For some ungodly reason, I will often, after pouring myself a dram of some elixir from the Springbank distillery, take a volume of the writings of that sad, incisive pessimist, E. M. Cioran, down from my bookshelf. I’ll then sit in a comfortable chair to sip, savor and read. Cioran is not for the gloomy. If you’re already glum or predisposed to despair, I suggest you avoid him. Cioran tasted long and deep of a troubled life and he proclaimed it a joke of which the punch line is always and inevitably some mix of mortification and misery. Still, for no good reason that I can discern, the older I get, the more I feel compelled to read him. His writings often force us to admit things our egos toil to keep us from reckoning…
I have all the defects of other people and yet everything they do seems to me inconceivable.
Every friendship is an inconspicuous drama, a series of subtle wounds.
Not one moment when I have not been conscious of being outside Paradise.
And the mood gets even lower, darker than that…
The more you live, the less useful it seems to have lived.
Now, I have long been married to a profoundly sensible, steadfast and caring woman; with her, I have raised two whole and healthy, intriguing children who continue to surprise me and to make me proud. I have had wondrous, inspiring experiences in theater and in writing and performing music. I have a handful – just the right number – of very bright, very captivating, very generous friends. So, why in hell do I so often get stuck on, and find myself nodding in agreement with, Cioran, that brilliantly unhappy man? And why, when I am feeling most compelled to read him, am I nearly always clutching a Springbank dram? Frankly, dear reader, I haven’t the faintest idea. That’s just how it is.
This Longrow is heavily peated for a Campbeltown malt – don’t expect Ardbog or a Laphroaig or a cask strength Lagavulin – all completely different experiences from this. It was distilled on the Kintyre peninsula at the Springbank Distillery in June of 1998, matured for 14 years in a fresh Madeira cask, and bottled in December of 2012. It has an ABV of exactly 50 percent.
This deep copper-gold fluid coats my nosing glass like a fine, crystalline wax. Hold it up to the light and you may glimpse a slight shading of pink – a Madeira sunset? – amidst the liquid copper and limpid gold, but you will have to wait a minute or two for any legs to form. Not that this whisky is thick as tar sands oil or anything of that sort – it’s just the nature of this elixir to hold on firmly with both grace and tenacity. This unusual characteristic is common among the cask strength bottlings of the Springbank distillery. (9/10)
This could not have come from any distillery but Springbank. No other distiller in Scotland employs such a broad, eccentric, unorthodox approach to maturation, which is often a double maturation (never a “finishing” in the conventional sense) in the likes of Australian Shiraz or rum or Gaja Barolo barrels, or single-mindedly single maturations in odd casks, from a dozen years in ex-Burgundy or Calvados wood to the present whisky’s 14 years in a fresh Madeira cask. And yet, hold your nose over a glass of any of these fluid eccentricities – be they unpeated Hazelburns or lightly peated Springbanks or more heavily peated Longrows – and you will know immediately it came from the Springbank distillery. There is a family resemblance to every product of this admirably sui generis manufacturer. If you fall in love with one of this masterful whisky-maker’s daughters, you should be (and will be) happy to marry any one of his daughters – really, they are all wonderful, each in their own idiosyncratic way.
