A Whiskey Journey Part 3 – Why I Whiskey

The start of a new year always seems a good time to check in on a whiskey journey, to take stock of what’s past and what might be to come…

My first “Whiskey Journey” post set this blog in motion back in July 2019, providing some backstory as to how I found my way from the California wine country through the German Biergärten and on to whiskey’s international waters…

A year ago I then followed up with a second post on similar themes, this time checking in on maintaining a healthy balance in one’s journey with this tasty toxin.

Much has been written about the year 2020 already. No doubt it will be a year under analysis for many more years to come. I don’t intend to add to that massive heap here. But the unique experience of this past year indeed led to some interesting twists and turns in the ol’ whiskey journey. It seemed appropriate to at least raise a glass to those moments, the insights and questions they offered, and to connect again to why I whiskey.

Knowing I’m not alone on this journey, I hope something here provides a meaningful rest stop for anyone who pauses to read it.

As I write this I’m sipping at a glass of Booker’s 30th, the bottle I uncorked at the exact stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve one year ago. I’d love to know what you’re sipping as you read. Please feel free to share your current dram in the comments below, if you’re so inclined. 🥃

Okay. Without further ado, some themes from this past year’s journey…

Awareness & Recognition

It’s no surprise that some of the big questions we grappled with as a nation in 2020 surfaced in the American whiskey world as well—any glass of whiskey being a mirror to the world and to the people who make and partake in it.

Alongside outrage expressed nationwide over the painful history of injustice that Black people and other Peoples of Color continue to suffer in America, heightened attention was placed on the daily personal actions one can take toward making change. For one example, White people self-educating—through podcasts, books, articles, workshops, and other resources—rather than relying on People of Color to educate them about the history of racism and anti-racist practices.

Also, supporting Black-owned businesses. In the whiskey world, distilleries like Du Nord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis, MN, and Uncle Nearest Inc. in Lynchburg, TN, to name but two examples, have been highlighted for not only their spirits but also the insights and inspiration they provide through how they do what they do.

Uncle Nearest Inc., founded in 2017 by Fawn Weaver (above left), did much more than add a great whiskey to liquor store shelves. The distillery literally corrected the history books. I wrote about this more extensively this past Juneteenth. But to recap in brief:

In the 1850’s, Nathan “Nearest” Green, then a slave owned by a Tennessee preacher and grocer, taught a young boy named Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. It was Green, not Daniel, who introduced the West African practice of maple charcoal filtration to Tennessee whiskey making—easily Tennessee whiskey’s key defining feature. By the time Green had been freed, Daniel had come of age and started his own distillery. He hired his former mentor to be the first master distiller of the new Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

Years later, a 1904 photo featured Green’s son, George, seated center next to a now much older Daniel. When that photo was printed in a 2016 New York Times article, it caught Fawn Weaver’s attention. Why, in the 1904 American South of all times and places, did a Black man share the central position in a company photo with that company’s White proprietor? Weaver’s pursuit of that question led her to Lynchburg, TN, and soon after to founding Uncle Nearest, Inc., and its sister organization, the Nearest Green Foundation. Uncle Nearest whiskeys quickly garnered an international reputation, and the Nearest Green Foundation continues to provide historical research and scholarships for Green’s descendants.

Shanelle and Chris Montana with their sons (photo: Du Nord website)

On this theme of course-correcting past American histories, Du Nord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis, MN, is actively forging new chapters. Du Nord came to my attention when I read an article about their building having been damaged by fires set during protests following the killing of George Floyd. Chris and Shanelle Montana, the couple who founded and own Du Nord, responded not with anger but by turning the still usable portion of their facility into a food bank, to support their devastated neighborhood. They even started the Du Nord Foundation to help raise money for other neighboring minority-owned businesses in need.

