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I’ve been collecting barrel staves. Busted ones. Jesse Sensibar, who sometimes fills bottles at Del Bac down in Tucson, brought me a hodgepodge. Matt Bial, a fellow with connections to Woodford bourbon also brought me some of their staves over the past few months. Through the winter and spring they’ve waited, stacked in my garage.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve finally taken the saw and sander to them. Cutting them in fours for about a one-foot piece a few inches wide and sanding some of the charring down, they’re just about ready for the vice grips. I had to special order a 1 7/8-inch-wide drill bit that I’ve spun into each stave four times to round out holes for glencairn glasses, the usual glass style for sipping single malt scotch.

In building these tasting samples for whiskies, it’s mostly gone as planned. A few setbacks—the occasional kickback where a knot in the oak bites the drill, flipping the back of hand into the clamps. But mainly the plan to have interesting and unique tasting trays for the Celtic Festival is working out. However, there’s been one surprise: the smell. Every time I drill, a vanilla and berry smell exudes from the staves. It fills the garage and permeates the early morning toil with sweet, wet smells. I’ve always preferred Scotch or Irish whiskies, but after hours of labor, I fear that I may have an overwhelming lust for the bourbon. I’ve certainly come to a new appreciation for the stuff.

As I stack the staves on my make-shift racks of reused billiards spectator chairs, Robert Bly’s lecture on the “Human Shadow” comes to my mind. In it, if memory serves, Bly talks giants, witches, dwarves. Washing the black coal from my hands and swollen forearms, Bly’s take on the dwarves and their nature is my main focus. Bly contends that dwarves are the magical creatures between the human world and the natural world and its materials: stone, wood, sand, clay. The dwarves hate plastics. They loathe computers. Electronic gadgets are an insult. They’re the original luddites, and they want to help you.

When a human is working with wood, stone and the like, it is the concentration of the dwarves and their vision that transforms one thing into something else. There’s a plan, but there’s always room for surprise. More recently, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology book sits on top of The New York Times Best-Seller list, and his tales in that book talk a good bit of dwarves. I love his take on Loki, god of mischief, messing with a dwarf while he worked the bellows crafting weapons. Due to some bets and miscalculations on Loki’s part, he must mess up the work of the dwarves, so he turns himself into a particularly fearsome insect that chews and stings at the neck and eyes and anything possibly sensitive on the dwarf. After relentless pestering by Loki and a brief lack of focus by the dwarf, an error occurs. The mighty hammer being forged for the god Thor comes up a bit short on the handle. It’s no matter as the weapon still works and, in fact, seems more potent and unique for the tampering. In the end, focus and planning that has room for the unknown makes for the best transformations and creations.

A vital part of us seems to become left behind in contemporary culture where electronics so dominate our cerebral space. As incredibly powerful as the calculations being performed by the contemporary computers are, there is something lost in the process. Something that our 100,000-plus years of human biology craves. Something that can’t be substituted. (This, perhaps, is one of the reasons that when I write poetry my first draft is almost always by hand.)

Fast forward to the week’s end. The warped and odd-shaped staves wait in a Home Depot bucket for the tasting to begin. The job is to raise some money for the Northern Arizona Celtic Heritage Society, and the tasting staves are part of the experience. We’re drinking for charity tonight, and so folks begin to sip the single malts. The staves with all their imperfections carry their load, and every glass seems just a bit riper, sweeter than I’d expected—a toast to the dwarves. Slainte.

For more than 20 years, James Jay has worked in the bar business from dishwasher, bouncer, bartender, bar manager to pub owner. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books of poetry and his poems have been selected for the New Poets of the American West anthology. 

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