There is a place I have traveled to that has left a deep impression upon my soul; a land where one man cooks so well, it makes you weep; falcons beckon when called, landing heavily on your leather-clad arm; and children drive miniature Range Rovers on woodland trail courses designed specifically for their pleasure. It’s also the place where I learned how to make a Scotsman blush.
This enchanted kingdom rests in the heart of Scotland near Perth, perched atop a mass of soil they’ve named Gleneagles. Royalty has dined there, presidents have golfed there, and anyone footing the bill has experienced cardiac arrest there.
Somewhere a few years deeper into my headlong dive toward the meaty marrow of all things “spiritual,” Sir Sackier thought it a splendid idea for us to stay in one of the world’s grandest estates. I was right behind him on this one and pretended not to notice anything like prices on menus, the jewel-bedecked women followed by insurance company–hired security guards, or the fact that every day the hotel ripped up yesterday’s plush carpeting and replaced it with a new one, varying only slightly in pile and color.
If I walked down any of the hotel’s long wood-paneled corridors without my sticky-fingered children trailing behind me, sword fighting one another with 18th-century butter knives they pilfered from the dinner table, I could pretend—for about thirty blissful seconds—that I’d married into wealthy aristocracy and was simply retiring from a long day of entertaining wannabe friends. The bubble repeatedly burst when Sir Sackier would catch up behind me, usually after debating the dinner bill and the fair market price for fish, then tsk, saying something like:
“Do you know how much that place makes in a night? If you assume fifty head per sitting, two seatings per night and let’s see . . .”
Then his brain would calculate while snippets of phrases would slip past his lips including, “one bottle between them at an average bottle cost of . . .” and “if you figure in the overhead . . .” or, “plus the cost of the eleven-man kitchen crew then you come up with . . .” Most times I pretended he was the head of my household staff and waved him off with a dismissive hand. He rarely had time to notice because usually, by this point, some child had knocked over a large oil painting by throwing themselves against the hallway wall in an effort to die theatrically, and the real household staff came running up, assuring us not to worry because that painting was going to be replaced tomorrow anyway.
At Gleneagles, the motto is something like, “The avowed intention of the management is to create happiness,” but I think they left off a tiny portion of the print that includes the words, “at whatever price you have to pay.”
They certainly deliver. No one can quibble with that. Yet they’ve set the bar so high I find myself wanting to leave snarky comments in the guest books of charming but cheap B&Bs with remarks like, “Not bad, but you’re no Gleneagles.”
Apparently, while playing make-believe during my short stay at the Riviera of the Highlands, I donned a hat so heavy in the back that it ratchets your nose up three income brackets, and I forgot to take it off. I became a snob without the bank account to back it up. I really should have felt ashamed, and I did, but once you start running your fingers down the wainscoting of everybody else’s corridors, it’s nigh on impossible to stop the tutting from escaping along with your sighs as you flick away the dust.
At this point, while visiting the valley of preying birds, I had come to understand my taste buds were changing—or perhaps developing—specifically, when it came to the single malt whiskies I was sampling each night. I’d left behind the softly rounded hills of Lowland and Speyside spirits and year by year was inching westward through the Highlands. In fact, one evening I had finally considered dipping my toe into the seawater off the coast.
With the hopes of fitting in at supper, I applied my best Fanny Cra- dock lipstick interpretation. If you aren’t familiar with Fanny, she was a real ball-breaking BBC celebrity with a cooking show and the mindset that staying within the lines of anything meant compliance. I’d seen this style on scores of women in the bathroom the night before, but I suppose it becomes harder to precisely reapply anything on your face when your features are swimming in the mirror’s reflection. I’m not sure, but this might be a result of popping the cork on your third bottle of Château Margaux 52 b.c.e.
After setting up the children with room service, a movie, and a nanny that charged more than the price of my first car, Sir Sackier and I waded through the three-quarters of a mile of freshly laid carpeting, outside our door, that led to the restaurant’s bar. The bar staff glanced at us skeptically, likely assessing whether we could foot the final bill, or perhaps wondering why I let my children apply my makeup.
