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On Birthday Drams
Why I'm Abandoning the "Birthday Whiskey"
Hi, welcome to Whiskey Beat. If you didn’t see the return announcement earlier this week, I’ve taken this project out of the moth balls.
We’ll be returning to the weekly roundup format for this newsletter with next Friday’s issue, but in the mean time, I wanted to share some thoughts on an odd piece of bourbon culture.
One of the reasons that you’re suddenly seeing Whiskey Beat’s return after all this time is pressure. It’s the pressure to do something that comes with an impending milestone—in this case, my birthday.
Coming up on the next year is inevitably an invitation to self analyze and make grand plans for what comes next. But I suspect deciding what’s next for the year ahead is impossible if I can’t even be bothered with picking out some special whiskey to enjoy on the big day—a “birthday dram.”
If the short-lived Clubhouse trend taught me anything, it’s that whiskey lovers love the super-fan games—the “who would you pick” conversations that occupy the worlds of comics, fantasy football, boxing and music. “Well Stagg is super strong, but Michter’s 10 has adamantium claws and a healing factor, so—.”
I can’t count how many times I heard (and asked) the “desert island” bottle question, or the “deathbed dram” question—the stuff people discuss with such intensity and seriousness, as if any of us will get to apply an upgrade to our circumstances at checkout.
The Birthday Whiskey Options
One of the reasons the birthday dram question just doesn’t get me excited is the exaggerated nature of the choice—the gravitas of the decision. Nobody gives a damn where you’re going on vacation, but the second a vacation becomes a honeymoon, people want to have a conversation about what they did. They want to justify decisions they’ve made.
And all the talk about birthday drams has made for some boring results. There are a few ways to go about picking the birthday dram—strategies for landing on something great. Here are the most popular ones, and my excuses for not going with them:
The Same-Age Spirit
Most drinkers reach for something with the same numbers. This tends to make for a great 21st birthday, and then a lot of expensive birthdays thereafter. To my knowledge, I’ve tasted maybe one 34-year-old whiskey—a Glendronach—and I loved it very much. But tracking something like that down might take a year, and by then, well, I’d be on the hunt for 35, wouldn’t I?
The Same-Year Vintage
There’s always the birth year whiskey to consider as well, and if you’re lucky, you can sometimes find a birthdate whiskey. I once managed to find a great bottle of Blanton’s dumped on my exact birthdate. The bag it came in was stale, with the funk of a summer attic surrounding it like a cloud. The whiskey initially had this funk too, though it dissipated after a brief decanting. Loved it, don’t want to do it again.
Just Drink Several Whiskeys
The birthday dram choice shouldn’t be this difficult. If anything, avoiding the choice is a good reason to have several whiskeys to celebrate. Honestly, this is what I’ll probably do regardless, but it’s less of a “choice,” more of a “habit.”
Buy Something Extremely Expensive
Pappy 23. $300 a half ounce. No.
What You Should Do Instead
Here’s what I think the birthday dram should be about (or at least what mine will be about): closure.
If you’re like me, you can look around your bar right now and see at least one bottle that’s close to empty. I’ll do that today. I’ll finish it.
Birthdays are a sort of forced check-in session with yourself and the universe. Did you do what you promised yourself you would before you added a +1 to your age? Did are you thinner, leaner, faster, smarter, richer? Or did you fall short. I had plenty of shortcomings this year, personal, professional and otherwise. I had goals, some that I met, many that I didn’t.
The problem isn’t that I failed to do everything, it’s that I started the year by creating obligations for myself. The birthday dram is the same problem: it’s obligation. Forced treat-yo-self experiences inevitably lead to disappointment—the same kind of disappointment that expiring goal lists lead to.
I don’t want to take that into next year. In fact, I want to make space.
Life is about adventure and experience, and if you’re like me, you’ve already wasted a number of years worrying about what you should do. This leads to burn out, and to fatigue. Drinking things you should like leads to palate fatigue and much worse.
“Enjoying whiskey again” is on my list for 34, and I’m excited to spread that joy through this platform. I doubt I’m the only one who should be taking more time to appreciate things.
I’ve got great friends, family, a job that I care about when I’m not dealing with depression, and I’ve got all my hair (even if it’s grayer than it was last year). And after nearly a decade of doing this for a living, I’m starting to get comfortable not liking things because someone else said I should, or doing things because other people think I should.
Where I Landed
Whiskey is precious, but it’s valueless if you don’t drink it. Does it really matter if those bottles on your shelves are full of bourbon or bathwater, if you never open them?
From my desk, I can see one half full sample bottle of an incredible cask from Starward—an Australian malt distiller I adore. I’ve had that on my shelf since I fawned over the cask it came from in 2019. Why have I been holding onto it? Waiting for the right time.
But the shelves are cluttered, the space is shrinking. This little bottle needs to go, to make space for what’s to come. Maybe next year, there will be an even better Starward cask available.
That’s not my birthday dram—it’s just the dram I’m having first on my birthday. I’ll enjoy that while I pick the next one.