For almost my entire life I drank only two kinds of alcohol: beer and white wine. My consumption was guided not by enthusiasm or connoisseurship or philosophies on food-pairings; rather, I made all my decisions on what to drink with a college freshman’s devotion to frugality. Even at 30 years old, I was a virtuoso of price tags, clearance sales and seasonal discounts. I’d drink whatever ultra-cheap beer was locally available: Black Label in Connecticut, Hamm’s in Ohio, Natty Boh in Maryland. After I discovered I had celiac disease, I started drinking boxed chardonnay that I improved, barely, into potability by the liberal addition of club soda, creating what I thought of as a kind of redneck champagne.
But in August 2002 after my first book came out, I got a letter of admiration from Dominick Dunne and I realized some things needed to change. I bought my first-ever furniture that didn’t come from the Salvation Army, I got some fancy stationery from Smythson of Bond Street, and I decided to adopt an official drink. After unsuccessful flings with gin, vodka, and port, I tried single malt Scotch.
It was love at first taste.
One of the romantic things about single malt is that much of the flavor comes from the burning of peat in the distillation process, so when you drink a single malt Scotch, you are literally savoring the taste of the part of Scotland from whence it came. This is much like wine, of course, but to me Scotch has much less raised-pinky pomposity. When describing wine you get words like cheeky and pert and jammy; with Scotch you get words like leather and straw and brine. Words Rob Roy would endorse.
Another one of the merits of Scotch is that with each drink you know what kind of trouble you’re getting into; every sip reminds you what you’re doing. I recently had a night of misadventure caused, I am ashamed to say, by whipped-cream-flavored vodka. I woke up vertiginously in a strange apartment, in a chair with an unfamiliar Bengal cat on my lap, with a fully installed hangover—something that would not have happened if I had stuck to my more communicative Scotch.
There is also a kind of clubby mutual recognition that occurs between Scotch drinkers; you can befriend people who would otherwise be unlikely candidates for friendship. Over Scotch I have bonded with the great lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower and Michael Caine, to name only two. And back in the days when I was a regular at Elaine’s in New York, the waiters knew how broke I was, and how thirsty, and they would bring to my table, totally unbidden, a plate of mashed potatoes and a double Laphroaig, that legendary single-malt from the Isle of Islay. I like to think that the fact that I prized Scotch over food is metaphor for a Scotch enthusiast’s fealty to the drink. After all, the original Scottish Gaelic for the drink is uisge-beatha, or “water of life.”
So if you want an adult drink, one that is refined but unfussy, one that puts you in touch with the earth and commends you on your discernment, one that has been revered by kings and peasants alike for half a millennium, put down your beer, your wine or whatever -tini you have the misfortune to be drinking, and try a good single malt.
Adam Davies, a former writer-in-residence at New College, is the author of The Frog King, Goodbye Lemon and Mine All Mine.