When I first fell in love with whiskey, it was while I was falling in love with a man. The two seemed, at the time, inseparable. They were both adult and refined, but slightly caustic. They provided a burn down to your core, and it was at once satisfying and that left you reeling. Both drink and person seemed intensely masculine. There was a sense of history to them, a connection to artists and poets and the stuff of bardic legends. He knew about literature and music, and we drank whiskey while discussing these things. In winter he wore thick woolen sweaters that matched the peaty undertone of good scotch. In summer he wore cotton button downs like crisp mint juleps. When he was full of sentiment, he’d sigh and croon, his voice cracking like a pour of warm rye over cold ice.

After we broke up, I kept drinking whiskey, in part because it reminded me of him. It was also summer time, and there was nothing that tasted so much like early June as muddled basil with lemon and whiskey and triple sec, a recipe he had taught me. I sat out on the porch and tried to sort through my feelings all summer long, with glass upon glass of sidecars to fuel my navel gazing. I knew I needed to get over him, but to paraphrase The Magnetic Fields, “It’s just a phrase I was going through.” I knew I needed to find my self worth independent of someone telling me I had value, but it was going to take a lot more than cool songs and one cocktail recipe to get me there.

When fall came, it was time to branch out, both socially and from sidecars. More than other drinks, whiskey started to make me new friends. One agreed to come to my house and teach me how to make new drinks. Billy instructed me what to purchase at the store and arrived with a bag of bar tools- a shaker, a whisk, a screen, a bottle of bitters and oranges. We made Manhattans and Old Fashioneds and swirled endless orange peels into our drinks. Later there was a boy who made me Marilyn Monroe’s, with whiskey poured into flutes of bubbling champagne, together the golden color of infatuation. But the best, and most lasting, friendships were the women I met through whiskey.

She’s like Zoey Deschanel but with more whiskey. That’s how I was introduced to a friend who always carries green label Evan around in an antique decanter shaped like an owl, and quotes Flannery O’Conner when tipsy. Other ladies I found through whiskey I’ve never met outside of books and records. They are Southern punk rock girls like Renne Crist, memorialized in Love is a Mixtape, who drank bourbon gingers and listened to Bratmobile albums on repeat. These were the girls who paved the way, who showed me I could make whiskey my own, that I could proudly pick it first each and every time.

Girlfriends and I would go to tastings at bars and liquor stores. We marveled at the peaty scotches that tasted like campfires and winced at the white whiskey like back alley moonshine. We would talk about boys over bourbon gingers at our favorite smoky dives and fantasize about what we wanted from our lives. We muddled through our post-college funks while bartenders muddled watermelon and mint for our drinks. We had revelations about love and careers and fashion decisions while sipping from highball and rocks glasses. We wrote papers and columns and poems punctuated by slugs of Wiser’s while watching The Walking Dead. We held one another’s hair after too much Jack and danced it clean to filthy British pop songs on rough morning after’s, fueled by sausage biscuits, BC Powder, and the last of the previous night’s Vermentucky Lemonade. We threw pickle backs down with pimento cheese at birthday parties, marveling at how far we’d come.

The two years I learned about whiskey were years I took for myself. The more I drank the more I realized that even though whiskey and I had met through a man, it was no long about some Marlboro cowboy fantasy. It wasn’t the stuff of country songs or frat parties or pithy sayings about Southern girls. What I learned about whiskey was that its best qualities are shared by ladies. Whiskey is both complex and down to earth. It gains its flavor from what it is surrounded by over time. It grows richer and deeper with age.

Makers Mark ages its newest whiskeys at the top of its warehouse, where it gets much warmer and temperatures fluctuate more wildly- imparting more flavor faster. In the confusion of my adolescence, college years, and mid twenties, I went through many highs and lows. I feel better knowing now that those proving times and struggles were how women, like whiskey, gain the flavor that makes them fine and full.

It isn’t easy being a young whiskey, sealed away to pass through the hot and dark to absorb what you can from the world. It’s not easy hoping that the friends and lovers you surround yourself with are quality white oak who will shape and mellow your character. It can take decades to come into the light, golden and strong, but when you do it is worth it. Whiskeys age as women do, into something truly beautiful.