But, moving along…
The first thing one senses, exhaling like breath from the whisky in this glass, is the aroma of intoxication. Earthy, autumnal, vegetal, smoky, mossy, grainy and intoxicating. The smell of moist earth crumbling in your hand, the aroma of a field ripe for harvest, the vegetal freshness and sweetness of sprouted barley, an old forest after a days-long rainstorm – and, coming through it all, the promise of forgetfulness and of the nearly erotic dissipation of the stresses and strains of daily life. If finding a reason to affirm even an unhappy life had a smell, this would be it. (19/20)
The sweetness here is neither honey nor sugar. There may actually be a gentle wisp of that darker, heavier demerara sugar, maybe even molasses-soaked brown sugar, but it’s all riding on malt, on the inherent sweetness of barley grain. Yet this is not what most of us would call a sweet whisky – far from it. Earthy peat, new leather and tobacco are evident, as are oak and a somewhat winey, murky Madeira. There is a pleasant saltiness here as well. And nocturnal loam, as if you were lying in a garden at 3am and turned your head against the trowelled bed. There may be some dried fruit in there, but it isn’t prominent. Coconut, a common characteristic of the Springbank profile, is quite pronounced in the palate – surprising considering I didn’t pick up even a hint of it on the nose. (19/20)
You have two choices here. You can accentuate the earthy leatheriness, sweet maltiness and a somewhat biting, white pepper spice by swallowing this undiluted, or you can add water and bring out a more floral earthiness, a lighter, sweeter maltiness, a more complimenting, less dominant spice and, much to my surprise, just a hint of juniper/gin on the finish. Try it both ways – either is good and, whichever way you choose, you’ll get that wondrous slow burn spreading like dazzling contentment through your chest. Good stuff, this is… (18/20)
The promise of that glowing, coating, copper-gold potion in my glass was manifest in the nose, palate and finish of this whisky. In fact, once this had oxidized a bit in the bottle (I didn’t care for it for a week after opening), every aspect here became compelling and even seductive. This whisky does not ape the experience of some slinky fling, as many NAS and “reformulated” Scotch whiskies do; this whisky is a good, long marriage to a good, long suffering spouse. This is the kind of drink you learn to respect – and to go back to again and again. It does not exhibit the tight, clear structure that I have tremorously enjoyed in several scintillating drams from, say, The Maltman or The Exclusive Malts; no, this feels a little less clear, but richer all the same – more like life itself. It isn’t perfect – whatever that means – but it knows to counter its malty sweetness with a pinch of salt, its savory leatheriness with coconut and pepper, and its deep, smoky earthiness with a slightly sweet, vegetal breeze. As balanced as it should be. (18/20)
Quality of the Buzz
For some of us (Cioran, me and a million more), there’s a rancor at the core of life that, by the time we’re twenty-five years old or so, we have distracted ourselves from sufficiently to believe, most days, we have found some sort of happiness. Meanwhile, that rancor eats away at our souls, satisfaction is never felt deeply or long, resentments breed like cancer cells and the sordid, ever more palpable unfairness designed into the mechanics of the human world becomes so conspicuous as to be unbearable…
So, how do we endure? How do we reconcile ourselves to such a shabby, short, ignoble life? To an existence that is rendered ever more dreadful and unsatisfying as age breaks us down and the children move away and we have less energy for illusion, less patience for blatant deception, and thus must begin to see our lives, and life itself, for what they really are: Arduous descents into oblivion or abject surrender to doom.
The most base and opportunistic among us turn to politics, a perfect escape from reality for soulless, thieving cowards, while others turn to gardening or drugs, art, bingo, pumping iron or porn; some embrace fear and join cults, others make cults of family, some fixate on sports or start whisky blogs, and the most tedious among us turn to the vulgar satisfactions of amassing filthy lucre. Albert Ayler found his way out with a saxophone; Van Gogh, more or less, with brushes and paint. Vaslav Nijinsky distracted himself with dance and, ultimately, insanity.
I’m 59 years old. I’ve been disillusioned since the age of 12 and a cynic since I met my first landlord. I have chosen many effective paths to escape the abyss – a good wife, raising fascinating children, art, theatre, music. But, now, getting older, hoping to expand and unbutton the end of each day, the path I choose to escape the whorish, tawdry chasm of daily life is single malt Scotch whisky. This 14 year old cask strength Longrow is intoxicating in every way – in all the deeper, more embracing, more permeating meanings of that term. It provides the prefect companion to Cioran and his ilk, and the perfect solace if we are compelled to drive blindfolded into the beckoning void, or to waltz with abandon across a lake of thin ice. That, in fact, is what all of us are doing, and as soon as we admit that fact to ourselves, the gladder we’ll be to have a bottle or two of this potent elixir of Lethe close to hand. (10/10)
Total points for this whisky: 93
Emil Cioran, The Philosopher of Despair
Good whisky taking the form of dark but enriching song…