To mark the three-year anniversary of The Right Spirit, here are some reflections on what writing 275 posts about whiskey has done to me…
Value & Values
When I first started on this journey, I thought I’d sell sought-after unicorns on the grey market at jacked-up prices to cover the cost of the bottles I kept. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a dispiriting endeavor—a lot of work, annoying chintzy counter offers like $390 on a $400 ask, people going AWOL, all of it 100% counter to what I enjoy about whiskey: the whiskey and the people! Not the commerce.
So I dropped those schemes, along with the national Facebook groups I’d joined that catered to them. I stopped following social media accounts that filled my feed with the same five unicorn crotch shots, misogynist wisecracks, and assault rifles stretched out casually next to a glass of bourbon. I found a great local Facebook group with strict rules against all the nasty nonsense that can make social media horrible. The admin organize great events, do barrel picks, everyone shares information, people help mule bottles to one another across our local region. Lo and behold, unfettered by secondary commerce and bro-bragging, my enjoyment of this whiskey hobby spiked.
Still, for a couple years I remained obsessed with bunkering the usual suspects—Van Winkle, the BTAC collection, Willett single barrels, Weller in every incarnation, annual limited releases from the big boys like Wild Turkey and Four Roses. In one season I amassed seven bottles of Weller 12, for which I paid from $40 to $70 each at various corner stores. The next season the average shelf price in my area had jumped to $150. Now it’s $200 to $300. In the end I drank only one, and gradually traded off the other six at cost for much more interesting things.
In time I came to understand what I truly value. Aromas and a taste that I enjoy, of course. But also a good story—especially a true story. Distilleries that are mindful of things like sustainable practices and social justice. Local brands that lean into terroir to offer alternatives to the dominant Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee flavor profiles. And integrity. If that last bit isn’t there, forget it—I’m lookin’ at you Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye.
Accordingly, my buying habits have evolved significantly over these past three years. I’ve virtually stopped bunkering altogether, and have traded off a good number of those usual suspects I’d been so obsessed with collecting early on. But that’s the learning curve, not a bad thing at all, and those early finds served me well in the end—affording me other finds I may not have picked up otherwise. I rarely buy second bottles of anything now. (At a certain point I changed my standard “Buy Again?” indicator to “Worth Buying?”) I’m much more focused on new experiences, lesser sought-after oddities, and unicorns that are such due to the rare experience they offer rather than a one-two algorithm of popularity and scarcity.
I’m also now better able to discern what will always be around from what is truly fleeting. I’m much more selective about NDP (non-distiller producer) products, for example. With so many sourced 5-year MGP bottlings and teenaged George Dickel and Barton out there, it’s a buyer’s market. No need to rush any purchase when it comes to NDPs—there will always be more, and the original distillery itself may very likely put out its own with the same specs at a much lower price!
Sharing a rare bottle of 31n50, the whiskey of my hometown, with some San Francisco friends who never knew me there or then, gave me a pleasure akin to sharing with them the best parts of the town itself. We travelled there through that hazmat bourbon’s steamy aromas, evoking those burnt sunsets I grew up meditating on before I knew that’s what I was doing. 31n50 is arguably a unicorn—low in quantity, high in price, very difficult to find, an unusual tasting experience. Yet very few people are concerned with it. I enjoy its ultra-rare nature. But even more so, I enjoy the connection to where I grew up, and the fact that its maker, Cris Steller, sells it for love. He actually loses money on 31n50. But he didn’t make it to make money. Other Dry Diggings products take care of that. 31n50 exists purely for love of the craft and of place.
This is what I value. Not the most ridiculously popular unicorn. Not the latest creative label slapped on familiar Barton bourbon. Not spending $$$ on something I’m supposed to want and to like according to FOMO. It’s the savoring, the sharing, the learning, and connecting with people—whether I’ve paid $20 or $200. And the task of writing about these things, of following a thought or perception through research and experience, has been instrumental toward my sorting out value from values.
Putting Things That Defy Words Into Words
In my theater work, I’ve always been most excited and inspired by theater that’s easier to point to than to explain. If something can be easily summed up in words, how interesting can it really be?
Of course, sometimes you don’t want a whiskey that makes you think. Sometimes you just want to drink. But when I’m tasting, I want to go on a journey. I want to have to reach for the words, the foods, the memories, the places and situations that the whiskey’s aromas and flavors conjure for me.
