A Whiskey Journey

For the inaugural post in the p.o.v. section of this blog, I thought it appropriate to begin with a journey…

Before it was the case, I never would have guessed that whiskey would become such a passion for me. I grew up in Placerville, California, a lesser known wine country a few hours north of the world-famous Napa Valley. My parents are longtime friends with a few of the local wine-making families, and still enjoy a glass most every night before dinner. I had my first sip of wine at age eight, when I asked my father what that red juice was that he was drinking. He slid his glass toward me, and when I sampled the deep ruby contents I was baffled as to how he could possibly enjoy such dreck.

I’m convinced this demystifying moment contributed to my not becoming a young drunk in high school—a popular thing to be in 1980s Placerville. There was no intrigue for me around alcohol. I’d solved that mystery at age eight!

Cut to 1994, when I was just out of college and living in San Francisco with an old high school friend, Jamin Barton. Jamin worked at Suppenküche, a then newly established German restaurant around the corner from our Fell Street apartment in the Hayes Valley district—back then nicknamed “Death Valley.” (The reasons for this nickname have since been gentrified away to other pockets of the Bay Area. Whether that’s entirely a good thing is an ongoing debate.) Jamin gave me my first beer education via the Bavarian meal hall’s many German imported beers vom Faß.

Ten years later, in 2004, my partner Beth and I actually moved to Germany itself, where we became even more familiar with beer. I hadn’t known just how varied beer was, how each region had its own signature brew, not unlike the various regions of France or Italy with their namesake wines. 

The Germans drink beer quite freely. It’s practically a staple, like water and milk, and very affordable. Yet aside from the rowdies returning from soccer games, I rarely witnessed open drunkenness in Germany. At beer festivals, brewers talked about their beer with the same pride and attention to detail that Napa Valley wine-makers do in talking about their fine wines. And at one beer garden I visited in Bonn, situated along the Rhein river in an open, unfenced area adjacent to a university campus, families played games on the lawn and stretched out on blankets, enjoying tall glasses of beer they’d bought from a modest shack. I couldn’t imagine such a civilized thing in America!

Despite my thorough wine and beer journeys, or perhaps because of them, in my lifetime I’d only had an occasional whiskey or cocktail. No experience with either was of any note.

Then in 2013 an actor friend, Becky Brockman, was moving from San Francisco to New York and bought me a bottle of Glenfiddich Scotch as a goodbye gift. (This was very Becky, to be the one leaving town yet she gives the going away present. That’s a right spirit!) I didn’t know what to make of the Glenfiddich. Grateful for the gift, and with a feeling of combined obligation and curiosity, I very gradually emptied the bottle shot by shot. By the end I still didn’t understand the appeal. I thought it tasted like some form of petrol. I continued to drink wine and beer…

Then, in the spring of 2016, I began to notice that even a single glass of either wine or beer left my stomach upset the next morning. My body chemistry was changing. And so one day in June I decided I was now someone who no longer drank. Done.

…Three weeks later I visited my parents in Placerville, and when I told them I no longer drank wine or beer my father produced three bottles of whiskey. If wine and beer left my stomach upset, I assumed these would destroy it utterly! To my surprise, I actually liked these compared to my memory of the Glenfiddich. And I woke the next day feeling nothing. For the rest of my visit, while my parents enjoyed their nightly glass of wine, I enjoyed a glass of whiskey—Forty Creek Barrel Select, if I’m recalling correctly.

I didn’t think too much about this at the time. But a month later I was in Scotland for the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe. My partner Beth was good at finding the less touristic pubs where locals went. I would ask the bartenders to pour me a glass of whatever they drank. One afternoon we met a senior gentleman named Hugh at a pub called Sandy Bell’s, a cozy little joint on Forest Street. Hugh told us he comes to Sandy Bell’s every Saturday and Monday, all day, to listen to the live music—a pianist and fiddler on the day we were there. I asked Hugh what his favorite whiskies were. He looked over the house list and picked out a handful. I wrote them down in my pocket notebook and made sure to try each during the trip. Hugh was correct. They were all good.

Upon returning to the States, I became obsessed with collecting what I’d come to call “Hugh’s List.” But in the USA, of course, Scotch is imported and much more expensive than in Scotland. So I began to explore the more affordable American bourbons and ryes, as well as the occasional Canadian whisky. Until then I hadn’t really known the difference between one whiskey or another. But soon I could distinguish them by their various legalities, and gradually also their taste profiles.

A year after my Edinburgh trip it was the Fall of 2017 and my whiskey hobby was flowing freely. My insatiable curiosity wasn’t cheap, though—and I was a freelance theater artist and teacher! I hatched a plan to sell rarities on the online “grey market” at prices high enough to cover the cost of everything I bought to drink. I joined several whiskey oriented Facebook groups where the trading and selling was often furious and fast. I was amazed by the high prices a “unicorn” whiskey could command, and I invested in a hearty selection of sought-after bottles that I intended to flip at double or quadruple prices. 

