The first day in Europe is always a bit of a fog – the way it works on my East Coast flight is, we leave here around 7pm and get there at 7am – only of course for me it’s 1am or thereabouts, and I’m not good at sleeping on the flight. I drop my bags at the hotel, stay awake through the morning, take a one-hour nap after finally checking into the hotel, go to bed on local time, and … next day I’m pretty much on schedule. (I can’t imagine what it’s like for you Left Coast people.) This trip to Paris I got into de Gaulle at 5:30 am, it was bitterly cold, and I couldn’t meet madame for the apartment keys and bag drop until 9:00 am. By 2pm I was shaking with cold and exhaustion, but too wound up with coffee to sleep. So I did something I rarely do – took another look at the contents of the liquor cabinet that had been pointed out to me earlier during the tour of the apartment.
Predictably, it was filled with liqueurs people buy and then leave behind in vacation rentals – to my inexpert eye, mostly the sweet fruit/berry/cordial/digestif things that make me think of ripple. I wasn’t touching those. There was also Scotch, a word I recognized. I think I can say truthfully that I’d never tasted Scotch in my life. But it sounded warming, and there was an inch or two left in the bottle. So I poured myself a tot … and stood there in awe.
It smelled delicious. It smelled smoky and peaty and raw and earthy and wet, and in that exact moment I understood what Christopher Brosius was up to in Cumming, the hilariously named and extraordinary celebrity scent by Alan Cumming. I like to bring it up on the blog periodically for newbies, because otherwise how on earth will anyone ever hear about it? Notes are bergamot, black pepper, whiskey, leather, peat fire, highland mud, burnt rubber, white truffle, cigars, heather, Douglas fir. In theory it’s a men’s scent, but what a smell! If I ever get around to composing a list of 100 Perfumes You Should Smell, this would likely be on it. Sephora used to carry it online, but there’s no longer a purchasing link there. I can’t find his website (cummingthefragrance.com) – does anyone have a different link? In fact, the only place I see it for sale is the New London Pharmacy. That makes me sad. Has Cumming been discontinued? Will it disappear entirely?
I polished off the rest of that bottle of Scotch one tiny glass at a time over our vacation, bothering Louise and Angie periodically with my ravings about it. Angie and I went to the Closerie des Lilas one evening (it’s famous as a haunt for Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Hemingway and others), and I ordered a glass of wildly overpriced Scotch – labeled “smoky” and “peppery” in French. They apparently didn’t think it was appropriate for a lady, but they brought it reluctantly.
The day I left Paris, the security passthrough was a trial. First off, the screeners hate my favorite walking boots, which look like Doc Martens and have a steel shank, and maybe the orthotic inserts look like C4 explosives on their viewing screen, I don’t know. Second, it was one of those days where I set off the metal detector over and over. I do this occasionally, I don’t know why (no, it is not my bra, or my belt). They pull me to one side and wand me – nothing blips. They send me back through, and I set it off again. The patdowns get increasingly intimate, and as I don’t have any shrapnel, metal pins or steel plates to disclose, the workers sometimes get testy. This time I looked the gal right in the eye as she was grabbing my boobs and told her it was my “coeur d’or” – my heart of gold. We had a good laugh. Eventually they gave me my terrorist boots back and I was on my merry way.
I was walking past the duty-free shops looking for – whoa, hey! Are those bottles open!?? – yes, it’s true, in Paris (have I never noticed this at other airports?) they have liquor bottles open on a bar-shaped counter. Have a shot. Have three or four – they’re free! The sales clerk was extremely knowledgeable about their inventory and spoke perfect English, so I asked to taste the smokiest whiskeys they had.
The bottle from the apartment was sitting right there – Bowmore, which turns out not to be utter dreck but a quite well regarded single-malt Scotch whisky. Whiskey nuts have already figured this out, but it seems I am a fan of the Islay whiskies, noted for their peaty, smoky flavors, with additional notes of iodine, seaweed and salt. I tried Bowmore (again), Caol Ila, and Laphroaig, which is famous enough even I’d heard of it. They were all wonderful, but in that moment, the Caol Ila tasted the smokiest, the peatiest, the strangest. If Comme des Garcons made whiskey, that’s what it would taste like.
I’m working my way through my bottle, one thimble-sized glass at a time. I can’t imagine ever getting bored with its powerful, peaty aroma — I probably spend as much time sniffing it as I do drinking it. When it’s gone I’m going to see if I can scare up small bottles of some other smoky Scotch brands. I want to try as many as I can. For a gal whose “hard” liquor consumption is limited to a couple of margaritas in midsummer, I’m amused and bemused to have been bitten by the Scotch bug. But I said the same thing about perfume, didn’t I?
If there’s a smoky Scotch you love, I’d love to hear about it. And also, is there a fragrance you associate with the smell or taste of an alcoholic beverage, or (vice versa) a drink that conjures up a particular perfume in your mind?
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Endnotes of truthiness, so argue away or correct me if I’m wrong:
1) Scotch whiskey is generally spelled whisky, and everything else (including Irish whiskey) is spelled whiskey, except … when it isn’t. There are various articles debating this issue, including this one.
2) Scotch is whiskey (oops, sorry, whisky) produced in Scotland. Whisk(e)y produced in Ireland is called … Irish whiskey. If it’s American whiskey made in the south, probably from Kentucky and distilled partly from corn, it’s … bourbon. Feel free to step in here and join the fray. While I’m picking fights — counter to popular opinion, religious beliefs and various bar menus, Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon. It’s Tennessee whiskey.
3) I drink my Scotch neat – I can’t imagine pouring something that fantastic over ice, but most of the photos I find online do just that. Someone tell me why I’m wrong.
4) The people of Scotland are Scottish or Scots. Scotch generally refers to a food or beverage (Scotch broth, Scotch egg). Calling someone Scotch may be considered mildly pejorative. Except in Canada. More here.
image: Nora Maynard, thekitchn.com