These choices exemplify the Montanas’ stated commitment to diversifying the craft alcohol community, actively recruiting under-represented people to join their team. As Chris Montana says on the Du Nord website:

“Du Nord is a place for people to be safe, be welcome and feel wanted. If you’re a Black woman, Latino, gay, straight—whatever—this is a place you should feel welcome, across the board. That is what’s missing [in the world]. I’m not always as welcome in places as I’d like to be, which informs how we do things at Du Nord.”

After learning about Du Nord, I tried to track down a bottle of their Mixed Blood Whiskey and could only find it on one online seller’s website, where it was perpetually sold out! But more recently Du Nord expanded distribution to additional online sellers, and their products can now be shipped to most states. I’ve had a bottle shipped to me and as I write this it’s somewhere en route, braving the holiday season shipping frenzy…!

Photo by Alex Atack for The New York Times

Another issue whiskey grappled with this year was sexism. In September, British spirits journalist Becky Paskin (above) posted a series of tweets condemning author Jim Murray’s annual self-published Whiskey Bible for his frequently sexist reviews. Paskin asked very pointedly why the whiskey industry continued to condone Murray’s annual book? An article in Forbes asking similar questions coincided with Paskin’s social media posts. Shortly after, the New York Times followed up. The whiskey world took notice quickly. A number of brands put out statements in solidarity with Paskin’s condemnation of Murray’s—and the industry’s—ongoing misogyny.

Predictably, there were men who objected to Paskin’s objections. In doing so, they only underscored Paskin’s points about how women have been treated by men throughout the spirits industry, and in the work place generally.

The whiskey industry has a long history of fostering a masculine image, a kind of worldwide “boys club.” But the fact is, women have played, and increasingly play, a major role in whiskey. Here are only a few examples off the top of my head, in no particular order:

☞ Fawn Weaver, founder of Uncle Nearest, Inc, noted above.

☞ Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest.

☞ Heather Greene, author, CEO and Master Blender of Milam and Greene Whiskies.

☞ Rachel Barrie, Master Blender for GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh.

☞ Ali and Sam Blatteis, founders of Home Base Spirits.

☞ Samara Rivers, spirits marketing and event consultant, pod-caster, writer, and founder of the Black Bourbon Society.

☞ Alex Castle, master distiller at Old Dominick.

☞ Peggy Noe Stevens, author and founder of Bourbon Women.

☞ Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner, co-founders of Republic Restoratives.

☞ Molly Troupe, master distiller, and Jill Kuehler, founder, at Freeland Spirits.

☞ Nicole Austin, currently master distiller at Cascade Hollow (aka George Dickel) and formerly everywhere else!

Marianne Eaves, master distiller at Castle & Key Distillery and founder of Eaves Blind.

That’s a dozen examples I fired off from memory. With even a quick Google the list would only grow longer. And of course that list would not include the countless women who don’t make or promote whiskey but enjoy drinking it, or work as influential mixologists or bar owners. The idea that whiskey is “a man’s drink” simply has no legs anymore. This doesn’t at all mean the industry and its customer base aren’t still male dominated. They are. But social understandings and expectations are changing. The widespread rejection of Murray’s annual Whiskey Bible is just one sign.

These significant cultural moments in the world, reverberating in the whiskey community, are among the reasons I appreciate whiskey. There are people who make choices each day that range from unfortunate to criminal. And then there are people like Weaver, the Montanas, and Paskin, who make choices that help others to see the possibilities of what a society can be, when lived insights and experiences are honestly shared. For me, these are people who embody something innate to whiskey—the truth. Whiskey itself doesn’t lie. It doesn’t even have intentions, whether for good or ill. It simply is. Like the fact of any given human being.

The Boom That Keeps On Booming!

illustration by Danielle Grinberg for vinepair.com

In March 2020, after everyone had stockpiled their toilet paper, they stocked their liquor cabinets as well. Alcohol sales have boomed this past year. That’s good for the industry. Whether it’s good for the collective health of drinkers is of course a good question for us each to ask and keep tabs on. My own whiskey shelf is now quite packed, with little wiggle room for more. My drinking likewise increased this past year. I’ve made a point to go back to my post from a year ago, to remind myself to stay on track.