We were seated in a corner, behind a potted palm that was larger than most California redwoods, and handed a dinner menu, an aperitif menu, and another wine bible—Volume A–C. Having sauntered through one of the hotel’s endless gift shops earlier, I’d spotted a shelf filled with names of whiskies I’d not come across before. All of them heralded from a little island called Islay.
I’d seen a few maps and knew of the Hebridean islands, but little else. Not included in the “little else” was how to pronounce the name of the place that at least one third of the bar’s whisky menu offered up as an aperitif.
I slaughtered the names, which was par for the course while visiting the United Kingdom. If I ever paused to consider how to pronounce a word, after I proceeded it always became clear I had chosen the wrong way. “How about I select an Iz-lay whisky this time and you try some- thing else in case I don’t like it?” I’d asked Sir Sackier.
He scanned the menu up and down, making a great show of it. “Hmm . . . sorry, don’t see any Iz-lay whiskies. In fact, I’ve not heard of them.”
I gave him a withering glare. “Fine. Eyes-lay? Izzle-lay? What?” I said, growing frustrated. I threw out my last card, which usually consisted of me tossing a combination of letters together that generally carried a fine spray of my frustration with it.
He laughed, as he always did, and paused professorially until I finally gave up and actually looked at him. He then said, “Eye-lah.”
I snorted. “No way.”
“Who taught these people how to spell?”
“The English. Just as we have tried to teach most of the world how to do everything.”
He did not see my second scowl of the evening, but I was just warming up. Surely there’d be others.
I glanced through the offerings and nearly choked at the cost of some whiskies. “Who would pay one hundred dollars for just over an ounce of scotch?”
Sir Sackier smiled. “Surely not us.”
“I wasn’t asking for permission.” I bristled.
“And I wasn’t giving it,” he assured me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the older barmen push a younger one in our direction, perhaps sensing a brewing spat.
The young man kept glancing over his shoulder as he made his way to our little table. He was stick-thin, splotchy-faced, and clearly nervous, but he also appeared determined to prove himself.
He wrung his hands and looked at my husband. “And how might I be of service this evening?”
Sir Sackier didn’t lift his eyes from the wine bible but used his eyebrows to gesture at me. “My wife would like to order a whisky.”
I nibbled on a fingernail, having no idea what to order, and looked up at him. A small drop of perspiration collected on the tip of the young man’s nose. I smiled a little, trying to be encouraging. “Umm . . . I’m still undecided.” I thought if I could engage him in helping me choose, he might relax somewhat. I wasn’t going to bite.
“I’ve tried whiskies from just about every region except the islands and thought I’d give one of those a go.”
He wiped at his brow and refused to make eye contact. Instead, he stared straight at the menu I held. “Are ye thinkin’ Islay, Orkney, Skye, or Jura?”
My eyes went wide. I hadn’t recognized anything he’d said. His accent was incredibly thick. Sir Sackier’s head was deep in reverent bliss with the wines, so there was no help in translation there.
“How about something from the island of Eye-lah?” I said with great distinction. No one would accuse me of ignorance a second time.
“And what would ye like, then?” He swallowed and looked back over at his senior colleague.
“Any Scotsman in a kilt, as I’ve come to find out,” Sir Sackier said dryly from behind his book. Yes, it was true. In the early years of my repeatedly returning to this country, I couldn’t help swooning, just a little, whenever seeing a man in his dress plaids.
The young barman suppressed a cough. I let my husband’s joke pass and smiled up encouragingly.
“What would you choose? What do you think is outstanding?” I asked.
Straightening his shoulders and drawing in a breath, he thrust his chin forward and said, “Well, everyone’s taste is different.” His voice cracked, but he swallowed and tried again. “Men and women don’t often go for the same thing. What appeals to one might not t’other, but I always choose Bowmore as my measuring stick.”
I beamed. “Well, then it’s settled. I would looove to taste your mea- suring stick.”
The young Scotsman blushed a shade of red so deep, it was almost purple.
“Good heavens.” My husband choked with laughter. “You little minx!”
The young man bolted from the room. I’ll wager that was his first and last day working at Gleneagles. That’s okay; they were going to replace him with a fresh barman tomorrow anyway.
Excerpted from Make it a Double: From Wretched to Wondrous: Tales of One Woman’s Lifelong Discovery of Whisky by Shelley Sackier with permission from Pegasus Books.