For those less versed in Scotch, “single-malt” is the variation of Scotch that derives from a single aged oak barrel, rather than a mixture of the contents of several barrels, which is how other Scotches are blended. Blending multiple barrels is a technique used to bring up the overall quality of a year’s production by mixing good barrels with poorer barrels. Single-malt barrels, in contrast, are chosen specifically for their superior quality and are kept ‘virgin’ in order not to dilute their excellence. They are identified early in the aging process and regularly moved into different aging locations to change temperature and humidity to perfect the cask as the years go on. After a minimum of three years, the Scotch may legally be called Scotch (as long as it’s made in Scotland, of course) and it may be bottled. However, three years is hardly enough for single-malt. Many of Glenglassaugh’s single-malts are aged for decades and cost over $150 per bottle. You can even buy a full barrel (un-aged at purchase) for a mere $7,500 and within ten to twenty years, you’ll have a great cask of Glenglassaugh.
Oddly enough, I was musing over this recently as I was leaving my high school class reunion. This was the first time I had ever really gone to a full-fledged high school reunion. You see, I’m a pessimist. Not by nature, but by decision. I very much dislike disappointments and letdowns, yet I always seemed to be the guy who “believed” in long-shots and doomed-causes long after everyone else had seen the light. I was the kind of guy who strolled into a Chevrolet dealership in 1974 determined to buy a Vega because I was sure that the one I got wouldn't be a piece of crap. Years after Sony had given up on the Betamax, I still refused to convert to VHS, counting on a "Beta" comeback. Following my call for a recount the morning after Ronald Reagan beat my candidate Jimmy Carter, my family conducted an intervention (and an exorcism). I finally sought help. Under doctor’s orders I underwent radical therapy; I adopted the Chicago Cubs as my favorite baseball team and for the last 30 years have had every last bit of optimism ruthlessly beaten out of my soul, (and I'm now a Republican). It is because of my hard-won pessimism that I knew that I would never go to a high-school reunion.
I have heard every reunion horror story, and I knew what to expect. Poseurs, losers and braggers. And I knew that I would, inevitably, become one of the three before the night was over. It’s almost inescapable when at a reunion; the ego stakes are simply too high. Because in a way, the reunion is a report card on your life. No matter what you have accomplished in intangibles like raising good children, giving to charity, helping old ladies across the street, your entire life will be graded within five minutes by everyone you speak to. And even if nothing is said, you will see it in their eyes. I would, I was certain, be judged by my weight, hair (or lack of same), grace in aging, financial wellbeing and career. So I feared that I would be graded a loser or would try to be something I wasn’t. It’s a survival instinct.
Sadly, as my 35th high-school reunion neared, I fell off the wagon of pessimism and I had a severe relapse of optimism. This was caused by a series of freak events: My favorite football team, the San Francisco 49’ers went on an unexpected winning streak. Then, against all odds, I got a contract for my first book, and I suddenly realized that I had gone almost 20,000 miles in my Chrysler minivan without a transmission failure. Obviously, none of these things can be explained in purely human terms, so you can understand my confusion. In a fit of optimism about which I still feel shame, I caught a plane to Chicago for the reunion of the Buffalo Grove High School Class of 1976.
What I found at the reunion rocked me to my socks and set back my optimism aversion therapy probably for a lifetime. Inexplicably, it seemed, I had a fabulous time. I loved those people. In preparation for the event, I had memorized the “You can’t go home” adage (took me days), and had planned that each time I experienced an awkward silence because I had nothing in common with one of my old friends, I would simply repeat it silently to myself and the world would make sense. But as my old friends and I met up again after 35 years, something weird happened: We got along fabulously. There were no awkward silences. In fact, at times, I had the distinct feeling that we were continuing a conversation that got cut off last weekend, not in 1976.
Even people I barely knew in high school became new friends at the reunion. In 1976, Mary the winsome redhead and Cindy the cheerleader were both “out of my league” and I knew it. Now, Mary and her husband live on a spread in South Dakota big enough that people can hunt on it and she’s working on a book. Cindy manages a radio station and basks in the success of a son who recently passed the bar. Both were larger than life at the reunion and two of the highlights of my night. Friend after friend blew away my preconceived notions; Laura, Mark(s), Catherine(s) , Lance, Alysia, Tims(s), “Chaddy,” Steves(s), Anne, Nancy, Keith, Michelle, Tom……I was amazed at the quality of the people I had the privilege to go to high school with. I had no idea back then. Today, my old party-pals and fellow classroom clowns are musicians, cops, school teachers, stock brokers, authors, airline pilots, senate staffers, screenwriters, coaches, fire fighters, engineers, geologists, even a rabbi and a minister. It was quite a cast of characters. In more somber moments, we recounted the members of our class who would not be attending any more reunions because they had left us. By this reunion, the number that we knew of had reached double-digits, and it was a sobering and sad thought.
