Confessions of a Whisky Snob; or, The Aftertaste

I am a long-standing member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, if, indeed, “long-standing” is the adjective I am looking for. Every once in a while, I like going into the Members’ Rooms in Central London to try out a few malts: admittedly, the rooms at the Society headquarters in Edinburgh are larger and plusher – indeed, these rooms are far and away the most civilised place I’ve ever been pissed in – but given where I live, the London rooms are more convenient.

As with any society, and, indeed, with any self-respecting – not to say self-regarding – society member, there are certain dos and don’ts. This first is not to spell “whisky” with an “e”: “whiskey” with an “e”, refers only to Irish whiskey, or to American bourbon, but not to Scotch. This is one of several rules we have made up so we can laugh at those who don’t know better.

The second is, you do not put ice into a malt whisky. Never. And you don’t chill it either. You only chill or put ice into stuff that you don’t really want to taste. Like coca-cola, say (let’s not mention brand names here), or lager, either of which would be disgusting if drunk unchilled. But malt whisky one wants to taste. So no chilling, and no ice. Nor, indeed, anything else, other than water – and that only at room temperature. I was at the society once when I heard some unfortunate soul ask the barman for ice: “We do not serve ice here, sir,” came the rather frosty reply. “Ha!” I thought to myself, “ignoramus!” And felt awfully smug.

And then, of course, the tasting. But before one so much as takes a single mouthful, one has to smell it – take in deep draughts of the aroma, savour the scent, or, as we aspiring experts like to call it, the “nose”. And only when one has done this for a while, does one begin to taste. Gulping down a dram without so much as a sniff is very bad form.

I’m one of those who like to take a sip before adding water, just to see how the taste changes once the water is added, and, also, to see how much water I need to add in the first place. For water does usually need to be added, if you are drinking a malt that is at cask strength. And adding the water often changes the taste considerably. And then, you roll each mouthful about the tongue, so that the taste buds that detect different flavours in different parts of the tongue all have an equal chance of getting what they can.

One is, at this point, expected to say things like “Aroma of freshly mown grass after a light spring shower … initial taste of toffee and marzipan, possibly liquorice allsorts, with surprising hints of apple, and of fruit salad … soon, smokier elements come to the fore … flavour of burnt wood … somewhat medicinal undertaste, like dettol, perhaps, or coal tar soap …” And so on. (I have requested the society to be included in the panel that writes the notes on the latest bottlings – my qualification being that after a few drams I can write bollocks as well as anyone – but I am still, much to my chagrin, waiting to be invited.)

And even when the mouthful has been gulped, we aren’t finished: there’s the aftertaste. And here, after some 600 or so words, I come to the nub of this post: the aftertaste. With certain malts, you don’t get an aftertaste, but with the better ones, you most certainly do. After it has gone down the gullet – sometimes, long after – the mouth is filled with a taste that one had not detected while it had still been on the tongue. I am not sure why this happens, but I know it does. I have experienced it even with my very first mouthful of my first drink of the evening, so it’s hard to put it down merely to alcohol-inspired hallucination.

Something similar happens with books too, I think. There are certain books that leave very little aftertaste at all, if any. For instance, it was only a few weeks ago that I read – and, at the time of reading, enjoyed – A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, but it has not left behind much of an impression: I do not find my mind going back to it, and neither does any scene, any piece of imagery, any incident or character ever return to the mind unbidden. Or even, for that matter, bidden. On the other hand, something like Demons, which I read this summer, has a very considerable aftertaste: it is not so much that elements of that book keep returning to mind – it is  more that they’d never gone away in the first place: they have become firmly lodged there. And as these elements of the novel persist in the mind, they resonate in unexpected ways, and take on surprising new shapes. One doesn’t finish a book such as this merely at the final page: one continues to experience it long afterwards.

I am not sure what it is that causes this “aftertaste”, either with whisky or with books. What mysterious element is it that allows some books to take permanent possession of one’s mind, while other simply slip though without leaving a mark? It’s not always a question of literary quality: there are many books I have read of undoubted literary quality that haven’t left much of a mark. And neither is it a question of the height of one’s brow: Sherlock Holmes stories make no demand on the intellect at all, and yet I cannot think of any literature that is a more permanent – or more welcome – fixture inside my head.

