After finishing my doctorate and spending some time working and playing overseas, I searched for a fulfilling day job – something long term that would complement my writing, feed into it but not take up all my headspace. Previously, I’d had a range of jobs, from retail to editorial, and I still wasn’t sure what ‘fit’ me best, though I always loved a job where I could indulge my passions.
At this point in time, I’ve found the perfect balance: two jobs, one in publishing (part time) and one in hospitality (casual). I love them both; each engages different parts of my mind and body, and each complements my writing in unique ways.
I’m compelled to write about the whisky bar. One reason is that my job as a commissioning editor is still so new and exciting, I’m learning so much, and I think I can write about that better down the track. Another reason is that I won’t have the bar job forever, and I want to capture something of it while I can.
I fell in love with single malt whisky, as many people do, in Scotland. It was a warm June day in 2011 when my partner Gerard and I walked into The Whisky Experience on The Royal Mile in Edinburgh. We were on a 10-week trip across the UK and Europe, with a tour of the Scottish Highlands to come. I’d spent a few days previously in Edinburgh in 2008, travelling alone in winter. The city, all stone and fog, got under my skin, and I knew I wanted to see more of the country. But I’d missed whisky in 2008. I was only 22, after all. My main squeeze, as far as alcohol went, had been bourbon and coke, like many regional Australians. I’d also had a particularly bad experience with the cheapest and nastiest variety of blended Scotch whisky. So I didn’t think I liked Scotch, and I hadn’t yet learned what the differences were between a blend and a single malt, and had very basic knowledge of the differences between whiskeys (including bourbon) and whiskies. On that one day in 2011, everything changed.
The Whisky Experience is a theme park for adults. You sit in a moving whisky barrel and are guided by a ghost who tells you about the ingredients and process for whisky-making, information that would be better comprehended when I saw (and smelled) the process first-hand at a number of distilleries. After the barrel ride, we were taken to a room where we learned about the different whisky regions of Scotland, and how the ingredients, and a certain adherence to the tradition of each region, produced unique flavours. So unique that if you knew whisky quite well, you may be able to tell the region from a blind taste-test (if not the exact distillery). This is when whisky began to get interesting for me. I’ve always had a decent nose (much to my detriment when travelling on public transport). They provided ‘rub and sniff’ cards for us, and I enjoyed imagining the fruits of Speyside, the caramels of the Highlands, and the smoky tones of Islay. Two years later Gerard and I would spend a whole month in the Speyside region of Scotland, working right near a distillery and acres of barley fields.
But the moment whisky truly clicked for me was during the tasting at the end of the tour. We were given three single malts from different regions. It wasn’t just tasting the whisky that wowed me, it was something our host said, which I found repeated over the years on visits to distilleries and whisky shops and bars. And it’s this:
There is no right or wrong when you are determining what you can smell, taste and feel with the whisky you are drinking. Due to the region and barrel type there will be common qualities that many people will recognise, but whisky is personal. The flavours you identify will depend on your own palate, honed by your personal history.
To me, that seemed such a genuine principle, and psychologically fascinating. What does it mean, for example, that I easily pick up any notes of banana and strawberry in whisky? Is that because I grew up in Coffs Harbour? The notion of the whisky palate falls in the same category, for me, as the amount of times I use the word ‘yellow’ in my writing, or the way I’d choose cheese over chocolate, or that I’m attracted to tall, thin men. In the bar, I like to ask people what notes they pick up on in the whiskies they’re trying. If someone says ‘bandaids’ or ‘leather’ you can’t help but wonder if the sensation was met with a memory. My friend Lisa Lang once said, when we were sampling the lovely Tasmanian whisky Overeem: ‘This is how I thought whisky would be, as a child: a man, the sweetness in the pores.’
Whisky, therefore, can open little doors into memory and the unconscious, the way that writing can, the way that dreams can, or the way both anxiety and pleasure can (for me, anyway). Whisky drinkers around the world bring their own unique experiences to their drams, and new whisky enthusiasts of my generation and younger bring new flavours with our palates: I bring urban and regional, seaside and tram wire, coconut, Calvin Klein, green tea, Benadryl, almond croissants, paperbark trees…
So in the bar job I am using my brain, in a sensory perceptive way, but not using it in the same way I do when I’m sitting at a desk. I’m moving around the bar, I’m being social; sometimes it is quiet but I am rarely under-stimulated because I work with great people. There is less concentration involved than in my other work, and this is a good thing, as it gives my brain time to reset, to process ideas and sensations. If something goes awry or there is a difficult customer a shift can be annoying, but it’s also a good reminder of what people can be like – it’s being in the world, not in the bubble of my bookish life where many people see things the way I do.
I’ll admit, too, that working at the bar keeps me feeling kind of young. I have responsibilities in my work and in my life. We all do. But when I’m at the bar I feel a bit like I did when I was 16 and working at a cinema: mucking around, having a drink, having a laugh. I’ve been up until dawn with my whisky buddies, and it feels good to know I still have it in me. Who knows how much life will change in the next few years, so I’m enjoying this feeling of lightness, of fun.
And I’m sure when I sip certain whiskies in years to come, it’ll all come flooding back, as with Proust’s madeleine: ‘this essence was not in me it was me’.
Angela Meyer is the author of Captives (Inkerman & Blunt), editor of The Great Unknown (Spineless Wonders), and a commissioning editor for adult books at The Five Mile Press. She has published short stories, reviews and articles widely, including in Best Australian Stories 2014, The Lifted Brow, the Australian, Island, and The Big Issue.
literaryminded.com.au / @literaryminded
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.