In any case, the Bourbon Boom got a boost. No moment exemplified this more than Thanksgiving weekend. That Friday, I got up early to stand in line outside a spirits shop that had advertised it would be selling allocated whiskeys on a first come first serve basis. I arrived an hour before they opened and was among the first handful of hopefuls in line. By the time the shop opened its doors, the line stretched down the block behind me.

Everyone maintained their roughly six-foot distance, alternately consulting their phones for other such events around town and chatting with one another. I’d brought a book, but couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversation between the guys in front of me.

I noticed their sole subject for that entire hour we waited was which bottles they had. Most comments began with “I got…” followed by the bottle, sometimes the price, occasionally the source. They did not talk about whether they’d opened or tried any of these bottles. They didn’t talk about what whiskeys they enjoyed, or who they shared them with. It was only what they “got.”

This was in sharp contrast to the book I’d brought with me and was reading, Pappyland by Wright Thompson. Ostensibly about Julian Van Winkle III and the Van Winkle bourbon line, Thompson’s book is actually much more about parents, children, family, close friends—the people you share bourbon with, and why.

I began to feel ill at ease standing in that line. When the shop opened, I looked over the list of offerings, which, disappointingly, mostly consisted of the more available allocated brands. There was a one-bottle limit per person. I dutifully, and happily, picked up a bottle of their Weller Full Proof store pick and was on my way.

But as I walked home I questioned this practice of standing in line… to “get” bourbon. It’s just bourbon. And it’s not actually hard to find at all. It’s everywhere. There is no limit of “limited editions” coming out monthly. And, on this day at least, in that particular line, the camaraderie whiskey is famous for fostering amounted to taking turns listing off what one owned, with not a word of what that having meant.

To be fair, we were all standing there for the express purpose of getting something. So in a way it’s quite natural and reasonable that the getting itself would be forefront in our minds. But it did remind me of what I do not enjoy about the bourbon boom—the FOMO, the bottle bragging, the greedy flipping of bottles for crazy prices, the buyer’s panic and buyer’s remorse…

Three days later came Cyber Monday. Now we were all waiting in line again, only online. Bevmo was the big line of the day, rolling out unicorns by the handful each hour at prices very close to msrp. Facebook was where we were having our conversations as we waited. The subject today was similarly limited in scope—in this case, how utterly unprepared Bevmo was for Cyber Monday! Their site crashed fast and frequently. I was among those refreshing their phone or laptop with growing agitation over the course of many hours. Twice I had a bottle in my cart. Both times I ended up stuck in an endless loop at checkout, the site insistently asking, “Did you forget something?” when I hadn’t.

Actually, I had forgotten something. That there are much better ways to spend my time! The Bevmo FOMO had not been enjoyable. Not at all. It left me feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and cheap, my privileged first-world problems dangling gaudily in the breeze. Again I asked myself, why do I do this?!

A Few Particular Pours

In one sense, the answer is simple. I do it because a good bottle of whiskey is a special experience. And when the hunt pays off with a unique whiskey, especially one found at a good price, so many things can come of it… Opportunities to share it with people I know will appreciate it. New memories made in the sharing. Past memories conjured by the aromas and flavors. A great accompaniment to a beautiful sunset at the end of a long day. A gift to a friend on a special occasion. A prompt to explore a region of the world unfamiliar to me, another culture, some past historical era.

Here is a short list, in alphabetical order, of whiskeys I experienced this past year that were special for me, for one reason or another:

Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon – 2019 cask strength limited edition. An explosion of unique flavors, defying my expectations of young whiskey and piquing my interest in what the Texas weather can do for whiskeys.

Booker’s 30th Anniversary Limited Edition. Classic, rich, barrel strength bourbon goodness. Its uncorking made a great way to ring in a new year. Who knew what was to come in 2020 would be high proof as well?!

Carsebridge 52 Year Single Grain Scotch. How often does an affordable 52-year scotch roll around? And how often does someone get to celebrate their favorite person’s 52nd birthday with it?

