Part One: Jäegermeister

Part Two: Dalwhinnie

 “Decus et Tutamen”
An ornament and a safeguard

My first beer was a Rolling Rock, cracked at a Calvin house party when I was 19. I was prepared for the worst, but it was a soft landing, several degrees less sweet than Sprite, but nothing like the cross between prison bread and cat urine I’d been expecting. It was about a month before my flight to England and the beginning of my Wanderjahr, the bursting of the dam of temperance behind which I had been building little sandcastles for almost twenty years.

The York St. John Student Union. A pub on campus. Impossible but true, and every Monday and Saturday after nine was Pound a Pint Night. The president of the union during his orientation for the international students must have explained its other functions––its open mic nights, homework help, student clubs, and I certainly remember the faculty advisor taking the floor at one point to make an unconvincing apologetic for the numerous activities on offer for non-drinkers––but once the import of that phrase had sunk in, the Calvin contingent, at least, heard nothing else. One British pint for one British pound. The price of a good sandwich was all we needed to get embarrassingly palookahed on Carlsberg or Red Stripe––or Diesels, the house specialty, a concoction of Fosters, Strongbow, and blackcurrant juice, as comforting and purple as a death embrace from Barney the Dinosaur.

I remember the feeling of those squat zinc coins heavy in my pocket, the portrait of Elizabeth II smooth under the thumb, the pleasing thunk they made landing on the bartop. Lubricated with the beer of the union, we ran wild the snickets and ginnels of the city where Constantine was born, in search of more alcohol, certainly, but in the course of that search, we made discoveries:

The ales of Yorkshire with their deep malts that smelled like primeval rivers. The rites of handpull and cask. The shapely glasses wide enough to swim in. How conversations could open up and lead the speakers into regions they might never venture into sober. How laughter and anger and woundedness might sometimes be expressions of one emotion. How the night air tasted sweet in the throat like pipe tobacco or zante currants.

In York, I also discovered whisky.

Jon and I were eating curry at Bombay Spice on a Friday night, the two of us. We had been friends since A Midsummer Night’s Dream my sophomore year, his junior, when we both served on set crew. It was two weeks into our semester abroad, and this was the first real night we had spent together. Up until that point, we’d been wandering around buying phone plans and trying to find our classes. We talked well. There was a lot to say.

It was at that point that he told me had booked a flight to Grand Rapids for the coming week.

There was a girl. But more than that, the whole apparatus of his Calvin life, a scaffold suspended over the chasm between his love of English and his engineering major, had grown shaky. The more he thought about it, the less sense it made. He had already added a year onto his degree by trying to double major. If he stayed in York through May, he’d add another semester at least. He’d dreamed for most of his life about England, but now that he was here, he had to admit how ludicrous that dream really was.

We talked about it. I understood him. Then we didn’t know what to say, but we were here together now, and we were going to make it count.

We wound through town to the Three-Legged Mare and talked nonsense over pints of Centurion’s Ghost and Wonky Donky. We laughed. We reminisced. We made fun of our friends back home. But something more was needed. This was a leave-taking, after all.

We opened the hard-backed drink menu and leafed through page after page of Scotch whiskies whose descriptions read like haikus and contained strange, exotic words like “phenolic” and “oloroso.” Eventually we landed, as if by mutual inspiration, on Dalwhinnie. We ordered. It came. Subtle gold in the bottoms of the tumblers, climbing the glass with viscous fingers. We looked at each other, we toasted to something, and then we knocked it back.

In that crystalline moment, I knew that I had discovered something totally new. I glimpsed landscapes. I couldn’t speak. I just looked at Jon as my chest folded open with a glowing heat, not of fire, but of sunlight waking a sleeper.

After the epiphany came the hunger, and we rambled off through the city until we found a sausage vendor in St. Sampson’s Square, feeling even as we passed him our change, that we were on the downhill slope of a high point in our lives.


Part Three: Belhaven

To Scotland by train, to the smell of whisky barrels piled in a stockyard outside Edinburgh, to the blackened monuments of Glasgow and the wilds of Argyll, out onto the treeless Rannoch moor where burned-out stone houses stood blind beneath the sun and where fallow deer ran in packs with a sound like dim thunder, causing hikers to pause and pick up large rocks.

When I got to Corrour, I spent an evening’s meditation above Loch Ossian, whisky bottle in hand, my sweaty windbreaker getting cold against my arms as evening came. A rest, and then a start. The hike, fourteen miles to Kinlochleven, began with a climb up the col of Leum Ulleim that took hours and then a tramp down its farther side through boggy grass where the snowmelt ran audibly through the humps of thistle and grass into Gleann Iolairean. In the glen, I immediately soaked my shoes.

An hour later, I paused on the rocky shore of Loch Chiarain to admire my blisters and change my socks, and then it was up and on to the sun-baked tracks above Allt an Inbhir passed a dead fawn and a celtic cross. Forward over the rumpled slope to Blackwater Resevoir, a long, rectangular trencher that held the reflections of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste and Meall nan Ruadhag in its perfect surface. I jumped the gate and crossed over the dam to join the trail above the River Leven where abandoned houses, decayed or burned away to chimneys and slabs, haunted the trees. And then, after another couple hours, I found myself in the village, slightly shocked, after two days in the wilderness, to see cars in driveways and TV antennas on roofs.

Having packed only a single Nalgene, I had resorted to drinking spring water, and by the end of that long day, fourteen hours or more, I was thirsty at a cellular level.

I found the pub immediately and after washing the salt off my face in the bathroom proceeded to eat and drink more shamelessly than I ever had before or maybe since. What feast for a highlander down from the lonesome hills? Haggis, black pudding, skink? No. Nachos, lasagna, a sandwich with chips. It was pure instinct: salt, fat, and buckets of cold water. And a beer I will never forget: Belhaven Scottish Ale. Clean and ruddy and, at 3.9% alcohol per volume, as gentle as mother’s milk. Its unmistakable flavor of butter I would later learn was the result of too much diacetyl, a chemical byproduct of yeast, indicative of a flaw in the fermentation process. But, encountered in that moment, it will always be, for me, the flavor of a soul-deep peace.

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