Wine and booze bores


Wine is much too important to be taken too seriously. Wine is simply a beverage of refreshment. Little more than a wonderfully natural, and alcoholic, way to quench one’s thirst and enliven things a bit, and it has been since ancient times. Yet wine also lends itself to enthusiasm, and so to fixation.

In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking, the late Christopher Hitchens noted the “fact” that  alcohol “makes other people, and indeed life itself, a good deal less boring.” This in no way means “that there are not wine bores, single-malt bores, and people who become even more boring when they themselves have a tipple.” Too true. Alas.

Indeed, many of us have had the occasional encounter with a certain sort of fellow — women can be bores, too, we guess — who fails to recognize that his enthusiasms aren’t necessarily of abiding interest to anyone else. Though in our experience wine bores are a good deal less bothersome when the wine is flowing in our direction, too. Or at least, easier to endure than, say, gear-heads, sports nuts, political junkies and the like. Even still, it is sometimes difficult to resist the urge to simply be rude and disabuse them of the idea that you care in the slightest about whatever it is they are expounding upon.

As booze writers we are at least sympathetic to those wine enthusiasts who follow the siren song and become bores. Certainly we share the desire to acquire and impart detailed wine knowledge from time to time. Perhaps having a weekly column makes it easier for us to control and compartmentalize our enthusiasms, so that only our nearest and dearest need suffer. Even still, we don’t actually identify with booze bores all that much. On the contrary, we probably encounter them far more than most — and spend most of each encounter trying desperately but politely to escape.

Yet one of the pitfalls of being a wine writer — yes, we know, break out the violins — is that many people assume that we only enjoy rare and/or expensive wines. We have both experienced, more times than we care to recall, hosts who sheepishly offer deferential equivocations as they pour their wine selection, somehow believing that their meager offering is not up to our standards. How sad, and on many levels.

Sure, there are bad wines out there, but wine is like food — unless it is positively foul, it could always be worse, and is always greatly improved by good company. An extravagant meal consumed with folks you don’t much care for, like a work-related “banquet,” will inevitably be worse than a hastily thrown-together, simple array of leftovers partaken in the company of one’s nearest and dearest. Life would be much simpler if folks thought of wine without the mystique, as simply an ordinary part of everyday life — more like grocery than luxury.

Not to belabor the point, but one of us was recently handed a glass of the kosher Bartenura Moscato — but lamentably with a bit of hesitation and even an apology of sorts by the host. Yet the host needn’t have worried in the slightest. This semi-sweet, slightly fizzy, tropical fruit and citrus flavored wine was an ideal choice for the occasion! It is light and fun, not overly complex, low in alcohol and consistently pleasing. Produced from Moscato Blanco grapes grown in the Piedmont region located in northwest Italy surrounding the town of Asti, Moscato has made a bit of popular resurgence of late owing to its recent public endorsement by various hip-hop artists (despite Google and YouTube, neither the names, faces or songs of any of these “popular” artists were the slightest bit familiar). Often served with dessert, Moscato is also a terrific aperitif, matching well with cheese, summer salads and the delightful brunch served by our host. On really hot days, Moscato can be greatly enjoyed when consumed like a soda, in a tumbler over ice.

Spirits-wise, just to continue with blends for the moment, we thought we’d reconsider the Cutty Sark blended Scotch whisky.

Cutty Sark began life in late March 1923. The partners of Berry Bros. & Rudd (BBR), internationally renowned wine and spirits merchants in London (still operating today from the same location and storefront since 1698), were eager to create a new brand to cash in on the growing international appeal of Scotch whisky. The firm was eager to create a whisky that was light and fresh and wouldn’t fatigue the palate or otherwise interfere with one’s meal and accompanying wines.

Francis Berry, one of the partners in the firm, had recently returned from a U.S. trip and so had contacts in place for distribution post-Prohibition. The plan was to grow the brand domestically and in Europe, and then hit the U.S. once it was commercially viable (or at least legal) to do so. As it happens, Cutty was smuggled in during Prohibition anyway, but by third parties — not by Berry Bros. & Rudd (at least so far as the public record shows).

Once the blend was decided upon, the firm solicited James McBey, a well-known Scottish artist, to discuss the branding and design for the new whisky. The market for blends was highly competitive at the time, but what was being produced were heavier, darker whiskies — so BBR’s new light blend was already promising to be a rather distinct brand. McBey suggested the name. The Cutty Sark was the name of what was then the fastest and most famous of all the Scottish-built clipper ships. Though the ship was launched in 1869, it was a relatively hot news item in 1923 as it was being returned to Great Britain after having been owned for some time by the Portuguese.

Adding to the Scottish provenance, the name of the ship was itself taken from the Robert Burns poem “Tam O’Shanter,” in which the term “cutty sark” — Scottish Gaelic for “short skirt” or “petticoat” — appears several times and nearly costs Tam his life (instead only his horse loses her tail). The brilliant, funny, exciting, cautionary tale ends thus:

No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,

Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,

Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear —

Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

Doesn’t get much more Scottish than that.

The brand became and remained a big seller, especially in the U.S. — though with the single malts boom of the 1980s, it began to falter a bit in both sales and critical prestige (though it remains a solid budget seller). In 2010 BBR sold the brand to the Glasgow-based Edrington Group PLC, and Edrington has spent time and money revitalizing the brand a bit, and extending the range of expressions. From its inception in 1923, Cutty Sark has been a blend largely of choice grain whiskies and the following six single malts: The Glenrothes, Highland Park, The Macallan, Tamdhu, Bunnahabhain and Glengoyne.

Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky (40 percent abv; $18-20): With an unassuming appearance that calls to mind a light, delicate white wine rather than a Scotch whisky, this appealing, light whisky offers aromas of malt, oak, vanilla, celery, hay and custard, followed by similar, slightly sweet flavors of malt, canned fruit cocktail, hints of vanilla extract, some gentle spice and the teeniest, tiniest whisper of smoke. Taken straight, the finish is a tad vegetal, watery and hot — but just a little. With ice or water or soda the minor blemishes give way to a light, refreshing, mild Scotch whisky core. A lovely pre-meal or summer quaffer, especially for folks not yet into headier, heavier whiskies. In cocktails, think of Cutty as a mild Scotch backdrop to whatever else you’re mixing. Very enjoyable as well as affordable. L’Chaim!

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