Distiller’s Notes Vol.6: Keep Your Receipt!
The other day:
Sitting in front of a table-full of whiskey samples, all I could do was scratch my head.
“Suppose I should taste them,” I thought. “That might make this exercise a little more productive.”
Barrel numbers, batch codes and fill dates made it all seem like deciphering a code: more complicated than it probably needed to be. I randomly picked up a bottle and smelled it. It reminded me of something specific… ? What… ? When… ? Where… ? The space surrounding me folded in on itself, and a memory began to piece together… transporting my brain to a time and a place…
This wasn’t a whiskey tasting, this was time-traveling! Weee!
I shook my head and came to. It was time to taste them, group them and name them, one-by-one.
“This should be fun!?,” I thought. First one: yum. I was having fun… ”This is fun! Weeee! But wait… focus… remember that last one before you move onto the next. Got it. Wait, am I forgetting it, already? But I just tasted it! Go back. That’s it. Pretty sure, at least. I tasted this one a year ago and I could have sworn there was more smoke. No matter. How’s it taste now?”
“Yum.” I responded.
“Focus, dammit! This is work!”
I focused. It was time to blend them together to try and tell a story. But just like telling a story, it seemed impossible to say exactly how it happened; some things are impossible to understand without the context of something else.
I reached out to the table – “That one and the other one over there would complete a thought. Put them together and maybe they’ll take someone to a place.”
I brought the bottle to my nose and smelled… some smoke…
I took a deep breath. It was easy enough to quit the job, now came the hard part: figuring out what to do without one. I looked at my account balance from the ATM receipt: less than I thought – which wasn’t much in the first place.
“Cost of Living,” I thought… “never truer a phrase”. I looked around for the best view of the bay, found a seat on a wall and pulled out the bottle of beer from my bag: one last luxury item before ‘austerity measures’.
I turned the dust-filmed bottle and looked at the front: 2006. “Eureka, a vintage!” I yelped. “They saved it for me, all this time – no hidden fees”. I felt like I had just won a scratch-off. I levered off the cap and tipped a sip over the rounded spout… it warmed my belly.
“Hmmm… smoked porter, eh? 2007 was smokier,” I thought… or I thought I remembered. I looked into the bottle like a microscope… ”Where is the smoke? Where did it go? No matter: still delicious.” I sat on the ledge, nervously kicking the heels of my shoes against the wall, waiting for my wife and thinking about what we’d do. 2 years ago, I followed her west and moved to this place. Once we realized the dollars and sense of the present situation, maybe we’d have to reciprocate a new plan… carry ourselves somewhere else…
We’d figure it out, she’d say.
We won’t back down, said Petty.
“Too late to back down, actually”, I responded.
I took another sip. Ah-ha! A ribbon of smoke emerged, floating in the matrix of the 2 year old, black-silk tonic. A year in glass must’ve done something to it… turned it into something else…
I went into my closet to find some acceptable pants.
“This might be a challenge”, I thought.
I scanned… ah-ha! In the corner: a pleated artifact. I looked on either side of my discovery, seeing no other option. One pair of trousers to choose from: a department store from hell. I lifted the clothes on either side with the back of my hands, inspecting their condition. Memories of cubicles came back in a flash – barf! I yanked them off the hanger as some kinda pathetic pay-back and slid them on. The fabric puckered around the button; I zipped them up and noticed myself breathing in. I tugged in either direction – up, then down – momentarily denying my new body type.
I snorted at the stupidity of the exercise – If you don’t run, you rust, said Petty.
“Too many beers,” I replied.
There was a rustle in my back pocket. I reached back and pulled out a piece of paper. It was old and bent up into some sort of blindfolded origami: a reminder of a nervous habit. I unfolded it. Yellowed on the edges, corners curled like an old newspaper – I could tell this thing was old.
My first question: “If my pants were white, would they now match the receipt?” No matter. My eyes adjusted to the faded characters, focusing slowly on the date, time, place, aligned to the left.
A receipt: 2008. A few lines below that: the name of the beer. The day and the beer came rushing back. I could taste it, smell it… and the anxiety of the day. I wandered out of the closet, turned to the window and leaned on the edge of the bed – thinking of every detail I could remember, trying to fill in the blanks. I rubbed the charred, gray hairs newly sprouting from my chin. I remembered the fire back then. Where was it now? A little more hardened, a little less foolish; burning, but not on fire. Something in between. Fire – turned into something else. Smoke?
I picked up a palmful of malt, brought it to my nose and huffed: smoke inside! I tipped my head, funneled the grain into my mouth and crunched down. Inhaled remnants of ash curled, snake-like through my nostrils and it seemed some kind of marvelous, eating and breathing them in. I shook the malt into the hot mash. The grain swirled and their essence of hardwood steamed into my face. “Wait!” I gasped. “We need you in the whiskey!” Memories of a beer and an old, folded receipt flashed and faded with the steam.
I shook my head and stepped away, walking over to an empty barrel. I clicked on the flashlight and aimed the beam of light into the hole – leveling my eye against it like a telescope. The charred strands of hardwood rippled in the shadows of ashen dust: smoke!
A story mumbled from inside the barrel…
Once upon a time an oak tree sprouted from the earth. 80 years later, fully grown and too straight for pulp or paper, they tipped it over and dragged it to their butcher with recipe in hand:
Step one: slice into uniform, hardwood, primal cuts.
Step two: stack ‘em high and marinate in fresh air and fungus.
Step three: trim, bend and tighten into a liquid-tight, final assembly.
One last step: hold against an open flame, add fresh air and more fuel. A trinity of fire.
The flames rose and the wood crackled into a chorus that sang pyrolytic liberation. Black, cellulosic flowers bloomed, curled and – without warning – the orange light extinguished into a parachute of smoke and steam. The gray pollen swirled, dangling from a swarm of invisible bees, pouring through embered hardwood’s flesh and bone. I shook my head and came to. Smoke!
I opened the valve, listened to the whiskey splash into the barrel and took a sniff. The spirit and smoke rushed into my nostrils like some kind of white fire, igniting a memory, and then another… milled, mashed, fermented and distilled.
Memories: carried like smoke.