A quick word please

A quick word please

Ian Buxton uncovers some of the less heard whisky quotes

News | 19 Jan 2007 | Issue 61 | By Ian Buxton

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On publication of his novel, The Hippopotamus, people kept giving Stephen Fry toy hippos.“It is really very kind of them,” said Fry, “but I have decided that my next book will be called 18 Year Old Malt Whisky.” And that got me to thinking…what else had folk to say about whisky?As you might expect, Johnnie Walker drinker Winston S Churchill had plenty of wit and wisdom. Not the familiar “British element of ascendancy” quotation, but a recollection of his Boer War campaigning days caught my fancy: “The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learnt to like it.” He was not the first great Englishman to appreciate the benefits of a medicinal dram.In 1773, James Boswell diligently recorded Dr Johnson calling for a glass: “Come, let me know what it is that makes a Scotchman happy!” What made a Scotchman happy was the right to pursue his traditional craft of distilling which, in the 18th century, was suspended by Parliament if the barley crop was deemed insufficient for the nation’s food requirements.One such occasion was in 1795/96 when William Pitt’s government banned the making of low wines and spirits. The repeal of the order led an anonymous author to celebrate with verses entitled Cheap Whisky; A Familiar Epistle to Mr Pitt on the Recommencement of Distilling in Scotland: “An unusual portion of joy has thereby diffused among the lower classes in Scotland who indulge the pleasing hope of again tasting their favourite beverage.” As I had to consult this work in the British Library’s Rare Books Room it’s unlikely you will have seen this little poem quoted previously but surely you will agree with the author’s heartfelt opening couplet: “Of a’ the ills in this creation drouth and nae drink’s the worst vexation.” James Joyce lyrically described: “The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.” However, though artists and poets use whisky well, not all use it wisely. In November 1953 Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, noted for his Herculean drinking feats, returned to the Chelsea Hotel, New York and expired, allegedly uttering the immortal words: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think this is a record.” This being New York and Dylan Thomas, it’s unlikely they were small ones!Humphrey Bogart’s last words were also of whisky, though notably more valedictory in tone: “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” Wise advice.America’s love affair with whisky has been long and profound. William Faulkner reminds us we live in a golden age: “There is no such thing as a bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.” Comedian Johnny Carson offers the following philosophical take on life: “Happiness is having a rare steak, a bottle of whisky, and a dog – to eat the steak.” Though now largely forgotten, in the inter-war years Christopher Morley dominated literary life in the United States.Poet, playwright, critic and author he was a robust foe of Prohibition and founder of the “Three Hours for Lunch Club.” In his short story The Arrow the protagonist records both his first ocean voyage and initial encounter with whisky: “In the Prohibition era, acquainted only with raw gin and fusel oils, leperous distilments, he had never before encountered honest ripened Scotch. When that benevolent spirit amazed him with its pure warmth, it occurred to him that perhaps there is no reason why the glamour of life should not be taken neat.” A finer defence of whisky has seldom been written. But perhaps we should leave the last words to the Scots themselves.Around a hundred years ago Sir Compton MacKenzie had this to say: “Beer does not taste like itself unless it is chasing a dram of neat whisky down the gullet – preferably two drams.” But, and call me sentimental if you will, I prefer this from his classic Whisky Galore: “Love makes the world go round? Not at all.Whisky makes it go round twice as fast.” Yes whisky is liquid sunshine. George Bernard Shaw, by the way.
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