2018 Primetime Emmy
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A cocktail that would make a Scotsman weep

A cocktail that would make a Scotsman weep

Whisky in South Africa

A cocktail fit to make a Scotsman weep.

That’s the only way to describe what was placed in the center of my living room table. Clearly my ineptitude as bartender was worse than I thought, as somehow Mbuso and Sibu, two young waiters from the local area who were as competent and polite as they were light-fingered, had managed to decant almost half a liter of various whiskies into a plastic bottle while the bar was supposed to be under my care. Had I known, I’d have given them the better stuff on the higher shelves.

I was just a few weeks into my three-month tenure working at a hotel in South Africa’s rural Mpumalanga province, and to the staff I was just another clueless twenty-something from England. I’d be useless up until I was about to depart and then, as soon as I began to get some idea how to do things, I’d be replaced by another young person with their mind more on holiday than on work.

There was also the question of whether I might rat them out. But their trust in my ability to keep quiet had grown with a series of minor tests. A cigar not declared, the tally of light beer consumed after work smudged together so that an exact count was impossible to keep, an extra shot poured but not taken to the kitchen. My ability to look the other way was rewarded by their companionship, and my implicit acceptance made me an accomplice of sorts. 

Why they had decided my apartment was the right place to drink, I have no idea. The wall of my bedroom backed onto the house of the hotel’s owner, and a handwritten note reminding me to keep the noise to a minimum at night suggested that the walls were not thick. My cupboards contained meager pickings but were dutifully turned out and placed among the teacups filled with the ominous blend. As the drink went from cup to mouth, conversation, as it has a habit of doing when aided by spirits, became free and easy.

Mbuso and Sibu told me of the implicit racism to which they felt subjected, the lowly place that an unmarried man possessed in South African society, their lament that now people would rather sleep their hangovers off on a Sunday than go to church, and the easy availability of dagga—cannabis—in the townships. We briefly debated going to the ominous bar on the industrial estate downtown next to a medical practice offering free circumcision, before deciding that I’d present too easy a mark.

My memory ends a little way before the talking, but thankfully not even the most animated conversation roused the hotel owner. I was left with a souvenir that lasted beyond the cruel hangover—a friendship sweetened by risk, and flowing freely ever since.

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