But a combination of weirdly chintzy haggling (people would regularly counter a $400 ask with a $390 offer), and especially a prevalent sarcastic, misogynist, occasionally even racist Bro culture, put me off. I sold a handful of bottles. But after a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle Ten Year I was trying to sell was claimed for the fourth time, by a guy who, like the previous three, flaked without another word, I was feeling very unenthusiastic about the whole bottle-flipping business. Then a series of posts in one Facebook group featuring handguns and Ken dolls raping Barbie dolls, and the river of commentary sewage cascading out from under them, cinched the deal.

Also, during this time I was growing more knowledgeable and fonder of whiskey, its process and its history. I came to agree with those who believe whiskey is for drinking, period, and that if people wouldn’t throw insane amounts of money around on the internet for sought-after bottles we’d all be more able to enjoy them and at much more affordable prices. I did not wish to contribute to these exchanges that didn’t seem to me to be in the right spirit of the spirit itself. 

I dropped my bottle-flipping schemes.

This decision left me even more personally invested in the golden liquid than before. A curiosity that had soured into a scheme now blossomed into a true passion. And, now, I had several unsold unicorns on hand and could enjoy them as they were meant to be enjoyed. (I very much regretted the money I’d spent on them, as I wouldn’t have purchased them otherwise. But, too late!) I studied, and through the Stave & Thief Society became a certified Bourbon Steward. I started my own Facebook group, where I could set the group agreements around what I believed to be in the right spirit:

It was then I began to understand why whiskey was such a natural fit to my tastes and sensibility as a theater maker. Taking bourbon—the whiskey I now drink most—as an example, it embodies many things I value:

It’s an ENTIRELY NATURAL product, made from earth, water, grain, wood, yeast, and time. That’s it. Add anything else and it’s no longer bourbon.

The process of making bourbon can only be learned through HANDS-ON-EXPERIENCE. Master distillers earn their title with time, attention, trial, error, and accomplishment. One can go to school and study chemistry or read accounts of distilling methods. But ultimately there is no school for distilling. Master distillers often began sweeping the rick house floors, and did every other job until eventually becoming their distillery’s master distiller.

No matter how experienced one becomes, the whiskey itself will always do what it’s going to do. The MYSTERY of what happens in the barrel, and why, can be somewhat explained, but never entirely. So whiskey by its nature always has POSSIBILITY—like a question with innumerable answers.

Bourbon-making draws on TRADITION while also actively seeking NEW IDEAS.

Whiskey accommodates CREATIVITY. Distillers experiment with grain ratios, water, yeast, aging, the types of barrel, finishing the whiskey in a second barrel previously used for aging wine or sherry, blending it with other whiskies… Or a drinker might squeeze a bit of fresh ginger juice into a shot of rye and see what happens—a very simple cocktail. Cocktails are a bottomless glass of creative possibility, adaptable to any occasion or taste.

Whiskey is for SHARING. I take great pleasure in sharing it with people, whether I’m introducing them to it or they’re a seasoned aficionado. There is a certain pleasure in sharing, and in shared appreciation.

On a similar note, whiskey is not only the liquid in the bottle, the shape of the bottle, or the label on it. It’s also the PEOPLE you’re with when you drink it. The room or setting. The time of year. The quality of light. It’s an inherently SOCIAL drink, meant to be sipped as STORIES and CONVERSATIONS unfold. All of these factors impact the taste and experience of the whiskey itself.

Whiskey promotes CURIOSITY. I’ve come to agree with those who say there is no good or bad whiskey, just whiskeys one prefers more or less than others. Two people who drink the same whiskey from the same bottle, in the same style of glass, at the same time, might yet have two even very different experiences. The chemistry between each person and the given whiskey is entirely unique, and might yield caramel apple flavors to one person and vanilla and stewed peaches to the other—and both people are entirely correct! They can then talk about this and get to know something of one another’s tastes and experiences, as well as better understand their own. 

Similarly, in planning a whiskey flight for another person, I might ask them whether they’re in a bright or dark mood, what their favorite baked pies are, whether they prefer surprising spicy meals or familiar comfort food. Inspired by their answers, I can then select a flight of whiskeys that might appeal specifically to that person. I can even use one whiskey as a bridge to take them to another more surprising whiskey outside their professed mood. It’s the GIFT-GIVING impulse in combination with the GETTING-TO-KNOW-YOU impulse.

The best whiskey, like the best theater, leaves one deeply satisfied and contemplative—an altered state of consciousness, open to NEW PERSPECTIVES, aware of the deep and intricate tapestry of OUR CONNECTIONS AND OUR DIFFERENCES, of the best and the worst of humanity.

And that’s where I’ve come to as of this post. This whiskey journey continues…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s