Much though I love malt whisky, it must be said that the aftertaste of a book lasts much, much longer. It can last one’s entire life. People who don’t read fiction often wonder what the attraction can be of reading about made-up people: some even find the activity frivolous – sometimes, reprehensibly so. It is difficult explaining to such people why accounts of people who have never existed other than in the imagination can have so powerful an effect on one. And yet it does. Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull; Prince Andrei lying wounded on the field in Austerlitz, staring up at the vast immensity of the skies and wondering why he had never noticed it before; Hedda Gabler setting fire to the precious manuscript … Neither Hamlet nor Prince Andrei nor Hedda Gabler have existed in reality, and yet, these events, these moments, become permanent fixtures of one’s mind, and take on a reality that belies their fictional status. I am not sure why. When Tennyson visited Lyme Regis, his interest was not in the history of the place, but in the fiction: he wanted to trace all the places that featured in Austen’s Persuasion: he wanted particularly to see the steps where Louisa Musgrove had fallen – a made-up event in the life of a made-up character exciting his imagination more than anything reality had to offer. In the Spanish town of El Toboso, there is a museum dedicated to Dulcinea, a character who, even in a fiction, did not exist.

When something enriches one’s life, it is hard to know how to describe that enrichment to those who do not see the attraction. To go back to Austen again, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. And the enrichment that can come from fiction, it seems to me, goes beyond mere pleasure. But I find the nature of this enrichment difficult to explain, just as I find it difficult to explain the nature of the enrichment I find, say, in certain landscapes, in certain music, in the company of those to whom I am close. But explanation is not really required. The aftertaste that fiction can leave behind can become part of the very fabric of one’s being – in ways that are perhaps not even worth explaining to those who see in it merely frivolity.

I bet these killjoys disapprove of malt whisky as well.

23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sancho on November 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Idle reader, it is even more complicated than that. At one point in the story, Cervantes intervenes, complaining that some of the history was missing and then recounts how he then obtained a manuscript of the history of Don Quixote, written in Arabic, found a Marisco who translated for him and who laughed out loud when he saw the marginal annotation: “This Dulcinea of Toboso, referred so often in this history, they say had the best hand for salting pork of any woman in all La Mancha.”
    (From the Edith Grossman translation)
    Things get even more complicated when one reflects that the Spanish ‘historia’ can mean both history and story.
    I say she was real up to a point, but as is often the case with so many people, the Senor’s love was more real than the objects of that love.


  2. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 25, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I like Coac-cola


  3. Nice meditations on what’s always struck me as an intriguing question and enduring mystery, why some works persist in the mind while others, as the latest Nobel literature laureate Tomas Tranströmer has written, “sail by like schooners on the way to the Bermuda Triangle, where they will disappear without a trace” (Start of a Late Autumn Novel, translated by Robert Bly). Given the enduring aftertaste (and after effects) of a few glorious bottles of wine we were fortunate enough to share for Thanksgiving dinner last evening, I’m not about to try to solve that mystery this morning.


    • Hello Scott, I hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving!

      Why certain books persist in the mind while others don’t is as mysterious as the question of why it is that certain tunes – mere sequence of pitches set to particular rhythms – are more meorable than others. Anyone could sit at a piano and put together a tune of sorts: even I could. But it wouldn’t be Schubert. Why? Who knows! I am possibly quite irrational in this, but I find it quite pleasing that there are aspects even of our everyday lives that appear to defy to empirical analysis.


  4. Posted by Sancho on November 25, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    “They gave me coca-cola, they said it tasted good”.
    From ‘Breakfast in America’ by ‘Supertramp’.


  5. Posted by alan on November 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Perhaps some things grow in the memory just because they raise interesting questions and leave them unanswered. That just means that the author is good at asking questions.
    With respect to a book that I know you are familiar with : “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”. Was Mishima just a Fascist who wished that Japan had been destroyed rather than surrender, using the symbol of the Golden temple as a symbol of Japan ?
    or was he, either by accident or design, asking questions about aesthetics as ethics that we don’t have clear answers to ?
    A writer like Le Carre poses questions but does answer them, in my view.


    • Agreed – it is not really the purpose of literature to suggest solutions to the problems of life, and those that do so either provide glib solutions, or only consider the more superficial questions. Both are inimicable, I think, to what we recognise as literary quality. Literature can and does address some of the most important issues of our lives, but the greatest works tend to be exploratory rather than declamatory.

      But I don’t know that ambivalence on important issues is nevcessarily the sole criterion that determines whether a work leaves behind an aftertaste, as I can easily think of many works that make no claim at all to seriousness, but which nonetheless leave behind very strong flavours on teh mental palate. I know you are not a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I do think these stories are a prie example of this. Similarly for, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.


