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My Search for the Perfect Scotch Whisky

Five hours… FIVE hours?! The real thoughts I was having about Amtrak as it pulled into Chicago Union Station after an epic delay were a lot more explicit and would make me look like a worse writer. The scheduled 10 AM arrival was kicked back to past 2 PM, and I had spent the past few days getting in touch with my old messenger friend Ty and looking up decent bicycle rental prices. I had even gone so far to make it a point to appear on the last Friday of the month, just so I would have a chance to ride in Critical Mass that very night. I even had my bicycle clothes along for the occasion, but if getting there five hours late wasn’t enough of an indicator that it wasn’t going to happen, the door slammed shut completely upon learning the hostel’s rental bicycles didn’t have lights or reflectors. 

It was a little heart-wrenching later on as I walked along Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, when I spotted the handful of “massers” who braved the chilly January temperatures to ride anyway, giving a proverbial one-fingered salute to motorists and Ma Nature.

The delays took a harsher-than-expected toll on my personal rum stock as well. I had plans for Friday, after all; I considered them pretty important and wondered why Amtrak’s honchos didn’t. And the cold weather is certainly no excuse for their (mis)treatment of their train schedule and passengers. It was January on a line which started in Boston and ran through Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, and South Bend before hitting its ultimate destination of Chicago. This is a region in which people know how to deal with cold weather, and so dropping hours at a time into an unseen time void at the weather’s expense is no excuse. Hello, folks, welcome to The Great White Fucking North, where you can find people really easily who can make all weather-related transportation problems go away in…. Excuse me while I take a shot and calm down….

Most of my rum had found a new biological home by the time the train finally lurched the final few steps through the South Side. So the next thing I knew, I was now running all around Chicago, searching for a new source of liquid refreshment. There was a rumor about a great single malt scotch I heard which could only be found at Trader Joe’s, and I decided it was time to expand my palette a little. Such a thing could only ever happen to me, though, that none of the Trader Joe’s in Chicago seemed to be stocking it. It was time to hit the small-time booze stores in search of an alternative budget scotch which wasn’t Chivas Regal, Dewar’s, or (shudder) the turpentine known to barhands as Cutty Sark. Or the ubiquitous Johnnie Walker, for that matter, although I would offer a bit of clout on that one because only their Red Label is damned by adult beverage standards. Black Label is seen as hit or miss depending on the drinker (I’m pretty fond of it myself), and anything else is considered quality stuff. 

Recommendations kept coming up with scotches known primarily as the Glen brands: Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Glenmorangie all came with high reputations, especially for beginner scotches. None of them were expensive, exactly, but they did cost more than I was willing to pay. A lot of the scotches I looked at seemed to come in fancy boxes and tins, like a thin bit of cardboard was a sign of prestige. Johnnie Walker Black Label briefly became my front runner, but I would have been happy to return home without it; I was paying money to drink the stuff in bars, after all. On the rocks, just because it’s everywhere. 

The problem with premium hard alcohol is that salespeople don’t bother to differentiate between what’s good or bad unless there’s a sale on hand. In the case of scotch, that means keeping you above $50, or $40 for their budget customers. Going into the various outlets in Chicago from Walgreen’s to generic corner dealers in downtown Chicago or the various neighborhoods didn’t really help that much. This is scotch, and one would think drink dealers would vary depending on whether the neighborhood was upscale or working class or immigrant. Nope! Every place offered something I would pay all my limbs for; variations of the various Glens; Johnnie Walker; and distilled turpentine. If I was lucky, I would encounter Famous Grouse or Grant’s. Those two had respectable reputations, but I didn’t trust the review sources. 

I had set out in search of a single malt, but at those prices on the budget I had set, single malts were highway robbery. It was a blend or nothing. 

I walked into an upscale store on Southport I spied from the El. One of the salespeople found me immediately, and I told her my conditions: Scotch, hopefully under $30. She presented me with all the standards, and for ten minutes we went back and forth about premium alcohol. She was always looking to make the sale; that’s what salespeople do. She also clearly knew a lot about the subject, and after our scotch discussion, we talked bourbon for a few minutes. Premium alcohol is a subject that is new to me, and I still have a palette to develop and a lot to learn on the subject. However, by the end of the discussion, I had established myself as a person whose knowledge should be respected, and when I spotted a scotch called Label 5 which was marked down to $20, she was honest to me. She went over advertisement law, saying the term “scotch whisky” could be used as a loophole, but “made in Scotland” couldn’t. She also said she didn’t know very much about Label 5, but she did convince me to take a chance. After explicitly warning her that her wares may well have been beyond my means, I plonked $20 and walked out laden with Label 5. 

I told a scotch drinker back at my hostel that I had a Label 5 which I bought for $20. He responded that it was a great scotch which he had never found for under $30. Can a customer be a highway robber?

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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