Whiskey on the Road: Lebanon
Whiskey Wednesday in Lebanon did not go as planned. I learned an important lesson – beware the rare single malt Scotches in a country that is known for liking blends.
I had heard that Lebanon was a whiskey-drinking country, and it appeared that this was especially true at Eau de Vie in the grand Phoenicia Hotel. They had a wall of whiskies in their “whiskey bar,” along with a huge whiskey menu describing examples from rare distilleries, some now closed.
I should have known from the empty bar with a bartender that seemed surprised when I showed up. I thought it was because I was a woman by myself, not realizing that his surprise was probably anyone showing up.
I settled in and perused the extensive menu – over 30 pages with a map of Scotland and tasting notes for each bottle. I finally decided to go with a distillery I hadn’t heard of because it closed in 1983 – Glenugie. The bottle was from 1965, one of few that was bottled as a single malt – by an independent bottler – from the distillery since most of their whisky was used in blends.
The bartender got a key and went to the wall of whisky held behind a glass case. He brought the bottle over, poured me a glass, and handed it over with a “cheers.” I swirled, went in for the smell – faint, hmmm – then tipped it back for a taste. It was pretty close to weak iced tea if you drank it after a cough drop.
“There’s something wrong with this,” I told the bartender. “It doesn’t taste like whisky.”
He got himself a glass and poured from the bottle. Then got a funny look on his face.
He told me it had been open awhile – maybe 10 years – and it had lost its flavor.
The collection was from the owners, who like single malt whisky, he explained, but most people in Lebanon just drink blends. So this bottle had been open on the shelf.
“And you still serve it?” I asked.
He told me to pick something else – something newer. Had I tried Glenmorangie? I have tried Glenmorangie. And I like it. But I can also get it at the Irish pub around the corner from where I live, so it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for this time.
I asked if it was a quiet night or just too early. He said the bar sometimes picks up around 9:30 or 10, but sometimes never.
I finally settled in Glengoyne – 17 years, an unpeated whisky from the Southernmost part of the Highlands. He took the keys to the special wall, got the bottle, and poured me a glass. I approached it cautiously. Smelled like whisky. I swirled – looked like whisky. Thankfully, tasted like whisky as well, flavorful with a hint of fruit. It wasn’t heavy but still had a sense of complexity. It was perfect with the toasted pistachio/almond/nut mix they serve everywhere in Lebanon.
The bartender told me he actually prefers Eagle Rare bourbon, one of a handful of US whiskies they offered. I told him he could get a whole bottle in the US for the price of a single glass in the bar.
I sat back and looked at the deep maroon curtains and crystal chandeliers in the imposing atmosphere of the empty lounge. I liked the rest of Lebanon but decided maybe whisky is best drunk from a bar where the bottles are more fresh, the décor more simple and inviting, in the company of good friends or friendly strangers.
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