A few months ago, The New Yorker ran a long, fascinating and (unsurprisingly) excellently reported article about the Bruichladdich whisky distillery on the island of Islay, in Scotland. Not long after I read it, I stopped by my local liquor store to replenish my own supply of whisky, and when one of the salesmen asked if he could help me, I told him I was looking for something on the inexpensive end, but smoky. “I love peat,” I said, referring to the brown coal that gives smoky whiskies their distinctive flavor.
“Oh, you read that New Yorker article, too, huh?” I told him that I had. “Yeah, girls like you have been coming in all week asking for peaty whisky, because of that article.”
Girls like me, who’ve been drinking peaty whisky since they were 19? I wanted to say. Instead, I told him, as politely as I could, what I would drink every day if I could afford it — Laphroaig — and asked him for next best thing in my price range.
This happens to me fairly often. I’ll order a whisky and watch as the bartender cocks his head to the side, or my male companion’s eyebrows shoot up. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard some variation on, “Are you sure you can handle a big drink like that?” I’d be able to drink Laphroaig all the time. To be clear, these people aren’t concerned about how much I’m drinking; they’re taken aback at what I’m drinking. Apparently, young women aren’t supposed to drink whisky without mixing it with Coke, and we certainly aren’t supposed to drink the big, bold, smoky stuff.
That’s a large part of why I drink it.
I grew up with two whisky-drinking parents, one of whom traveled a lot for work and took advantage of duty free liquor allowances when she did. Both of them like a good whisky, but the real spirits drinker in my family is my mother, a 5’2” (and shrinking) New York Jew who makes up in volume and opinions what she lacks in height. She has bangs and wears a lot of pearls. She’s no Don Draper, and she’s certainly no Ron Swanson. She’s not what comes to mind when you picture a drinker of scotch. But a drinker of scotch she is, and she taught me how to be one, too, starting soon after I hit the legal drinking age, which is 18 where I grew up. Those bottles of scotch she would tote back from the airport came in tin boxes, which we often repurposed as containers for my pencils, markers, and crayons. If this were a TV show, I’d be an alcoholic by now, and in flashbacks to my childhood, that particular morsel of information would be the prominently placed piece of visual foreshadowing that made my addiction inevitable. But I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just a young woman who had the world’s weirdest pencil cases growing up, and who really likes whisky (on the rocks, not neat, because unlike Chelsea Fagan, I am not cool as shit).
I drink it because I like the taste, obviously, though it was an acquired one, like beer and coffee. But I also love the feeling of subverting people’s expectations. I love the look of surprise on a man’s face when he discovers that I know and enjoy whisky. I like the “girly” drinks as well; the Chardonnay, the fruity cocktails, the blonde beers. I’m not interested in being one of the guys, or being a “cool girl” who disdains and eschews anything girly as a way to criticize other women. I like the drink, and I like what it represents. I like doing what young women aren’t “supposed” to do.
One early spring day in sophomore year of college, I found myself being peppered with questions by a senior whom everyone in our social circle agreed was pretty much an asshole. He was in fact a member of a subgroup that everyone had dubbed “The Assholes.” He was peppering me with questions, hurling them at me in an apparent desire to be more like the mean hot guy in a John Hughes movie.
“What’s your favorite scotch?” he asked, with far more superiority than a 21-year-old merits when talking to someone a whole two years his junior.
“Laphroaig,” I responded, blurting out the only name I could think of, thanking god for my weird mother and my weird pencil case. Up went his eyebrows, and he spared me any further questioning. I had clearly passed his test for knowledge about scotch (and about upper middle class life, because I don’t know if I mentioned this yet, but this guy was a giant asshole). In retrospect, I don’t feel great about my desire to prove myself to this pompous prep, or the fact that I wanted so badly to join a social group for which a fancy scotch brand, correctly pronounced, was a kind of shibboleth. But that’s what happened.
In truth, I didn’t like Laphroaig very much at that point. But after that little interaction, I decided to make good on my claim, and the next time I had the chance, I bought myself a bottle. Before it was half finished, I was sold on smoky, peaty whisky, and I’ve been a scotch drinker ever since. What started as proving a point has turned into a real taste for the stuff.
I drink it for the taste, I drink it because it makes any night out a one-drink maximum kind of night, I drink it because it makes me feel closer to my mother. She raised me to roll my eyes at people’s limited, limiting ideas about what women are supposed to do. And I drink it to subvert expectations, which is an even better buzz than whisky can provide.