John White's pale eyes twinkle when he talks about single-malt scotch. The 59-year-old holds a snifter of Glenfiddich 12-year to his nose, his eyes closed. "You get vanilla and honey, but also ... can you smell the apples?" he asks.
"Taste and smell are powerful catalysts for memory," adds White, who is currently bartending at South Side's Bridge 10 Brasserie. "Often when I taste something, it brings me back to another time."
Those memories include a childhood rambling through the hills and valleys of his native Scotland. "I've been exposed to the scenery, the isolation, the culture of all the different regions," he says.
In 1982, he left a post in the British Foreign Service and moved to the United States, where he worked his way up the corporate ladder. When he was laid off about nine years ago, he decided to slow the pace of his life.
"I'm always a work in progress," he says.
Bridge 10 might be better known for its wine list — owner Dave DeSimone is a local wine writer — but White can provide an education on single malts, too.
He notes there are many components to a fine single malt. The type of barrel, and amount of time the whiskey spends aging in it, is the primary source of flavor. Also adding character are the minerals in the water, the way germination of barley is stopped (with peat or without) and the skill of the master blender.
But according to White, one key factor is the company you keep while tipping a glass. "The act of slowly sipping scotch is conducive to good conversation," he says.
White has plenty of stories to tell. For example, when Lord Mountbatten, the Queen's cousin, was killed in an IRA bombing in 1979, White says it was he who ciphered the communiqué back to London.
"It's not so much what happens to you in life," he says. "It's how you react to it."