Whisky & Culture

Zen and now

Waxing philosophically on paradox, Daniel Houck invites us to consider drinking whisky as a means to enlightenment. It's got to be worth a try right?
By Daniel Houck
And then it happens. At once, you realise there’s more to the liquid in your glass than merely a world-renowned reflection of man and distillery, malt and water, a whisky of pure grandeur, a colourful tapestry of swirling nectar. This is the stuff of legend, a liquid with the ability to transform you forever. The sip on your tongue helps you transcend into another realm of consciousness. You are one with all things. Wouldn’t you enjoy knowing your pleasure is more than mere bliss? Whisky is Zen in a glass.Single malt whisky is more than refreshment, more than just a beverage. Zen teaches its followers enlightenment comes through meditation. Meditate now on the whisky in your hand and an understanding will pull at the corners of your mouth until an uncontrollable smile emerges. Observers may believe you to be either deep in thought, remembering a joyous occasion or maybe you are quite mad. Beyond its historical healing properties and sought-after remuneration of good taste for the initiated and the knowledgeable, whisky is the grail sans glass. The spirit is the way, the reward. Appreciate it and flavour nirvana is all but assured the malt connoisseur. “You are never more within the moment than when you are enjoying your favourite whisky.”I came to this revelation during an evening out with friends. I drifted from the conversation for a second to stare into my drink. I watched light dance on the whisky as I rocked the glass to and fro. This was two sips into my first dram of the evening, and it seemed as though the whisky were alive as I jostled it. There must have been a curious look on my face because when I returned from my short-lived foray my friends were staring at me in silence. I mentioned I thought drinking whisky is quite a lot like Zen; the whisky itself is the experience. Everything and nothingness
Browse your local bookstore and you’ll find just about everything at one time or another has been said to be Zen like. Various authors have proposed Zen can be initiated in the course of practicing archery, through eating, found in fatherhood, at work, through motorcycle maintenance, achieved while sitting, running, and even during sex. Why then should it seem so unusual to consider whisky Zen?To explore paradox many Zen masters have used koans (pronounced kung-an). You may have heard one of the best-known: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” These ‘riddles’ have been used for centuries to help students of Zen consider the relation of all things to one another. One paradox allows us to consider easily whisky and Zen within the same sentence. Loosely put it explores the possibility that everything is nothing, and that nothing is everything. It’s not the whisky; you’ve read correctly.Beneath the paradox’s immediate declaration we can appreciate the intrinsic nature of possibility that exists there. Whisky is part of Scotland’s heritage, and is also a truly global drink; there is much, much more behind the label of your favourite bottle than glue. The people, the stories, the lowlands, the highlands, Speyside, the pot still and the maltman, the pagoda roofs, the glassmakers, the delivery truck drivers – all have some claim to the simplicity and magnitude of the spirit you have chosen to drink. Nothing more than whisky – yet it is. Zen lets us observe that as water flows over our hands, changes occur in life and happiness springs from appreciating this. Perhaps then the water of life, aqua vitae, might in fact be everything and more indeed.The momentWhether we are awake or asleep, our minds wander to infinite places, return, assess, and contemplate a multitude of sounds, sights and sensations, a small scratch on the surface of stimuli which reaches our brains. Zen encourages us to slow things down a bit. Whisky makes this possible. Simply put, Zen is a philosophy, a way of looking at the amazement of life so that you are able to find yourself present within the moment, each and every moment at hand. You are never more within the moment than when you are enjoying your favourite whisky.You already know that ingredients alone do not define whisky. No two whiskies, whether using the same water supply or purchasing barley from the same supplier are ever identical. The whisky in your glass at this moment is unlike any other. Once drunk, that sip will never be there again in the exact way it was. Zen explains of the moment, this – “each time you see it, each time it’s new.”The unwavering path to enlightenmentSometimes we can be shocked into an awakening. Many ancient Zen masters