George Dickel Hand Selected Barrel – 2017 Healthy Spirits store pick. A uniquely dark, walnut centric bourbon, and easily the best George Dickel I’ve experienced. Comfort food…

Home Base Whiskey – 2020 Bourbon County store pick, aged in an ex Four Roses OESV barrel. A unique collaboration between Home Base Spirits and Bourbon County, two of my favorite local businesses, resulting in a quintessential California bourbon.

Lagavulin 12 Year – 2018 Limited Release. The Lagavulin that brought me back to Lagavulin! Lagavulin 16 was the scotch that made me love scotch. But then my tastes evolved. This edition brought back the Laga magic!

Old Potrero Rye – 2019 single barrel #13 selected by K&L. Among the best ryes I’ve had, period. And it’s made about a 15 minute drive from where I live. I love it when the home team knocks it out of the park!

Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey – 2019 Small Batch B aged 14 years. Set the bar for Irish whiskey for me. It was like a lively party with music and dancing. So much fun to drink!

Remus Repeal Reserve IV – MGP showing off what it does best. Drinking this makes me feel like I’m sitting in the cozy, plush home library of some 1930s tycoon or mafia boss.

Rua American Single Malt – A shockingly good single malt aged a mere 16 months! This got me going on my exploration of American single malts.

Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered – 2020 early Summer release. Easily the most fun I had with a bourbon all year.

Westward American Single Malt Whiskey – 2019 K&L store pick. FLAVOR BOMB! Man oh man! A singular experience that commanded my attention with each sip. I took the second half of this bottle to a small, physically distanced gathering of friends and it was truly sane-itizing.

Why I Whiskey

I’ve just recently finished reading that book I mentioned, Pappyland, by Wright Thompson. I picked up the book because I’m curious about Van Winkle bourbon. But when I flipped to Thompson’s acknowledgment page at the back, and found myself misty eyed just reading that, I knew I was in for something other than a simple bourbon biog.

The book is neither a straight-up historical account of the famous brand, nor a chronological biography of Julian Van Winkle III, his father or grandfather. It’s a meditation on parents and children, family and friends, and the ongoing life-task of staying in touch with what matters. Or as the book’s subtitle puts it, “The things that last.”

Recently, as I was nearing the book’s end, a fellow from my local Facebook whiskey group posted that he’d just finished it himself, and had been moved to sell off a good deal of his extensive whiskey collection, keeping only the bottles he most wanted to enjoy and share with others. With the money, he’d buy his partner of 20+ years a diamond ring.

I sat down with the book’s final chapters that night, my Facebook whiskey acquaintance’s decision swirling in my thoughts. Reading the book’s final paragraphs, I found myself misty eyed again. I won’t share any spoilers. I’ll just say that Thompson has written a philosophical, contemplative, at times soul searching book. Stories of his own life—in particular his concerns and hopes around his precious new daughter—dovetail with insights into the complexities of being Southern given that region’s history; Julian Van Winkle III’s incredible struggle to salvage what in the 1970’s and 1980’s was a dying family business, gasping on tenuous life support; and the phoenix-like rise of Van Winkle bourbon to its current, complicated cult status.

It’s hard to say what exactly about Pappyland is so moving to me. It’s the concise, sum total of it all. The details of what the family namesake bourbon means to Julian. The care with which he personally selects the barrels that go into it every year. His carefully tuned palate seeking out the past in the present, and passing this sense memory on to his son. The flack he suffers from angry consumers who get in his face at public events—not understanding that it’s the distributors, retailers, and especially the consumers themselves who create the “unicorn” problem.

Also, in its fifty-nine quick chapters, the book manages to touch on much of what makes America what it is—capitalism, racism, classism, the American Southern/Northern split, the challenge of a democracy that favors binary-politics, evolving family values, issues around work/life balance… All of this dealt with on a very grounded, personal level.

