Why I Order My Whisky Hot

5 Feb

(Preferably with lemon, honey and cloves….)

One morning about two Februarys ago I opened my Gmail only to discover, contrary to popular belief, Google does not know everything; mixed with the assortment of NYTimes updates and This Week in the Economist bulletins plopped carelessly into my regular Inbox was an unexpected gem: Warm Up With a Hot Toddy.

(Google, please take note: Whisky+warm+honey+February = YUM = PRIORITY INBOX.)

On a blustery mid-winter morning, I would have loved nothing more than to settle back with a mug in the old-world leather armchair that such a drink calls to mind. Alas, I was no longer in Scotland (where it would have been afternoon and, therefore, a perfectly acceptable hour to order an alcoholic drink), and I had to satisfy my need for a little sip of heaven by posting the link to the Facebook wall of my best friend and fellow ex-Scot-for-six-months, Calli.

Calli. Yes, Calli is probably the best place to start. Besides being the only person who knows (without being told) why I order my whisky hot, Calli, or rather our friendship, is pretty much the personification of hot whisky. To wit: lemon (me, tart and astringent) and whisky (Calli, refined and initially scathing) reluctantly brought together by honey (our friend Charlotte, sweet with innocence and enthusiasm) and cloves (study abroad in Scotland, spicy with newness and expectations). Without those last two, Calli and I would have been a dreadful combination, much too alike to complement each other. But tart is drawn to sweet, and so we found ourselves often in each other’s company simply because Charlotte is rather disconcertingly friendly and the three of us were stranded with no plane tickets home to the States for at least the next five months.

My general attitude towards life at the start of our semester in Glasgow is best summed up in the routine of my first week: I would wake in the grey-lit dawn, sometime between 7 and 7:30, shower quickly, don a hat to ward off the inevitable mist, then head to a coffee shop for breakfast and a bracing (read: completely and utterly necessary to my continued survival) cup of black coffee. Or, at least, I anticipated this would be my routine. Imagine the panic when I found myself stranded on an icy January sidewalk outside the sadly vacant coffee shop that wouldn’t open until a ‘decent’ hour of the morning (i.e. 9, 8:30 earliest).

Pre-packaged routine, then, was the first thing to go. But, oh! how reluctantly I set aside my very American need to micromanage my own time and that of those around me.

It took me several trips outside Glasgow before I really got the hang of the whole no-plan-is-the-plan concept, but by the time Charlotte, Calli and I ventured to Rome in mid-April, I was ready to respond to another traveling companion’s query, what’s our plan, with an admirably flippant, to see as much as we can see without really worrying about seeing anything at all. (Honestly, I don’t think said traveling companion was terribly pleased with this answer, but the bemused disbelief on his face as he looked from my entirely serious expression to my very firm grip on the map and back to my determined mien did send the rest of us into a delicious fit of giggles.)

But bella Italia was in April, and I’m getting ahead of myself (not to mention that Italy is the wrong alcoholic beverage entirely: limoncello, best-served chilled and poured down your throat by an admiring Roman).

The hot toddy, in all of its glorious coziness, entered my life not long after a fateful Valentine’s weekend in the highlands. (There were tears and wine and Tide-to-Go pens and boys and a promise that what happened in that castle stayed in the castle, so… this parenthetical is all you’re going to get.) No longer in need of the Charlotte-buffer, Calli and I met up one night at the pub near their apartment building while Charlotte was at some meeting or other. The 78 was small and non-traditional, with a vegetarian menu and organic cider. On Wednesday evenings they proudly served drinks to the tune of live, local jazz. So, Calli and I settled at a table near the bar, sitting in companionable silence and writing in our journals while we swayed in time to the upright bass. In response to the damp chill of the February air, we’d both bypassed a pint in favor of the featured drink so temptingly described on their chalkboard.

I was utterly enchanted. Lifting my glass to deliberately catch the flickering flames of the fire and watch as cloves hitched a ride with the lemon slice floating lazily ‘round a temperate amber sea of whisky-ed water. (Yes. A temperate amber sea of whisky-ed water. Go with me here on these hyperbolic sensory descriptions. If you’d rather not take my word for it, go to Scotland and get a hot toddy, then come back and tell me your glass wasn’t filled with a temperate amber sea. Just try and tell me that.) After several moments of sitting contentedly in this attitude, I took my first sip. The spread of warmth was immediate and two-fold. Like any hot liquid, it soothed its way through my body, meandering from my core to warm even the tip of my nose. But there was something more – a bracing burn as the whisky slid down my throat to pool just below my ribs, diffusing thrilling fingers of feeling along my breastbone.

Calli and I grinned at each other, clinked glasses and savoured another sip before returning to our respective journals.

These days Calli lives some 3000 or so miles from me, rather than about 3000 yards. The Internet makes it easy to keep in touch, and we’ve developed a habit of sending frequent letters, but I admit that February never fails to bring me back to The 78 and that first sip of hot whisky because February is the loneliest time of year. A time of year when everything is notoriously grey.  A time of year when I could really use a little alone-togetherness, a companion to sit across the table and write in his/her journal while I scribble away in mine.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to settle for ordering my whisky hot.

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