might agree. Hui-neng, one such ancient philosopher, said enlightenment comes by sudden experience. The unexpected falling of a full bottle might cause the most tranquil whisky drinker to leap to the rescue. What they would learn from this experience is arguable at best, if anything at all. However, ritual also comes with the pursuit of enlightenment. The ritual of tea drinking is particularly Zen. There is simple truth to it. Water is boiled, poured along with powdered tea into a bowl and stirred in silence until it is mixed thoroughly. Finally, it is ready to be sipped. Whisky, like tea has its rituals and innate truths. And dedicated whisky drinkers may find enlightenment through an even more clearly lit five-step path outlined here.The camaraderie found among whisky drinkers all around the world is inimitable, exceptional and without equal. 1: SelectionWith an amazing array of whiskies to choose from one can become mesmerised in the aisle of their favourite whisky shop. Selecting is an anticipatory thrill in itself. Which to try this time? A familiar favourite, new brand, vintage malt, sherry-tinged delicacy, a 10- or 21-year-old or a bottler’s reserve? To the Zen master, no choice is wrong. You’ve tried whiskies you didn’t like, but you were willing to take a chance to find the remarkable. Why not try it, at least you’ll know? Whisky offers no regrets. 2: SightAppearance, colour, clarity, hue – to the Zen drinker, whisky is precious like a ruby. We look for brightness, body, the swirls of motion, and the essence of being lurking behind the bottle’s glass. We find it as light catches the whisky, as the reflection refracts out from the glass into our elated, thirsty eyes. Neil Gunn’s famous line captures this even more succinctly: “There are two things I like naked, and one is my whisky.”3: SmellWhisky’s aroma, with water or without, is worth contemplating again and again. Each time we allow its smell to enter our sensitive noses we arrive at new places, are introduced to new spices, fruits, tannins, and woods. We may be reminded too of old times, old friends, and old yarns. There is a universe of life we see with our eyes fully closed. Think about this the next time you’re sipping a ‘lesser’ drink – cola, a glass of water, beer perhaps – they are always pretty much the same. Whisky, no matter its year of bottling, endows us with a refreshing sense of novel familiarity.4: SavourLike the line between time and space, the pause between inhale and exhale, whisky is a momentary pleasure. Robert Louis Stevenson once said “From the bonnie bells of heather/They brewed a drink long-syne/Was sweeter far than honey/Was stronger far than wine.” There is little more that makes us feel alive than whisky touching our tongues. It makes no apology whether it is silky, oily, or numbing to the uninitiated. It is immediate, instantaneous, demanding and selfishly mesmeric from beginning to end, from flavourful first taste to the finish’s tipping of hat as it bids you a gracious adieu. 5: SanghaWhisky breeds cordiality and amiability. Strangers and acquaintances become friends and friendships become stronger. Like the idea of Sangha, which translates to the fellowship of like-minded individuals coming together, whisky binds us socially and historically to tradition. Don’t forget, the camaraderie found among whisky drinkers is inimitable, exceptional and without equal. Whisky bonds people like few things can. Those raising glasses in toast and celebration, present at this very moment, become family by virtue of sharing a passion for this wondrous drink.Mindfulness and the pourAs an avid whisky drinker you not only enjoy the spirit but also realise there’s more to it than meets the eye. From the sun-warmed barley to the rain-nourished trees that gave themselves up to become casks for maturation, a single pour can be said to contain everything. The next time you’re sipping your favourite dram, whether sitting among newly-found friends, lasting old ones, or deep in thought on your own, be mindful of the rays of sunshine you’re swallowing as they swirl amid the glens and spray of Scotland in your mouth. As they dance across your tongue and you glean that life may be short, you’ll know why it is so undeniably sweet as well. Finally, the Dalai Lama explains that generosity and the act of giving are to be seen as true measures of wealth. Being on the receiving end of a well-poured dram we might happily agree with that too. Like life itself, drinking whisky puts us in touch with a world both past and present. A joy for the cultivated, whisky brings with it a taste of perfection, an enlightenment of its age and wisdom. The water of life, and Zen – the two are inextricably and, without doubt, marvellously related.