What to do when something you engage in purely for pleasure and the joy of curiosity starts to feel like a job?
As I approach seven years of whiskey enthusiasm, and four years of whiskey blogging, I’m starting to feel the grind of both, and I’m not sure how I feel about that…
I’m posting these mullings shortly before my quarterly dry week, which affords me a well-timed opportunity to reflect on whiskey in its absence. Often it’s when we take something away that we notice what was there. Also, Tax Day looms, infusing considerations of all things money-related into the air like a fog. Perhaps it’s this timely convergence of abstinence and economics that has prompted me to pause and consider my evolving relationship to this hobby.
Back in Part 5 of this Whiskey Journey series, I took stock of what three years of writing about whiskey had done for me. In short, the task of writing weekly about whiskeys has helped me to:
Explore the relationships and differences between value and values.
Develop my ability to find words for experiences that defy the limitations of words.
Meet and interview some very interesting people in the industry, from corner store owners to master distillers.
Learn things about American and world history I might not have otherwise.
Understand the science of alcohol’s effects on the body, to better understand healthy versus unhealthy drinking and other behaviors.
All in all, reaffirm my belief in the value of journeys without final destinations.
This all felt celebratory. Three years of time and money well spent, afforded to me by the privileges of my life’s provided, chosen, and accidental paths. Whiskey isn’t cheap. And it isn’t a necessity. It’s extra. And I appreciate it as that. Certainly there are other ways I could explore values, practice writing, meet people, learn about histories, understand health, go on journeys without ends. But a nice glass of compelling whiskey ain’t at all a bad way to go about those pursuits.
In the months since that 5th Whiskey Journey post, however, I’ve experienced a gradual shift. I continue to enjoy whiskey, though the brightness of that pleasure has lost its crisp edge of late. I continue to enjoy writing about whiskey, yet the task has at times felt like a task. It’s occurred to me, is my whiskey journey wending toward its end?
I’ve resisted monetizing The Right Spirit. Money is an awful necessity. I don’t value it, though I need it like anyone and for all the usual reasons. And I do understand money buys opportunity and certain safety buffers. But were this blog to become a bizness, I fear my pleasure’s light would fully fade. I do this for the joys and gains of curiosity and of sharing. It’s a costly gift to myself, but a gift. And I value offering it as a gift to anyone who clicks by and spends time here, whether for practical consumer research or because something I’ve written provides a curious tunnel in their own whiskey rabbit holing.
And anyway it’s a blog, one of the internet’s most antiquated social meds, so, how lucrative could it ever be!
Curiously, my life’s primary livelihoods have been making theater and teaching. I say “curiously” because, like blogging, theater is another antiquated form that isn’t known to be lucrative—even if a show does “big box office” that’s often still just enough to pay the bills. And teachers of any subject aren’t paid much at all in America, education being valued here only slightly more than theater.
I used to feel celebratory about theater, both in the moment of it and in the abstract. But this gradual shift I’m feeling with whiskey I started feeling with theater several years ago. And then the pandemic era with its multidirectional tribulations seemed to all but kill off what joy I still had for theater. It’s a joy I hope to find anew one day, though I’m not holding my breath at the moment. I do still have faith in theater, just not the theater industry. (Were this a theater blog I’d get into why that is, but, it’s a whiskey blog, so, cheers!)
Teaching does still bring me joy. It’s a privilege to facilitate circumstances for people to expand their creativity and their understandings. To witness those moments of expansion is inspiring and deeply satisfying. Teaching gives me hope. Whiskey has never given me hope, per se, just a pleasurable means of exploring those things I listed up above.
I can’t know yet whether the dimming I’ve experienced lately around whiskey tasting and writing is just a phase. It might simply be one of those moments in a long journey when things have become generally quite familiar, the sparkly glint of surprise dulled by time and repetition.
Or maybe I’ll discover whiskey was always a passing interest. Whiskey is indeed a far lower-stakes endeavor for me than theater was. But when I think back, my gradual increase in whiskey enthusiasm did coincide with my gradual decline in passion for theater. And in 2016 when I recognized the unexpected extent of my interest in whiskey, and consciously started this journey, I did also note then its parallels to theater:
Theater and whiskey are both handmade.
They are a material craft and a mysterious art.
They can only be experienced live, in person.
They offer something for everyone who wishes to partake in them.
Some people find them intimidating, others frivolous.
Theater and whiskey aren’t always easy, sometimes even dangerous. But at their best they encourage a spirit of community, curiosity, and contemplation.
These connections helped make sense of my seemingly out-of-the-blue fascination with whiskey—I’d never really been into it, at all, for most of my life. But in its own ways, whiskey appealed to certain social values and experiences that had made theater such a passion for me. Sensing my declining passion for theater, did I dive into whiskey hoping a new passion would replace the old? The parallels between them instilled in me a hope that I’d found a new context for myself, a new career to pursue in the wake of one that may have passed on.
