Whisky as ritual

Say what you will about wine, beer or any cocktail; there are times when whisky – and only whisky – is right. For starters, whisky has always been good for conversation. Mignon McLaughlin (in The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960) said “we come late, if at all, to wine and philosophy: whiskey and action are easier”, but he was wrong. Perhaps it has something to do with him not being a Scotch-drinker (whiskey with the “e” generally indicating American or Irish, rather than Scotch), or perhaps he just couldn’t do philosophy. Because when you get together with an old friend, or when the pressing issues in life bear down particularly heavily, whisky and reflection are easy bedfellows.

Enjoying a fine whisky in deserving company starts with that particular sound of a whisky cap being unscrewed, followed by the careful metering of a drop of water into your glass. You can then recline, and (sometimes, depending on the whisky and/or your pedigree) allow the ice to serve as metronome, keeping your thoughts and dialogue in time. Without the ice, swirling the whisky in your glass serves nearly as well, if you pay attention to the tenacity with which the liquid resists settling, preferring to cling to the sides of the glass. This also works when alone, once everyone has departed or as meditation before their arrival.

Meditation is an activity always enhanced by whisky. When drinking single malt, we are acutely aware of place and time – especially of time, not only in the age of the dram but in the ages of geology and geography that are so essential to the particulars of the whisky. History lives in whisky, through place, time and also through the art of distillers and blenders, who carry the obligation to maintain standards set decades or even centuries ago. And it is for this reason that drinking a fine whisky sometimes takes the form of ritual, for in drinking it we celebrate a possible immortality that we, as individuals, can never fully know.

The essence of a whisky, just as with a person, is referred to and expressed by a name. And while many whisky drinkers may understand the name of a whisky to merely denote a certain flavour or bouquet, the name of that whisky – and consequently its essence – involves more than our tactile experience. Even if we are unaware of the circumstances, we still understand that this whisky, in its long life and journeys, has been a constant for thousands before us, and will be a constant for thousands after us. We also know that as individuals it is we that are fickle, while each measure or bottle of whisky retains an essence of the sort that we only experience through broader social connections such as family, nationality or religious community.

We sometimes try to ensure the immortality of our names through children, and in doing we attempt to write a certain sort of history. We then celebrate this history through birthdays, and likewise our broader histories are celebrated through anniversaries and similar events. If we are members of a community with shared ritualistic practices, what we are commemorating is, to a large extent, our connections to history. As Margalit points out in The ethics of memory, there is a “horror of extinction and utter oblivion” at the heart of commemoration, and in being able to commemorate a friendship, an event or even a fruitful day with a good whisky we are allowed, if only for a moment, to be able to feel what it would be like to not be as finite as we are.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.