      • Posted by alan on November 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm

        There is also the influence of nostalgia – the things we read and listened to in our youth stay with us, perhaps because memory is stronger when associated with strong emotion, the intensity of faculties working at their best and novelty of experience.
        But that doesn’t explain everything, as you say these works remain remembered by many (but then so do the stories of Hans Christian Andersen (sp?) and I have seen a post from you defending those yet).
        Like you, Robert Louis Stevenson sought to analyse fiction and came to the conclusion that “The whole secret is that no art does “compete
        with life.” Man’s one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to
        half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality. ”
        Unanswered questions, the brief brush strokes of caricature, the implications of unstated things – perhaps it is these that cause novels to grow in or minds, and we, or the culture we live in, fill in the gaps.

  6. Posted by A.M.C.Dibbler, purveyor of questionably developed thoughts. on November 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Perhaps the aftertaste is a result of self-contemplation inspired by the experiences of those fictional characters, as we are struck by the same experience and emotion as those creations, the blue sky new to their sight.
    Maybe what causes certain fictional characters or novels to have a great influence upon us is the contrast and similarity, or that which is perceived as such, of the thoughts and experiences to the reader, and the gentle assimilation to the aforesaid creations as the reader seeks to find within. Using those, the reader searches for the faintest hints of future stardom in themselves such as that reached by ‘Cohen! the macho uneducated barbarian’ of the Pratchett novels, showing that is possible to climb from poverty and turn stereotypes to profitable business.


    • Hello Mr Dibbler, and thank you for that. I am afraid you have lost me with your Terry Pratchett references!

      I do feel it is true that with quality fiction, we can compare our own experiences and emotions with those of the characters, and find and contemplate points of similarity. However, I do not think we respond to fiction merely because it confirms our own feelings: often, we find characters who think and act very differently from ourselves; and the extent to which we find this credible depends upon the skill of the author.

      I am, of course, talking of fiction of a high quality: in lesser fiction the characters are not depicted in sufficient depth to allow for such contemplation as described above.

      While I accept all of this, I do not know that this is enough to account for why it is that certain works persist in the mind more than certain others. To take the two books I cited in my post above: in A Perfect Spy, I had no difficulty understanding the characters, and found their thoughts and actions entirely credible; in Dostoyevsky’s Demons, on the other hand, the characters frequently puzzled me, and eluded my understanding. And yet it is Demons, and not A Perfect Spy, that haunts my mind.

      I am afraid you have lost me again with your comment about “hints of future stardom”. At my age, looking for future stardom is not really on the agenda, as, now that I am over 50, I have far more years in my past than I think I can expect in the future!

      All the best, Himadri


  7. I have never liked Whisky since getting alcholic poisoning from it at the age of 17 when I didn’t fully realise that you only put half an inch in a tumbler, not three or four. I was ill for four days and was probably near death. I have recently started to appreciate Armagnac but its a long haul from there back to whisky and I probably don’t have enough years left to make the journey.

    Although character may be fictional they can have a real life of their own – Charles Pooter for example left a mark on the city of London which I seem unable to forget


    • Hello Tom, and welcome to the blog. And thanks for all your comments: I generally try to reply to all the comments, but it has been a very long day today, so I trust you’ll excuse me if I miss a few!

      Pooter is a wonderful character, isn’t he? Diary of a Nobody seems to me very archetypal British humour: it’s of a type that simply refuses to travel. In most other types of humour, when a character tells a joke, you laugh because teh joke is funny; but when Pooter tells a joke (or what he thinks is a joke) we laugh because it isn’t funny! We laugh simply because it’s Pooter who is telling the joke. (I think there’s a diary entry titled “I tell another good joke”, or something like that.)

      Sorry to hear of your bad experience with whisky. The advantage of being an aficionado of good malt whisky is that one generally tends not to drink too much, as it’s too expensive to do so!


  8. Posted by alan on November 28, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    The tiny world that Pooter inhabits, despite his notions of his own significance, is the main source of humour. The scene where he uses some red paint that he has bought and his diary entry talks about his excited anticipation about using it: “raced though tea”, can make people laugh out loud.
    Are sure this humour doesn’t travel ? I thought that for some people he is one of a number of English archetypes. Maybe that’s another source of your after-taste: the distillation of an ideal type.


  9. Posted by Alex on December 6, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    My longest aftertaste has been with Crime and Punishment. I read it more than twenty years ago and it stills haunts me. Dostoyevsky, for me, is the malt whisky with longest aftertastes. In my experience, the aftertastes in books, as in life, are not ellicited by the most powerful or spectacular moments, but by the most truthful ones. In most of them, love is the theme, like in the final pages of Crime and Punishment. Some of them also happen to be very ordinary, like the description by Flaubert of Madame Bovary’s sandal, half hanging in the air. In those so rare moments, it seems to me that Maya’s veil is broken and I, like a revelation, the image tells me: «Alex, look at this. This is important. This is what life is all about!».


