One day I was 59 and the next day I was 60. It happens like that. Or 16 Celsius, if you prefer. It really doesn’t matter, because “old age” is always technically 15 years older than I am. So, all in all, I feel pretty good about it.
Except that I feel really badly about Alan Rickman, who died on my birthday. RIP, Alan, I will miss you, Truly, Madly, Deeply.
I’ve learned a lot in the last ten years, like don’t go to a Clinique makeup counter at Macy’s on a milestone birthday. (I’ve only just finished paying off my last visit from ten years ago.) I’ve also recently learned that it’s a rare friendship, indeed, that lasts as long as you hope it will. And I think I’ve also come to the conclusion that a bucket list is basically a bad idea. I’d be willing to bet that the whole idea was the brainchild of a marketing guy at a skydiving company, rather than something to make movies about or design your life around.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn’t have goals; I’m as guilty of setting too many of them as the next person. If there are things you really, really, really want to do, you should do them. But to come up with some crazy list of stuff to do, just to say you did it or did more of it than so-and-so did, seems to be missing the point. And what opportunities might we miss out on if we are stuck to our bucket list?
Last Fall, Gary had an idea for a great 60th birthday present…never in a million years could I have seen this coming, but as soon as he told me the idea, I created a bucket list and put this at the top; I knew it would beat the hell out of skydiving.
His incredible gift to me was attending a private function put on by the Friends of Public Radio Arizona, a few days after my birthday, at one of Phoenix’s classic restaurants: Durant’s. Known far and wide for their phenomenal steaks and martinis, what’s not to love? Durant’s is the quintessential steakhouse, opened in 1950. Let me set the stage for you: Dim, resplendent in red leather and dark wood, lit by candlelight bouncing off of the high-polished cocktail glasses, and attended by an efficient and highly-intuitive wait staff.
Many, many celebrities and gangsters have dined here, as well as a few folks from Star, Idaho :-). If you park behind the restaurant, you can enter the restaurant from there and literally walk through the kitchen to get to the foyer. One of the booths in the bar, below, is where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe used to sit to get away from the crowds. Oh, if these walls could talk…the deals that were made, the affairs that were started, and the three-martini lunches that were consumed…it just makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over, doesn’t it?
But my gift included even more. Gary and I, his two sons, and our friend, Bill, were five of 50 people attending a legendary scotch-tasting event, where a deluxe, five-course meal was designed and prepared to match five incredible single-malt scotches, not available on any liquor store shelf, anywhere in the world. An entertaining and knowledgeable Scotsman was Master of Ceremony and introduced us to the basics of scotch, the distilling process, and then explained each scotch to us in hilarious detail before the next course began. And here is our merry band of five hedonists:
Each scotch came with printed tasting notes from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. I just have to share these published notes with you, as they are an indication of the spirit of this event, the alcohol consumption of the esteemed tasters, and the great Scottish sense of humor. And then I have my own tasting notes to share as well…
First Course: Roasted Corn and Sweet Lobster Bisque; paired with Auchentoshan, 13-year-old, Lowland scotch, Cask 5.42, as follows:
- Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Notes: “One panel member came over all broody, reminded of bubble bathed babies wrapped in fresh towels. Others found it very juicy, bounding with green grape, apple chews and lemonade lollies. Ginger gave a lively spritziness to taste, baby was then soothed by vanilla Angels Delight, and peanut butter on bagels. The addition of water opened spearmint, elderflower soap and brioche on waxed paper. Mother hen found her baby swaddled in a newly laundered crochet blanket, while the rest found sweetly iced christening cake decorated with white lilies, lychees and pea shoots.” For drinking tips, they recommended: A christening perhaps?
- Birthday Girl’s Tasting Notes: Best soup of any kind ever made on planet Earth, even though I don’t know the name of the fisherman who caught my lobster (this is Phoenix, after all). I am now completely stuffed after eating this rich, first course. I think I am in trouble. And I am OK with that. I would have just put my face in the bowl, but I was too busy licking the inside of my scotch glass to do so. I didn’t taste any bubble bathed babies or brioche on waxed paper, but I believe I caught my first glimpse of Nirvana. They serve damn good scotch in Nirvana. I shall now spend the next few minutes trying to remember how to pronounce the name of the scotch: Auchentoshan, Auchentoshan, Auchentoshan.