Rather than fizzle like some reunions, ours continued even after the banquet hall closed. Then after the bars closed. Then, after they threw about thirty of us out of the lobby of the hotel. And then it continued in the empty restaurant the hotel graciously opened for us. At 3:30 a.m., twenty or so were still sitting around a huge makeshift table as our classmate Tim strummed his guitar and alternately serenaded us and played songs from our years in high school so that we could all sing along. How did I never know he was that talented back in 1976? For just a moment, I felt like we had gone home. But for only a moment, and it seemed like nobody really wanted it to end.
But by 4:15, the realization was hitting most of us that we could only hold on to the moment so long, and like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, we had to grow up and get on with life. We reluctantly hugged, kissed, shook hands and promised to keep in touch and went off in different directions to our rooms. The next day, we continued in different directions at 500 miles per hour. I felt true sadness that the moment ended, not sadness at what time had done to all of us. Because frankly, time had been a friend. No, we hadn’t recaptured our youth, we hadn’t “gone home,” nor were we reliving our high school 'glory days.' Maybe we realized that we would never want to recapture our youth.
On the way back to my hotel, my thoughts went to the conversations we had traded that night and I realized that no one hid behind the mask of “the perfect life.” Everyone at one time or another spoke of hidden pain, hardships and loss. Not one person wallowed in them, but neither were they afraid to admit them, to share their challenges and the ways they got through them, not because they wanted sympathy, but so they could encourage others. It was if they instinctively knew that everybody our age had been through hell at least once, and if you were on top one moment, you might be in a valley the next. It wasn’t a major topic, but it was there, and it was refreshing, and it was encouraging to see how people had overcome.
IT'S THE FIRE THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
But if aging alone would have mellowed us, everyone would be fine with age. But we know that is not the case. And it is not the case with Scotch. If aging alone could do it, there would not be rules about the cask, and the way the liquor is aged. The finest liquor experiences the harshest aging. The hotter the summers and the colder the winters the better the liquor. Temperate conditions create tepid flavor. Stagnation will create a poor Scotch, also. Sitting without any kind of activity takes the character out of the barrel, so the barrel has to be rotated frequently. Sitting and stagnating also create poor human beings. Finally, in Scotch, approximately 10% of the barrel evaporates during aging, and this is known as “The Angel’s Share.” It’s a simple equation; you can’t get a truly exceptional Scotch without experiencing loss. Every single person at that reunion had experienced loss, some more recently than others; every single person had given up “The Angel’s Share” in their life. And it seemed that the ones who had experienced the most loss were themselves the most “refined.” But ultimately, it is fire that makes a tepid, store-brand Scotch into a work of art and makes the “new spirits” into amazing creations.
As the sun came up, it hit me that I had spent the evening with a group of single-malt friends. Not one of us had lived our lives without experiencing pain, loss or grief. Cancer, divorce, the death of friends and family, loss of jobs, financial ruin….nobody I spoke to had gotten through the last 35 years unscathed. We had all experienced the fire. And I realized that it was that fire; the pain, the loss and the recovery that had made these people extraordinary. It turned out that pain and what we learned from it might have been the common bond that we now had.
In June, 1976 in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, several hundred high school seniors graduated and moved out into the world with high hopes for the “good life” and few problems. That same month, in Speyside, Scotland, Glenglassaugh Distillery put up several barrels of “new spirit” into used, distressed, charred oak Bourbon barrels from Tennessee. This month, 35 years later, a remnant of that high school class met a few miles from the school which helped form them. They had experienced the fire of life, yes, but were stronger and better in most cases. They had mellowed, were more interesting, and their essential “bouquet” was more unique and pleasing than ever. Also this month, in the Scotland Highlands, the casks put up in 1976 were finally unsealed and poured into cut-crystal decanters, aged and distressed perfectly. The rare 35 year old Scotch went on the market for more than $500 per bottle. If these bottles are as mellow and full of character as the Buffalo Grove class of the same year, Glenglassaugh will be proud. In Scotland, as in Buffalo Grove, the exquisite result of aging and fire is recognized as having unusual value.
In the very near future, I plan to have a single shot of the finest single-malt Scotch my wallet will allow. And I will sip it straight, slowly enjoying its myriad of flavors, and contemplate the things that created those flavors. And I will think of my classmates who have aged so wonderfully, and contemplate the lives and the fires that created their wonderful character. Finally, I will drink to our classes’ ‘Angel’s Share;’ the ones we’ve lost in the process. With any luck, I will be remembering my classmates with that 1976 Glenglassaugh masterpiece, which they have appropriately named;
"The Chosen Few."