And whether intentionally or not, Pappyland makes a solid case against FOMO and in favor of those things that last—or that we hope will last—the people in our lives we cherish most. In line with this, there’s a strong concern with legacy in the book as well. When are we simply stuck in the past, and when are we drawing from the past to create a better present and future?

Other questions arise. What is it we get (there’s that word again) from unopened whiskey bottles on our shelves, forever on display and not shared? What are we actually afraid we’re missing out on when we don’t get one of this year’s hundreds of “rare” releases? What’s behind the need to get, to own, to possess, but otherwise not to enjoy whiskey? Is there a security in having? What exactly have we secured?

I’m looking at my own whiskey collection. At the moment there are roughly 160 bottles. About 30 of them are open. I don’t display them, and I do intend to drink them all. But it’s a bit like social media, where the majority of my “friends” I’ve never met and don’t even know. What does “friend” mean, now that Facebook has co-opted it? What’s a bourbon that’s never been enjoyed, only bunkered, worth?

I recently read Becky Paskin’s article on “social terroir,” the human influence on whiskey. In it, Paskin quotes Compass Box founder John Glaser, who argues that it’s not just the natural ingredients in a whiskey that determine its flavor. “It’s the intent – what the producer is ultimately trying to create, and the decisions made at every step of the process to manifest this.”

Similarly, Paskin quotes Lesley Gracie, master distiller of Hendrick’s Gin, who says, “A person’s vision, ambition and creativity can have a stronger impact on what you end up tasting in your glass… It’s about creating a feeling, an emotion, capturing a memory in liquid form, a sensory experience, and, yes, most of these start from a personal experience…”

By the time I tried Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered bourbon, I was long since a fan of its maker, Aaron Chepenik, whose lively Instagram videos have done much to win people over to the brand. Chepenik comes across as utterly genuine, honest, enthusiastic, passionate, and fun. When I tasted Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered, it matched his personality exactly!

This seemed a perfect example of what Paskin’s article suggests—that, just like truth, intention also matters. The natural ingredients of whiskey (grains, water, yeast, wood, weather, time) are utterly true to themselves. Truth is their contribution. The people who combine them contribute their intentions.

In pursuit of our various intentions, the decisions we make in life have an impact—which may or may not end up in line with our intentions. We cannot control other people’s responses, any more than we can have lived their lives or know firsthand what it is to be them impacted by us. But we can control our own intentionality, and notice what comes of it.

Despite my conflicted feelings about social media, I have met some very good people in the whiskey community through it. The bottles pictured above, for example, were the kind favor of a fellow whiskey fan returning a favor I’d done him. We’ve come to know each other’s tastes, and we occasionally contact one another when we come across a bottle we know the other might like. I’d found him a hard-to-get bottle he was looking for at a good price. He returned the favor by not only locating two bottles I was looking for, but upon delivery he threw in samples of two others he knew I’d enjoy.

This is one simple example of the intent to help and to share, which I associate with the whiskey community. It’s very neighborly. I love this about our community. It’s why, I think, I get discouraged by those in it for trophies or to make a buck at others’ expense. But then someone hands me a glass of something great, and I’m reminded, as Thompson says, of those things that last.

The Final Pour

This past year—strange, challenging, disturbing—has afforded me time to think as well. Often my thoughts have fallen under the weights of the world, and my struggle to stay meaningfully engaged in the ways that I hope to do. But I’ve also enjoyed moments of quiet and contemplation, often with a glass of whiskey in hand. I’m grateful for these moments, and know I’m privileged to have them. Some of these precious moments have been with the people who are most important to me. Other moments have been with people I don’t know terribly well, yet with whom I enjoy exchanges of kindness around this odd liquid we mutually adore.

It’s these moments that are why I whiskey.

Cheers!

6 thoughts on “A Whiskey Journey Part 3 – Why I Whiskey

  1. Read this post twice. so good. thanks for taking it on and touching on a range of important topics. Read Pappyland over holidays so timely for me.

    Like

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