Second Course: Pan Roasted Salmon atop Baby Romaine drizzled with Cranberry and Orange Vinaigrette, Candied Pecans, Maytag Blue Cheese and Red Onion; paired with Glen Ord, 14-year-old, North Highland region scotch, Cask 77.38, as follows:
- Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Notes: “On the nose neat we had a Thai green chicken curry with coconut milk, lime leaves, lemongrass, basil, garlic and pea aubergines on a warm sunny beach. The taste was somewhat different. We had a good old breakfast ‘fry-up’ consisting of eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans as well as grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, plenty of brown sauce and all washed down with the perfect cuppa. The aroma after distillation was ‘bizarre’ with loads of character; engine oil, lavender sweets, deep-fried Mars bars and the flavor was that of tempura courgette flowers with cream cheese, basil and honey.” For drinking tips, they recommended: Let’s have another one, please!
- Birthday Girl’s Tasting Notes: Never would I have paired Maytag blue cheese with salmon, but it worked magnificently. And rarely do I use the words “love” and “salad” in the same sentence, until today. The salmon was perfectly prepared and its warmth, combined with the cool salad and delicious scotch made me want to curl up like a cat in a sunny windowsill for a quick snooze. How I ate most all of this (save a little of the lettuce) is beyond me. My capacity to overindulge on good food is only exceeded by my love of good scotch. The combination, therefore, is rather deadly (read this sentence with a Scottish accent). I looked over at Gary to see if he wanted to eat the rest of my salad, as usual; but he pretended not to see me, avoided my glance by standing up to take another photo, and looked grateful when the waiter took my plate away. Admittedly, I did not detect anything like deep-fried Mars bars in the scotch, but as I took my last sip, I believe I entered some kind of alternative, single-malt-scotch universe. This is a lovely universe, full of Scottish accents, unrestrained laughter, and without Donald Trump. Life is good here.
Third Course: Grilled Tenderloin on Buttered Brioche Tower, Cippolini Demi-glace with Roasted South American Fingerling Potato and Carrot Medley; paired with Glen Scotia, 15-year-old, Campbeltown, Cask 93.63, as follows:
- Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Notes: “To nose, we found venison in a red wine and cocoa sauce, maple syrup on pancakes and salted rum caramel. Then a furniture workshop was crafting benches for a bodega whilst a mechanic with grimy overalls tucked into a bacon sandwich at the beach. To taste, cranberries coated in chocolate, melted salted butter on Belgian waffles, and hoisin sauce noodles. Water brought brown envelopes, wet seaside rocks, Branston pickles, and memories of smoking a shisha pipe (apple tobacco) in a leather armchair. It was sweet and earthy with papaya, roasted beetroot, salted cashews, mint humbugs and bran cereal. Conformity is overrated.” For drinking tips, they recommended: While camping on a beach.
- Birthday Girl’s Tasting Notes: Today, I am deeply, deeply grateful that I am no longer a vegetarian. I look at the tenderloin and think of the dieting advice for protein portion control; it should be about the size of a deck of cards, they say. We’ve got two decks going on here, people…at least. I didn’t know what a brioche tower was until today, but I need more of them in my life. I had one bite of a tender fingerling potato and turned back to the tenderloin. That’s when I heard the angels sing. The scotch was heady and complex, dark amber in color, and my favorite so far. Each sip set the stage for the next bite perfectly. I will follow anyone, anywhere, anytime, to “camping on a beach” if I get to eat this course again. I have never eaten this much in my life, but it would be a crime to not finish the tenderloin; it is cooked to perfection, as close to Heaven as a piece of meat can be. I doubt that I need a knife, but it slows me down, so I continue to use it. I exchange knowing glances with my stepson, Jeff, sitting to my left, and to Bill, sitting on my right. We are all in exquisite agony. We sigh, regain our focus, and take another bite, knowing full well that this is as good as gets, at least for us mortals. I think I see God at the table next to us, loosening his belt. Should this be my last meal, I am okay with that.