    • Yes – these are what Wordworth called “spots of time”, and Joyce called “epiphanies” – moments when, it seems, we apprehend something of a deeper truth about our lives. These need not be spectacular moments, as you say: Flaubert can achieve a sense of an epiphany merely in describing Emma’s sandal.

      Dostoyevsky certainly leaves behind a very strong aftertaste: to continue the malt whisky metaphor, he is the Laphroaig of novelists.

      I think if i had to nominate just one moment that stays with me, it is that scene in War and Peace in which the badly wounded Andrei is brought into the medical tent in Borodino. All around is chaos, and the most unbelievable pain: Andrei is semi-delirious, and through the pain, vague images of his past and of the present drift through his mind. next to him is a man screaming: he has had his leg amputated. Andrei feel she shoudl know this man, that this man has played an important part in Andrei’s life, but he ca’t quite place him: then he finally recognises him – it is Anatole: but now, all Andrei can feel for him is pity. And finally, before he sinks into unconsciousness, his mind rests on ,her face – on Natasha's face.

      Tolstoy borrows heavily here from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, in which Eugene, half asleep over a book, seems to see on the printed page an image of Tatyana. But Tolstoy takes this, and makes it his own. In both Pushkin and in Tolstoy, they are moments of revelation – spots of time, epiphanies, whatever we want to call them. Once images such as this enter one’s mind, they stay there.


  10. Posted by Jasper on January 12, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Very late on the commenting here, as I’m just discovering this blog, but I had to ditto your remark on the lingering effect of Prince Andrei on the battlefield: I can remember where I was, and I think even what I was wearing(!) when I read that particular passage. And my memory is not usually that good. And I haven’t read the book in almost 20 years. I don’t get it. 🙂 Other books that left a long aftertaste: Faulkner’s “Absalom! Absalom!”, possibly because it took me 2 years to finish reading the darn thing; and 2 books from childhood, A Wrinkle in Time and Peppermints in the Parlour.
    Regarding the whisky, I also have a very strong memory of a glass of Aberlour I was drinking not long after discovering how to “properly” drink Scotch, while at the same time listening to the Movements for Piano & Orchestra by Stravinsky. I don’t so much enjoy Aberlour anymore, but 15 years later I still associate twelve-tone music with whisky, and find I can’t enjoy atonality in quite the same way without a dram in hand.


    • Hello Jasper, and welcome. I honestly don’t know that I have ever been sufficiently synaesthetic to associate specific whiskies with specific pieces of music. What whisky is best drunk with late Stravinsky? A Talisker with Agon, perhaps, or a Bruichladdich with the Requiem Canticles? There’s only one way to find out… 🙂

      There is something about certain books that resonate in the mind for no particular reason – that appear to communicate more than merely what it appears to be on the surface, but which ultimately eludes analysis. Absalom, Absalom! is certainly one such book: it has a doom-laden, oppressive feel about it. Reading it is by no means a pleasurable experience, but once read, it becomes a part of you. I made the mistake of packing it with me on a London-Sydney flight, not realising that it was not a book that could be read for hours on stretch. The next longhaul flight i had, I packed some P. G. Wodehouse instead!


  11. Talisker and Bruichladdich, nice choices. I usually have some Laphroaig and some Ardbeg uigeadail at home, though of late I’ve also grown fond of bourbon and rye whiskeys as a complement to my whiskys. Jura’s decent stuff too, and when I have some spare cash I sometimes like to have a little Highland Park in for when I want something a little smoother.

    Ice never of course, but I tend to find more than a few drops of water unnecessary for whisky. Those few drops though are important as you rightly say.


    • Oh – there are so many great malts, that choosing between them is virtually impossible! I like starting off my drinking sessions with lighter malts, as the heavily peated ones ruin your taste buds for the rest of the evening. These heavier ones are only to be partaken towards the end of a session. And of course, when they come straight out of the cask without any post-processing, each cask is different, and you can often get some superb malts from lesser known distilleries. Among the great pleasures in life! 🙂


  12. Posted by Lucy Hume on August 31, 2016 at 1:09 am

    My post will be formed of two quotes from your article:

    “the taste buds that detect different flavours in different parts of the tongue”

    ” “Ha!” I thought to myself, “ignoramus!” And felt awfully smug.”


    • Since putting up that post a few years ago, I have learnt that different parts of the tongue detecting different tastes is indeed a popular myth. But I decided not to change this post, since, after all, I was depicting myself – my taste-bud-encrusted tongue very much in cheek – as a pompous snob. And it is on such misconceptions, after all, that so much snobbery, on whisky or otherwise, is based!


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