Doctor Dritan tells me that most of the whisky on sale in Tirana is produced locally and packaged in counterfeit bottles and cartons. This is disappointing news. I was surprised to find whisky – including some good malt whisky – for sale in many stores across the city. At first glance it looked real enough, but I think I am going to have to look more closely now.
Thankfully, I had worked on the assumption that good whisky would not be available here and brought my own supplies. On the way here I picked up a Lagavulin Double Matured in London and a Highland Park 12 year old in Milan.
In Prague I visited Kratochvílovci, a great little whisky shop, and brought back a Laphroaig Quarter Cask and an Abelour a’bunadh. Vienna airport duty free also had the outstanding Glenfiddich Gran Reserva – a 21 year old Glenfiddich finished in Cuban rum casks. I exercised some iron discipline and did not buy it. Next time though. I gave Doctor Dritan some of the Lagavulin when he visited recently and he was suitably impressed.
People in this country – including the doctors - have an interesting attitude to alcohol. When I joined Doctor Dritan and some of his medical friends to play football recently, we arrived early and went to his house where he poured us both a very generous measure of whisky (Grant’s for me; Jack Daniel’s for him). This did not seem an ideal preparation for running around for an hour but it seemed impolite to refuse. (The very large helping of home made baklava – delicious – probably didn’t help either.)
When we arrived at the pitch we then discovered that as a result of a mix up over bookings we were going to have to wait an hour. From somewhere, one of the doctors produced a 2 litre Coke bottle full of Raki. Raki is the Albanian version of the grape (or plum) based spirit common in these parts. Not being entirely sure of the provenance, or the potency, of the doctor's supply I managed to politely decline for fear of falling over on the pitch.
I read a Wikipedia article claiming that ‘raki is an aperitif and is usually drunk in very small amounts.’ Maybe I'm not mixing with the right people, but I can’t say I’ve noticed this. Doctor Dritan – the other Doctor Dritan, that is – drinks Raki as an aperitif, a digestif, and as an accompaniment to the meal. It is, he assures me, great medicine. With his encouragement I have tried it a couple of times, though I have to confess that I have not yet developed a taste for it.
The Doctor Dritans appear to be representative of the Albanian medical profession on this question. An American expat who joined a local gym met with a cardiologist in accordance with the gym’s very sensible policy of making sure people are not going to drop dead on them. The cardiologist’s only advice was that my American friend was not drinking enough – he needed at least 21 units of alcohol a week.
Despite this fairly relaxed attitude to alcohol I have yet to see any of the kind of public drunkenness that disfigures the streets of Britain, or Ireland or America. Albanians seem to avoid binge drinking by spreading their considerable alcohol consumption through the day.
Unfortunately, this relaxed attitude also means that there are a frightening number of people driving cars under some degree of influence. It’s also reasonable to assume that Albanians are not immune to the many consequences of high levels of alcohol consumption – ill-health, domestic violence, low productivity and much else besides.
Somewhere between hysterical over-reaction and relaxed indifference there is a happy medium on this issue. I don’t know where it is but I might try to figure it out tonight over a glass of whisky.