There was a bar in south San Antonio called the Concrete Jungle. I say “was” because, thankfully, they went out of business. I say “thankfully” because it was the shitiest little shitty shit-hole you’ve ever seen. I went there to check on Shelby a few years ago. It was her first official bar gig when she was transitioning from waitress to barmaid.
I opened the door and said out loud, hoping to be overheard, “Aw, goddamit, it’s a tiki bar.” Bamboo decor, fish nets, umbrellas, and 1960s beach-movie posters. Over in a corner – I shit you not – a bunch of young men were having a video game tournament. They were drinking what I assume were piña coladas and working their overdeveloped thumbs on the controllers while shouting at a flatscreen TV on the wall behind the bar.
I would have left immediately, but I was there to say hello to Shelby. Whaddya gonna do? I headed for the bar and caught Shelby’s eye. She bounced down to see me and was obviously so thrilled to finally be a bartender that I couldn’t help but smile.
“How you doin’, sweetheart?” I said. “Look at you, tending bar.”
She looked around the place and then back at me.
“I know I know. It’s not your kind of place. You and my dad like whiskey.” She grimaced. “And the selection here is pretty bad, actually.” She pointed to small shelf on the wall. There, surrounded by about a thousand bottles of rum, were four whiskies. Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Chivas Regal, and Wild Turkey.
“Jeeeeezus. I guess I’ll have to pick one of those because I’m not drinking a blue slushy with an umbrella in it.”
My eyes wandered across the selection of bottles on the wall. The labels all sported pirates or sailing vessels or pin-up girls with grass skirts and come hither looks. And then, hidden partly behind a bottle with an octopus on it, a familiar-looking black bottle caught my eye. I reached out and grabbed Shelby’s arm.
“Hold there wee lass. What’s that black bottle I’m seein’ on the shelf there?”
She frowned. “Why are talking like you’re from Scotland?”
“I don’t know. It just comes over me sometimes. Is that a bottle of Bunnahabhain?”
She looked over her shoulder at the shelf and nodded. “It is.”
“Well serve it up, dear girl, and we might yet salvage the reputation of this, uh, establishment, as it were.”
She winced and sucked her breath in through her teeth. “That’s the owner’s private bottle. It’s not for sale. It’s not even supposed to be out on the shelf.”
“Even better. It’s clearly meant to be offered as a gift to patrons with taste and sophistication well beyond the denizens of this Polynesian play room. In any case, surely you cannot refuse the gentleman who looks after you with such tender devotion in honor of your father.”
I tried to flash my most winsome smile, though I will admit my malformed attempts at smiling lack as much charm as they do symmetry. Shelby gave me that sort of indulgent smile that young women offer to older men they trust and love. Fathers and uncles and such.
“Okay. Just one pour. But then you have to try the new cocktail I’ve invented.”
I rubbed my palms together in anticipation. “Very well then. I will try whatever you’ve created. As long as it’s not blue.”
Shelby uncorked the bottle, poured it carefully into a glass, and slid it over to me. At that moment, the world around me narrowed. The raucous sounds of the video games and the sharp laughter of inebriated children faded from my awareness. I lowered my nose into the mouth of the glass, inhaled, then pulled it up about an inch above the glass and let it linger there as I inhaled a second, third, and fourth time.
Bunnahabhain. One of the finest whiskeys ever made. An outlier from the Islay region in that it is non-peated, this whiskey nonetheless contains all the complexity that wind-blow land of moors and bogs and salt marshes has to offer. Sometimes people say they pick up notes of this or that when they smell a whiskey. Then you smell it and wonder what the hell they’re talking about. Not so with Bunnahabhain. When I say you’ll smell the sea, the salt, the rocks, a little iodine, and then the most outrageously seductive hint of cherry peeking out from the back, I’m telling you the gods’ honest truth. You will smell those things.
And when you taste it, you’ll know what whiskey was meant to be. So full of life and flavor on the front end that you’ll hold it on your tongue as long as possible. And then, when you swallow, such a boosh of aroma and burn and sting and joy will erupt in your throat that your eyes will involuntarily close and you’ll sit frozen on your seat in righteous contemplation.
How is it possible that anyone figured out how to contain and bottle such an experience as Bunnahabhain? Surely the alchemists, who first invented distilled spirits and called it “The Water of Life” hoped that when their art finally reached its apex in some distant future, it would render a substance as fine and pure as this beautiful Scotch.
I sipped my whiskey filled with warmth and joy. Healed of my curmudgeonly spirit, I even looked with tolerance if not appreciation on the kiddies down the bar. One of them apparently won the video game tournament and was fist bumping his cheering companions.
Filled with good cheer, I raised my glass to them.
“Good for you” I said aloud. And I meant it. Good for them. Good for the video game boys. God love them.
God love us all.