I have a very low threshold for sentimentality. This has never made much sense to me, given my love for Shakespeare’s sonnets, Irish drama and Charlotte Brontë. Then again, I also love British drama, Russian literature and Chris Rock, all of which collectively cancel out any schmaltziness anywhere else. Why muddy up a fact with overblown emotion? Why bury the lede?
All that has made me very uneasy as I look for ways to express my gratitude for new friends who became good friends so quickly that it immediately felt like we were old friends. There I go – that sounds downright misty-eyed and frilly, doesn’t it? As it turns out, sentimentality can be fitting.
My reckoning with my resistance to sentimentality started on a visit to the Netherlands. I had reached out to Hans and Becky Offringa, the ‘Whisky Couple’, who’ve penned piles of books and countless articles in these pages and live in Holland. I had never met either of them in person, but I wrote to them to ask if they had any recommendations and perhaps even a chance to get together. Hans and I arranged a video chat – so much easier and less tedious than emails. Not 15 minutes into our conversation, without a beat of hesitation, he invited me to come to Zwolle, their medieval-era town, to be a guest in their home.
Without a second thought, I graciously accepted. “You don’t even know them and you’re staying at their house?”, a friend asked me the next day when I told him what happened. He works in finance. It hadn’t occurred to me how unreasonable this short sequence of events might appear to an outsider, and by ‘outsider’ I mean someone outside of the whisky family. (Good lord—that’s corny.)
Sure, I’ve never met Hans and Becky, but I knew them. I knew their words, and through their words, I knew their love of an industry that I also love. Through their books and articles, I knew their profound respect for craft and skill, the kind achieved by years of commitment. From that, I knew that they are loyal. I knew their love of history. From that, I knew they were good conversationalists. And, of course, I knew their love of whisky. From that, I knew we would enjoy excellent food and drink. And I also knew their address, which I would give to my most trusted loved ones in case they didn’t hear from me for a few days.
Indeed, my only regret about the visit is that we didn’t have more time together. We walked through Zwolle, a town which is magical by no stretch of the word – centuries old, and as if preserved in amber. We walked along houseboat-lined star-shaped canals where they taught me about civic design and the quirks of aquatic neighbourhoods (for lack of a better word). Hans and I visited nearby distilleries. We all drank in a bar built on the foundation of a 14th-century tower, constructed as part of the city ramparts. We talked about politics and literature, food and music, Hans’s son’s first baby, and Becky’s upbringing in South Carolina. We compared notes on distillery visits. Hans dropped some Frank Zappa chestnuts, which he does with great ease and enthusiasm. And we talked about friends we had in common. The experience reminded me of ‘Jewish geography’, a winking term implying many Jewish people in America know others or know others who know others and there are a just a few degrees of separation among us. In the whisky world it’s less, it appears.
Now, I read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature,” and Herman Melville’s declaration, “Friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is said to be the only truth” anew. In the right context (read: this context), those sound less like soft-hearted sentiments than hard facts. The same goes for this W. B. Yeats nugget: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met” (that spurs me to recall an episode of The Simpsons where they appropriate the observation for a song in Streetcar: The Musical). And because I love a good laugh, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t close out with this plum from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: “Friendship: a ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.”