It was through whiskey I came to realize just how deeply rooted are my sense memories of Placerville, CA, the Gold Rush era mountain town where I grew up. The innumerable pines, oaks, and river stones. The fresh air. The Autumn harvest season with its fresh fruit, pies and pastries. All four seasons distinct in look, smell, and feel… These many scents and sights conjure deep and varied memories.
Placerville is a complicated place for me now. How to put it into words? Beautiful, a site of many fond memories of wonder and discovery, a David Lynchian corner of the world where the American 1950s never fully passed, where quaint idealism and horrible violence smear together like a coked-up prom queen’s lipstick at 4:00 AM. Placerville is kids playing freely and safely in the streets and forests. It’s also White people voting against anyone who doesn’t look, talk, or pray like them. Placerville is the scent of a thousand pine trees and the comforting sound of wind moving through them. It’s also my old high school friend running down a road through those pine trees one night, blinded by the ammonium her lover poured over her before he attempted to murder her, and then did brutally murder their two-year-old son.
Like these stark contradictions, whiskey is a beautiful toxin to be handled with respect, care, and a firm balance of enthusiasm kept in check by realism. Reflecting on a place helps me to find words for a whiskey as much as reflecting on a whiskey helps me find words for a place. My hometown is a place I can go to and touch, and a memory I can conjure and relate to other things. Whiskey is at once a tangible experience and a mist-like metaphor.
Other examples are less extreme, but no less meaningful to me. Reaching for the words to describe Yoichi Single Malt took me back to when I moved to Japan, living alone for the first time in my life and in a culture very unlike my own, my senses on alert 24/7. Searching for descriptors for the 2018 Lagavulin 12 Year took me to the back corner of Sandy Bell’s pub on Forest Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a kind old fellow named Hugh gave me my first insights into scotch.
Finding the words for the things we experience takes practice—and sometimes a good whiskey!
Meeting The Whiskey Makers & Shakers
Despite blogs being an increasingly antiquated online form, not to mention my utter lack of interest in monetizing this website for fear of money ruining the fun, The Right Spirit has found me across the table from some interesting people in the industry:
Ali & Sam Blatteis – twin sisters who founded, own and operate Home Base Spirits in Berkeley, CA. They emphasize local, from the family farms where they get their grain to the labels designed by Bay Area artists.
Christian Krogstad – founder and master distiller of Westward Whiskey in Portland, OR, a model of generous hospitality, doing much to advance American single malt whiskey.
Cris Steller – founder and jack of all trades at Dry Diggings Distillery, where the idiosyncrasies of each barrel are respected, consistency takes second place to curiosity, and, as noted above, some whiskeys are even made purely for love.
Edmond Kubein – longtime San Franciscan and liquor store retailer with a genuine love of bourbon. Well read, well spoken, no nonsense, won’t rip you off, won’t trouble himself with your BS if you’re slingin’ any.
Greg Miller – a chemist and truly passionate whiskey hobbyist making more of his hobby than most, crafting whiskeys one barrel at a time, often vatting twenty or thirty distilling experiments into each.
Jill Kuehler – founder of Freeland Spirits in Portland, OR, a women owned and operated distillery that brings celebration and politics together. Kuehler understands the importance of mission, that it’s not enough to distill spirits and sell them. What stories need to be told, and how might a spirit help get that story out into the world?
Mike Steine – senior distiller at Woodinville Whiskey Co. in Washington State, an expert craftsman and artist of the trade who learned on the job. Steine embodies a straight-forward efficiency of words in his practical pursuit of balancing craft with art.
Sammy Suleiman – owner of Royal Liquors, the store his father opened in 1981 and which he now runs, serving as a curbside historian of the Polk & Pine Street area of San Francisco. According to Sammy, he is perhaps more open about his points of view on the spirits industry than he should be. But my own point of view is that if more liquor store owners had Sammy’s integrity, whiskey would be more fun for more people.
And then there are the various whiskey fans I’ve encountered, muling bottles or samples for one another, sharing whiskeys we love and loving sharing them. There are the events my local Facebook group organizes, and those can be great. But I’m always particularly pleased to meet people one on one, even when only briefly. What they choose to share, what they exchange for what, is a window into who they are. These brief exchanges are always congenial, always driven by a mutual passion for the endless winding rabbit hole that is whiskey, carved out by so many of us and in so many different directions.
