At first thought, one might assume there isn’t much of a relationship between a place like Syria and a product like whisky. Even though the Mesopotamians left us the first historical and clear physical evidence of malting, and Arabia was a major contributer to and transmitter of the art of distillation (it is literally al-Cohol), those traditions certainly haven’t carried over to the modern Middle East.
But for those of us who come in the tradition of the western world as explorers of the Orient, a good drop is essential for that long, dusty road (along with plenty of sanitary water). In fact, my first adult glass of Scotch was courtesy of the Syrian-born co-director of excavations at a giant tell in the far northeast, near the Iraqi border, several years ago.
We had the pleasure of watching Apaches fly overhead and seeing the flares go off for US troops’ night missions just over the Sinjar mountain range. With the war as a backdrop and a sleepy Syrian village as the setting, my birthday, I imagined, was going to prove underwhelming. It was quite pleasant, though, with some home-cooked pizza and a glass of what would turn out to be my favorite liquid cuisine. The expression was Johnnie Walker Black Label, which is both available and affordable in places such as Qamishli, Syria (ca. 1000 SYP, around $20/liter).
A couple times every year on my way to excavation I purchase a liter of something special at duty free and treat the team to the best whisky they can get in that country. I have also done some reconnaissance: I’ve tasted two local Syrian-made whiskies (Al-Andarin and Old Gold), and discovered a couple of places one can get a single-malt in the Old City in Damascus (near the Bab Touma).
This season the director of excavations (who fills the same position at the same school as a certain fictional archaeologist’s fictional professor) came bearing, of all things, a liter of Laphroaig 10! As much as he chose this spirit based on love of the drop, his background in Scotch was minimal; thus, many discusions of phenols and cresols ensued, and we were temporarily, and happily, able to reverse the roles of student and master. Now, you might think that the intense smokeyness of a big southern Islay would be hard to bear in a sticky 50 °C climate. But in an odd and remarkable way, a tea-glass worth at night just brings everything into balance for once during the day.
Both in agreement that the big peat flavours captivated our palates, it was not long before we embarked upon a full disection of the processes by which such tarry, smokey whiskies could be made. Scotch is that great potent potable that allows such in-depth discovery and analysis, not so dissimilarly, I would find out, from the crates upon crates of Late Chalcolithic painted pottery that we dug up each day.
Btw, the director also loved the Bulleit Bourbon I managed to bring along. He used some Jim Beam he brought for (fresh) mint juleps, and boy were those refreshing on a hot Raqqa friday night in August. Generally I’m not much of a mixer, but those should be on the menu at every dighouse east of the Jordan.
One thing you have to look out for in Syria, and presumably other countries of similar ilk, other than scorpions, is the Johnnie Walker Red Label. It’s fake. Every time. In fact, much like the Johnnie Walker bottles used in Cambodia to transport petrol, this FRed Label tastes more like gasoline than it does whisky. Don’t worry, though, the Dewar’s White Label, the Cutty Sark, Grant’s, Teacher’s, Black Label, and other premium blends are all on the up and up there. I once managed to haggle a 1.5 L bottle of Cutty Sark down to 500 SYP (ca. $10) at a grocery store in Qamishli, and they might even have Jura Superstition if you’re there at the right time of year. And now, on to the local spirits:
Abv: 25% (hey, every country makes their own alcohol laws…).
Color: the color of caramel coloring.
Nose: molten plastics, some aluminum, and rose water.
Palate: mouthwash, old bologna, kerosene (much like the FRed Label).
Finish: cheap cough-syrup vapors die quickily, but leave a slight burn and the twin tastes of disappointment and desparation.
Overall: at least now I know what they were putting in the Red Label bottles. 70 cl of this stuff cost me 125 SYP, which is less than $2. Worth it? Well, half the bottle got drank, but not happily. There was a lot of grimacing.
Old Gold - “A blend of finest fully matured malts […] pure grain alcohol”
Abv: 40% (okay, back in business).
Color: heavily brownish amber.
Nose: currants, melted wax, rubber… maybe some faint black cherries with time out in the air.
Palate: wax again, soft wheat, strong grain heading into the finish; some apples with aeration.
Finish: life in the Hobbesian state of nature: brutish, nasty, and short.
Overall: slightly better than the Andarin, but still not whisk(e)y in our sense of the word(s). This wasn’t expensive, either, but by all means, skip the local distillates and pay the $15 for a decent blend if you have the good fortune of spending time in rural Syria. Most towns will have a liquor/beer store, especially if there is a Christian population. Gin and vodka are available, too, though tonic is very hard to find.