It was somewhere between whisky number two (Lockets-like medicinal berriness) and whisky number three (lush Christmas puddingy caramel) that I began to feel melancholy. As I swilled the latter, my suggestible tastebuds picking out the ‘80-90% chocolate bitters’ and ‘charcoal’ notes claimed in the YouTube live chat, my eyes were burning with something more than alcohol fumes. By the end of the session, I was pretty fucking desolate, since you ask, except nobody in the virtual whisky tasting session does, because they are strangers in bedrooms and studies as far away as Texas and Bexley, and cannot sense my sadness on a screen.
This was not the whisky's fault - it’s excellent stuff, from Swedish single malt distillery Mackmyra - nor that of the man leading the tasting session, Simo from the much-loved whisky dens Milroy’s in Soho and Spitalfields. It’s more that I’ve come to dread video calls. Socialising is about physical context as much as mere conversation. Normally I would never just talk to people: we would also be eating, drinking, walking, seeing, touching, experiencing, physically present against a constantly changing backdrop of people, places, life, colour. Static screen socialising in the solitary vacuum of our own four walls strips the memory-making element out of our shared histories. Zoom quizzes have come to repel me in their wan imitation of reality: the two dimensionality of pallid blotchy digital images of friends’ living rooms and chins, versus the five dimensional experience of a pub, the heat of bodies and surround sound clamour of clinking glass and chairs screeching on wood and stomach-hurting laughter; the beery, chippy, human smell, the tactile closeness of huddling around a table, your friends’ knees pressing yours. The glorious visual fiesta of seeing people and things moving, laughing, living, all coalescing to form visceral sensual memory.
This lockdown time feels exempt from that memory-forming. Stuck at home, it feels as though my emotions are stagnating, as though part of my brain has been furloughed, surplus to requirements when there is nothing new over which to bother creating memories. I realise I can’t actually pick out specific, tangible instances from the last six weeks. Everything seems homogenized into one moment: this one, sat in front of my laptop at the dining room table next to the perpetually full clothes horse with an interminable inch of lukewarm over-brewed filter coffee in a mug.
So, yeah. Perhaps I was not best-placed for a virtual whisky tasting, although I can still objectively see that it was good, and interesting, and if you like whisky and can get through three shots without seasoning the last with your tears, you should certainly do it. For £30 plus £7.95 postage, you get three 35ml samples of unlabelled whisky, marked 1, 2 and 3, and a snifter delivered to your door. It’s not cheap, but then the bottles they come from retail at around £100 for 50cl. All three are Mackmyra whiskies created by Milroy’s Simo in different casks, which give the finished whiskies wildly different tastes. At 7.30pm on a Thursday I click the link to the YouTube live stream and join 30-odd people watching Simo and two reps from Mackmyra discuss the whiskies.
The first twenty minutes are spent talking about how Milroy’s started in Soho in the Sixties, how they grew snails in the basement for L’Escargot diners; about the secret bookcase entrance to the toilet. It’s fascinating, and also depressing. I don’t want to just hear about Milroy’s. I want to be there. I want to roll my eyes at people taking photos of the secret bookcase entrance, and then sneakily snap my own selfie; I want to tipsily wander out of Milroy’s with a friend, and say, hey, let’s have a negroni and eat snails at L’Escargot. I want to be mildly pissed in Soho on a spring evening, feeling the tingling, beaming thrill of just being alive.
Instead I sit in our spare room, headphones on, and silently untangle the cellophane from the small bottle marked ‘2’. And the whiskies are all delicious - the Grand Cuvee made in a champagne cask, with a honeyed tingle on the tongue like the ghost of champagne; the berryish cloudberry-cask one, dancing fruit and very Swedish-tasting; the glorious Pedro Ximinez-cask one, all nutty and chocolatey and decadent. The chat is entertaining, if slightly over my head as someone who doesn’t know a lot about whisky and cask-finishes. The hour passes fast, and by the end I feel pissed, and slightly more knowledgeable, and well done to Mackmyra and Milroy’s for setting up this good, interesting virtual whisky tasting. But my god, I miss real life.