, and plenty of scotch. He could be found grilling my sister about the dram du jour or cornering her husband with a tutorial on the whisky ABCs. My mom mostly stuck to her Kendall Jackson chardonnay, which was clearly killing him. We listened to my half sisters’ father, who is an actual Scot, share stories of his childhood in the Highlands. We tasted whisky from the various regions of our ancestors. And when my sister, who lives in the UK, was trapped there for the holidays, we sent her a sherried, Christmassy scotch with a note: “There with you in spirits.”

Along the way, my husband catalogued the bottles with a homemade tasting form. We now have a novella’s worth of pages, and my father-in-law has created his own digital whisky database, categorizing and ranking every scotch. He has a twice-airtight library of leftover hooch (alphabetized, I’m sure). It just might be the most well-documented drinking binge in history.

At a fancy bottle shop, I was told, “I can’t help you. You clearly know more about scotch than I do.”

Five thousand dollars in scotch later—in hindsight, that’s a lot to freeload off one guy—we are back to the peated, medicinal scotches that insulate late winter blues. As we approach a year since that first lockdown, we’ll open our 70th (are you worried yet?) bottle. My son has officially spent half his life in some level of isolation. He has hugged more friends virtually than in person and tenses when strangers get close. He runs around with his sippy cup saying, “This is my scotch!” (No, we haven’t hit that stage of quarantine. Yet.) None of this is normal.

At the beginning of lockdown, people posted memes to the effect of, “If you don’t master a new skill, you’re a piece of shit.” Well, we got really good at drinking scotch. And really good at smelling scotch. And really good at talking about drinking and/or smelling scotch. We drank our way across Scotland, through an ocean of whiskey.

In the single malt section of a fancy bottle shop, I was recently told, “I can’t help you. You clearly know more about scotch than I do.” This was too much for my proud father-in-law, who is triumphant to have turned me into a scotch connoisseur at last. I like the surprise I see on people’s faces when they find out I know about what has somehow remained an old white guy hobby. Mostly, I’m grateful he found us a common language, a goal, something to do while stranded on the desert island that was 2020. That we no longer feel so much like in-laws, just family. On the downside, I’m forever ruined for liquor in my price range.

My father-in-law got the vaccine and one day, we will too. We’ll take that trip to the Highlands, and this time he’ll be in tow. As we stand on the sea cliffs sipping our scotch, we’ll have a far more intimate appreciation for the golden dram: the peat, the heather, the smoke; the freedom to roam. We’ll have earned our moment in the soggy Scottish sun—if the remaining months of research don’t do us in, first.

Kelly MacLean is a writer, cultural satirist, and podcast host; you can follow her @thekellymaclean on Twitter and Instagram. 

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Source : Esquire