In vino veritas, goes the proverb. But does whisky provoke truth-telling? In the midst of many a Monday morning sheriff court session – as a reporter, I hasten to add – I would sit on the hideously uncomfortable press bench, adorned with the pithy carved frustrations of previous hacks, and ponder the mysteries of strong drink.
They would be led in from the cells, some stumbling, some self-righteously standing tall, some blearily raging, one or two desperately ashamed. The duty legal aid solicitor had a standard spiel along the lines of “My Lord, my client had consumed some alcohol and has no recollection of the incident.”
The incidents in question could range from the catch-all Scottish offence Breach of the Peace – which I used to think could cover everything from shouting the word ‘nitwit’ too loudly to starting World War Three – through theft of a fishing boat, comprehensive destruction of an entire hotel’s interior and on to assault or murder. The common factor, though, was always alcohol.
But in what form? Beer was the bottom line in the Scottish fishing port I reported on, though the term ‘twartree [two or three] pints’ could cover, in an accused’s estimation, anything from a few glasses of light lager to a warehouse of cask-strength Glen Drool 30-year-old.
Fishermen would traditionally drink dark navy rum, often with Coke, or whisky. Famous Grouse was a favourite, it was once argued to me, because of its guttural pronunciation (“Grrrrouse”). And there was a rumour on the west coast of Scotland that Sir Iain Noble’s Te Bheag – a premium blend – had been cunningly named ‘A Wee One’ as this was the commonest way of asking for a generic dram in Gaelic. This would land one or two befuddled drinkers with a more expensive uisge beatha than they had perhaps intended.
Viciously strong super lagers were not the commonest of seaport drinks, in my experience. They were more to the taste of those who inhabited industrial conurbations, though the only time I’ve ever seen two grown men ordering Carlsberg Specials in a pub was at a book festival, and those involved were a much lauded middle aged novelist and a downright elderly poet. With whisky chasers. Bailie Nicol Jarvie, if I remember rightly, chosen on literary grounds.
Things changed along the Scottish seaboard when the Goldschlagers and Aftershocks arrived, with Lerwick, Peterhead and Fraserburgh pubs getting through cases of both in an evening. The alcopop revolution was very much to the taste of younger fishermen, and as one cherry-flavoured time bomb merged with another, the evening would submerge beneath a lethal flood of alcohol and sugar. Memories were wiped cleaner than a magnetised hard disk. Actions couldn’t be accounted for. Court appearances were shambolic. “My client had been drinking.’ Or to misquote Tom Waits: “The baseball bat had been drinking. Not me!’
At a time when alcohol has been identified by the (former) chief advisor on drugs to the UK government as the most dangerous consumable substance on the planet, it’s interesting to note how that affects the whisky drinker.
Those who sook down firewater on shore leave are rarely enjoying the taste. They are looking for results, and quick. Those of us who drink whisky for the taste, the history, the conviviality and the stories can’t afford (sometimes literally, given the expense of good cratur) to blunt our sensitivities too much, lest we mistake a Bushmills for a Blair Athol or a Glenmorangie for a Nikka. We have our pride, after all. So leglessness is not an option. Your honour. In aqua vitae veritas, so to speak.