History & Politics
Without whiskey, I may never have learned about these things:
The 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, an event that captured so much of what still makes America what it is—taxes, suspicion of authority, capitalism in conflict with notions of freedom, violence as a problem solver, and of course booze.
How the basic Irish Whiskey flavor profile came about in part out of a rebellion against colonial British taxes.
The complex politics of Sam Houston, the 19th Century politician who crossed cultural and ideological boundaries at a time far less known for such things than our own currently fraught era.
Nathan “Nearest” Green and the West African origins of the “Lincoln County Process” that makes Tennessee whiskey what it is.
Bertie Brown and Josephine Doody, two Prohibition-era American women whose stories of independence and self-determination are worthy of far more than a whiskey in their name—but at least now there’s that.
Tom Bullock, the first African American bartender to publish a cocktail book. The Ideal Bartender has a foreword penned by George Herbert Walker of Presidents Bush I and II fame, a hilariously accidental recommendation by Theodore Roosevelt, and a slew of classic and obscure cocktails all neatly described.
How a complex combination of political history and neighborly hospitality define the local Portland, OR, culture, as exemplified by Westward Whiskey and Freeland Spirits.
In addition to those few specific incidents and people, whiskey has led me to research and into conversations about race, gender, economic class, the particulars of various local cultures, cultural appropriation, the socio-politics of nostalgia and of semantics—a whole range of topics central to daily life in the United States and the world. Things people sometimes rather not talk about, even if they really should. Whiskey can help!
That life is not about the destination but the journey is a bit of wisdom Ralph Waldo Emerson is most often credited as having gifted to us. My phrasing of it is very like the 1992 Aerosmith song, “Amazing,” in which it is sung, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Whereas Emerson once wrote this:
“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”
From that one might get to the more concise Aerosmith lyric. T.S. Eliot also said something similar. Economist William J. Bernstein said something similar. Confucius did too, apparently. Who is quoting who? Does it matter at this point? It’s a philosophical observation that has long since slipped into the public domain.
I’ve personally explored this philosophy through theater, where the value of process, of journey, is challenged constantly by reviewers and audiences who approach a performance as a finished product, a destination. But to assess it as such they must ignore the fact that human beings are enacting the performance in real time, to an audience witnessing it in real time. This means error, variance, and surprise. If you want a finished product, watch a film. A film is so finished it doesn’t even need an audience. Press play and the film runs on autopilot, unchanged by either those watching or those who’ve left the room.
Theater is more like whiskey. Open a show or a bottle and its journey has only begun. Time and air will change it from pour to pour, night to night. To say the last pour, the final performance, is the destination follows a certain logic. But that logic overvalues that final instance, negating all others that led up to it as somehow mere prep for the culmination of… of what?
Who did you see the show with? Who did you share the bottle with? What are the stories that came out of it, in response to it? I’ve written 275 posts for this blog in three years, and that’s a fraction of my steps taken on my whiskey journey in that time. Some bottles I drank entirely alone. Some I shared with friends or family. Some I gave away. Some I brought to parties. Some I never wrote about. On some I wrote more than others, and sometimes more about politics or history or psychology than about the whiskey itself.
And as I documented these mere 275 of my innumerable steps, I felt myself repeatedly bump up against an internalized impulse to make final pronouncements, decry something “the best” or “worth it.” But each bump reminded me such conclusions are for nought. Conclusive reviews may contribute to helping or hindering a given bottle’s sales. But consumer advice has nearly zero to do with why I do this blog.
I’m here to document a journey as it unfolds. I may get into money matters, and I may even recommend a bottle or not—sometimes more for philosophical than consumer reasons, even when discussing the cost. But I don’t believe any of this impacts the bottom line of a single distillery. And anyway such an impact doesn’t count among my aspirations. I only want to explore. Documenting my explorations here is a part of them, a kind of mapping.
And of course this map, continually unfolding, is made to be shared. I very much hope others enjoy these wanderings too, and, in the best cases, find them useful toward their own journeys.
Cheers to all our journeys!
some exceptional pours
from the past three years
Past Whiskey Journey Posts
Part 1 – Getting Started
Part 2 – Checking In
Part 3 – Why I Whiskey
Part 4 – on Weller Antique 107 and the Art and Practice of Letting Go