I am revisiting an old love. After returning home from a wintery vacation in a land where prohibition is still largely in effect, I stopped by the liquor store to lay in a bottle for the deepening winter chill. And there, I saw her: her red top flowing down her shoulders. I couldn’t wait to get her home, remove her top, and feel her warmth spread across my body.
Now, much as I love Maker’s Mark, I didn’t lose my whiskey virginity to
her. No, upon arriving in Akita some years ago, I found that my predecessor had left me an apartment filled with the smell of old cigars and a bottle of Suntory Special Reserve. There was a courtship of some months during which I would arrive home already too drunk to take interest in whiskey and depart my house before the hangover had evaporated: that bottle sat on my shelf until the cold of the Akita winter began to seep, nay, flood into my house through the rice paper walls and the outside world retreated from my consciousness.
I remember opening that bottle of Suntory Special Reserve, quite pleased that my predecessor had been so kind as to leave me a bottle of “Special Reserve.” Special Reseve! What kindness in him! I remember pouring myself a glass. I remember my first gulp – I was unaware at that time that one sipped whiskey. I remember the magnificent spray of Suntory Special Reserve that exited my mouth and the hurried run to the bathroom where my dinner tried, and thankfully failed, to follow.
I had no words at the time to describe the experience of being introduced to whiskey via the Japanese variety. It was only a later stupidity that endowed me with the words I needed. Japanese whiskey: worse than shooting a glass of Spiritus.
Back in the depths of that first winter in Akita, I called a friend. I did not the sorry scrub who had left me the Suntory Special Reserve. I had a low opinion of his taste in whiskey: I hadn’t yet realized that he had considered the bottle Suntory Special Reserve untouchable: its presence in my house upon arrival in Japan was not intended as a welcoming gift to me so much as it was a lesson in how to get rid of glass containers through the overly complex Japanese trash system. Had I listened to the instructions he rambled off on that first night in my house instead of nodding dumbly while waiting for him to leave, he probably would have warned me off the Suntory Special Reserve. For all I know he did. Sadly, I still tried it.
At that time, my predecessor was the last person I wanted to consult on whiskey. Instead, I called a friend who I had seen order whiskey at a nomikai. I asked him, “Can you recommend a good whiskey for a beginner?” My friend said, with a maniacal glow in his eye, a glow so intense, I could see it despite the fact that we were talking by phone. “Can I recommend a whiskey? Can I recommend a whiskey? I’ll do better. Drive up here right now, we’re getting drunk.”
And so we drank. Instead of whiskey, we drank something with a dead snake at the bottom the bottle and by the end of the night, I was drunker, but no closer to finding a good whiskey for a beginner.
Some time after that, I asked another friend about whiskey and he said, “Well, friend, that is a good question….(there was a long pause) …. I’m sorry, what was the question again, I might have spaced off a bit there. Sorry about that, friend.” I asked the question again, and waited. Finally, after some consideration (whether that consideration concerned my question or the dangling light pull, I will never know) the verdict emerged. “I would recommend a bottle of Maker’s Mark.” And so I bought one.
Arriving home for the liquor store, I had the bottle in hand. I found the pull tab in the red wax that sealed in the top. I unscrewed the cap and I poured myself a glass. Last week, history repeated itself and I did the same, though now instead of rural Akita, I live in a place with somewhat less distinct seasons and central heating. To enter fully into the nostalgia of Akita winters, I would have had to go outside my apartment and stand barefooted in the snow. I chose not to do this and instead my 2010 glass of Maker’s Mark sat on my kitchen counter. Indeed, there it sits even as I write this.
A whiff at the glass reveals that nostalgic oaky smell that brings back so many memories of Sumo. A sip brings back the huddled nights under the kotatsu. A moment of suspense as I wait for the aftertaste while recalling that brutal first gulp of Suntory Speical Reserve, but all ends happily for there is a sweetness to Maker’s Mark that simplifies the aftertaste as the pleasant burn of booze spreads through my body.
Maker’s Mark: she’s not so interesting nor so quirky as some of the whiskey’s I have known since, but neither is she plain. There is a sweetness in her nature that one never forgets and, unlike that hag of a whiskey, Suntory Special Reserve, Maker’s Mark treats you kindly.
With the Hatsu basho coming up, if there are any among you S&S fellows who have not yet learned to love the whiskey, Maker’s Mark is a fine whiskey to fall in love with. You’ll never find her number written on a bathroom stall, but you’ll might be lucky enough to meet her in the classier sections of Yamaya.