Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Malty Goodness

The ancients drove themselves nuts looking for a way to transmute lead into gold. The key, some thought, was the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that would accomplish that very magical Value-Added Process. The search for the Philosopher’s Stone - along with its mystic brother-in-law, the Elixir of Life - was a cornerstone of the discipline of al-khimia, the mishmash of physics, astrology, mysticism, philosophy, chemistry, medicine, and metallurgy that we know today as alchemy.

The Philosopher’s Stone, alas, has been relegated to a footnote in the pop culture of the day. Scholastic, the American publishers of the first Harry Potter novel, changed the name of the book from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: they figured American kids would know what a sorcerer was, but they would have trouble with a big word like “philosopher.” Foo.

Alchemy was more than a simple get-rich-quick scheme. It was a way of studying the world with the intention of unlocking its secrets. Eventually it would help give rise to modern science.

And it’s still around, for mankind has never given up on the dream of turning lead into gold. Shit into Shinola. Sow’s ear into silk purse.

We can use nuclear technology to transmute elements from one to another: breeder reactor as modern-day Philosopher’s Stone. But that’s expensive and useless unless you want to glow in the dark when you wear your tennis bracelet.

No, I refer to the true alchemy of the Modern Age. The alchemy of distillation.

Distillation, especially as practiced by those canny Scots, converts relatively cheap materials like peat, barley malt, and water into a magical concoction tasting of the warm grain, peat smoke, and salt air of the land that gave it birth. The name uisce beatha - Gaelic for “water of life,” rendered as aqua vitae in the Latin - gets boiled down to “whisky” in the English. But it could just as well be called nectar: the mythical drink of Olympian gods.

The photograph above depicts two superior examples of the genre. On the left is a bottle of the Distiller’s Edition of Talisker, produced at the only whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye. It’s a rare treat, normally unavailable outside of the United Kingdom but resident in my Lacquer Liquor Locker thanks to the good offices of my friend Eric: a kingly gift. On the right is a flask of the Macallan, in this case the 12-year-old Elegancia, a Speyside whisky brought back with considerable difficulty from (of all places!) Mexico City.

That Talisker...believe me when I tell you that it is not a drink for the faint of heart. Powerfully smoky and peaty - yet smooth as silk - it carries a faint whiff of iodine from the salt sea. Just the right thing to prepare the palate for a slab of grilled beefsteak. Or to sip contemplatively as the evening sun sinks below the horizon.

The gentleman in the framed picture on the right? That’s Abraham, the maternal Grandpa d’Elisson, AKA Eli’s FIL. Dapper gentleman, no? With that pencil-thin moustache, double-breasted suit, up-to-date necktie, and cigar, he looks like he just stepped out of the pages of GQ.

I’ll bet he would’ve enjoyed a few fingers of that Talisker. I’m sorry he’s not here to share it with me, but he has been gone for almost 39 years. Who better, then, to raise a glass to on a summer evening?

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