Fourth Course: Crème Brulee and Chef Giodano’s Chocolate Torte; paired with Glen Grant, 26-year-old, Speyside, Deveron, Cask 9.90, as follows:
- Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Notes: “Lots of fine sweetness on the nose – we found caramel wafers, toffee, nougat and dulce de leche, but sweet tobacco, marmalade and sugary espresso dregs gave depth to that sweetness; we also got hints of pepper, Airfix glue, wicker and wax. That spicy adult sweetness characterized the palate too – Crunchie bars, honeycomb, pain au chocolat, coffee fondant and crystallised ginger, with one or two earthier notes (pepper, wood, tequila). The reduced nose evoked cinnamon-dusted rice pudding and satay sauce, while the palate’s yummy chocolate gingers and Tia Maria got the thumbs up all round.” For drinking tips, they recommended: With coffee and cake would be ideal.
- Birthday Girl’s Tasting Notes: As if guided by unseen powers, I muster the strength to pick up a spoon and spear my crème brulee. One bite later and I’m hungry again, proving that we do have separate stomachs for dessert. Renewed enthusiasm leads me to eat every damn bit of it, in addition to the perfect raspberry and whipped cream garnish. I left the mint, which was lovely, albeit distracting and potentially palate-destroying. We each ate every bite. It is Bill’s birthday today, and he received a wee, burning candle in his crème brulee to celebrate. No one sang; we were grateful. I prefer to eat at restaurants where people drink, not sing. Bill made a silent wish and blew out the candle. I don’t know what he wished for; it may have been for a lower cholesterol level. But I could be wrong…
Fifth Course: Petits Fours, Tartelettes, and Small Delights; paired with Laphroaig, 20-year-old, Islay, Cask 29.165, as follows:
- Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Notes: “The nose wafting enticing tendrils of complex smoke, saddle soap, leather, straw, green olives, lemon bonbons, root beer, raspberry jam and a nurse in starched uniform giving out malt extract and vitamin c. The unreduced palate teased us with perfumed, fruity smoke, beach bonfire ash, sweet pears, walnuts and peppery, aniseed flavours. The reduced nose was wonderfully complex and balanced, with potpourri, wood shavings, Germolene, oil paint, vanilla slices and burnt heather, all woven around delightfully unobtrusive smoke. The palate was now fresh and tangy; pineapple, lemon, strawberry, mint and Edinburgh Rock, but also teasingly seductive like a Sobranie-smoking, perfumed lady.” For drinking tips, they recommended: A dram to celebrate falling in love.
- Birthday Girl’s Tasting Notes: Dear God in heaven…make it stop. Keep in mind that the plate of goodies above was for three, count ‘em, three people. Not ten or twenty. Three. I am at mile 20 of a marathon, hitting the wall and wondering whether I can go on. My eyes rolled back in my head. I knew this would likely be my favorite scotch of the group, as I’ve tasted younger vintages of Laphroiag from the Isle of Islay. I tend to favor the flavor found in such Islay scotches from burning peat; it’s distinctive, hearty, takes no prisoners. You either love it or you can give it to me, please. And yes, this is a fabulous scotch. I nibble half-heartedly at the shortbread, the miniature pecan pie, the baby fig tartlet. I sip some more. And then I give up…on the desserts…and concentrate back on the scotch. I do not find it to be “teasingly seductive”; to me, that implies a little subtlety and mystery. No, this scotch speaks clearly and wildly; nothing subtle about it. Yes, I can fall in love to this scotch, sitting on a chilly, windy beach on the shores of Islay, wrapped together in a rough wool blanket, watching the violent sea under gray skies, alone.
At last, the meal ends. There’s an auction and a raffle to take our minds off of things for a half-hour or so. Happily, there is also a little bit of scotch left over in two of the special bottles, so a few of us hard-core scotch-lovers stagger to the bar for a last glass of priceless scotch, grab a bar stool, and search for something to say. The rest of the afternoon is beyond words.
Everyone is happy, satiated, and at peace with the world. Most of all, me. We could have blown off this opportunity, saved a whole LOT of money, and eaten a lovely meal at home. But once in a while, every couple of decades or so, it’s worth kicking it up a notch and doing something truly memorable. No, it’s not climbing Everest or kissing the Blarney Stone, but for me and my hedonistic party of five, it’s just what we needed.
It was a great birthday gift…way better than skydiving.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.