I even took a part-time job at a whiskey shop to test the waters. I wanted to meet people in the industry, learn about what they do, and discern where I might find my place. But very quickly I realized two things: (1) The spirits industry is as subject to the capitalist hustle’s classist, racist, sexist, agist ways as the theater industry. And (2) making whiskey my job—at least by the usual routes one might go about that—would mostly mean my being essentially a salesman, with quotas to meet and spreadsheets to fill out and financial goals (the very phrase makes me shudder) that I’d be obliged to achieve or fail—goals not of my own devising but handed down by a team gathered around charts and graphs and annual reports. Those who genuinely love those jobs have my respect. They’re the right people to do them. But for me, mm mm.
And here I’m honing in on the crux of my conundrum:
Though I’ve made money making theater, I never made theater to make money. The real compensation for me was less quantifiable. I made theater for the same reasons I still teach, to facilitate a situation where a group of people—myself among them—encounter new or challenging experiences and are compelled to explore our creativity and imagination, our understandings and assumptions, our empathy and biases, our limits and possibilities.
That’d be a stretch for whiskey. As an endeavor, whiskey certainly has its grand traditions, its compelling histories, its poetic resonances. I’m fascinated by them. If I were a distiller I have no doubt my connection would be very direct and profound, in the ways only hands-on experience over time can yield. But as a passionately curious aficionado, when it comes to something you pee out about an hour after you take it in, well, how deep can one ultimately go with that?
Whiskey is a liquid object that can be measured, whereas theater’s ultimate substance is nonmaterial. As such, theater has the capacity to stay with us for years and years. You can’t pee it out! Theater (when it’s good) feeds our imaginations over time. There’s no measure for that. Not even box office figures can sum it up.
Teaching and learning are likewise substantive in unquantifiable ways. Test scores, final grades, and diplomas are feeble attempts to account for the complex and bountifully messy experience of learning and of growth. Like theater, I get paid to teach, but I don’t teach to get paid. The true value in teaching for me cannot be measured in paychecks and bank accounts.
That curious phrase, to “make a living,” I wish to take it literally—to make, to craft, to live my life. And so I resist making whiskey my bizness, fearing I’ll lose the privilege I enjoy of appreciating sunlight in a glass for no gain other than sensorial pleasure, philosophical contemplation, and unexpected introductions to new cultures, histories, and people. I don’t wish to risk losing my joy in whiskey to that complex hustle that led to my gradual loss of joy in theater. So I’ll leave the whiskey business to those who love it as a business, and will myself stick to the spirit of it.
In a society that values capital gain above all else, and which expresses this value relentlessly through its laws, politics, entertainment, and other systems, is it possible to “make a living” in the usual sense of that phrase if what makes you feel most alive has nothing to do with capital gain?
The short answer is Yes, of course. You take what job you can, which hopefully you can hang with emotionally in addition to doing it physically, and get your bills paid. But even that much is easier said than done for some people. I’ve been privileged by my society’s systems, and can afford (literally) to entertain this notion of insisting on careers I’m passionate about rather than taking whatever job I might do for the money. But after experiencing theater’s seismic shift away from its central position in my life—something I never anticipated would happen—and now sensing my whiskey interest’s possible ebb, I know I can’t rely on that privileged notion, whether for the big or little things in life.
Around the start of this whiskey journey, I tattooed on my wrists a reminder of my intent to live life with an open hand. Among other healthy habits, I’ve gradually gotten better at asking questions and being okay with no final answers. Valuing questions more than answers is terrible for capitalism, so, striking the balance between living and “livelihood,” joy and income, will continue to be a maze along the journey. But at least there’s a journey…!
As for my current—hopefully passing—conundrum of feeling the grind of whiskey appreciation, the immediately obvious solution is simply put: Shake things up and see how that goes. Maybe drink and taste more irregularly, not just in terms of how much but also when and where? Maybe focus less on the obvious mainstream whiskey brands with their unlimited stream of limited releases, and scout about for the smaller, truly unique unicorns? Maybe post on the blog and its social meds according to whim rather than the calendar? Organize more in-person social events around whiskey for friends, to share with them its unexpected joys?
In short, stay open to what opportunities appear on the life paths I’m walking, and dare to stray from the path more often.
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
Part 5 – What have three years of writing whiskey notes done to me?
5 thoughts on “A Whiskey Journey Part 6 – Nosing The Grind”
Maybe a combination of a wee Sabbatical and Pop Up approach to the blog might provide the proper opportunity for refreshment. I find nothing works quicker to tire me of something than a firm deadline that needs be met on a rigid schedule. Trader Joe’s has a system where their workers change tasks hourly on any given shift so that no one ends up doing the same thing all day. Maybe that’s why I always enjoy shopping there, because the employees never seem to be “blahed out.” Good luck finding the fun again….
Thanks Candy. These days I’m indeed more keen on “hope-lines” rather than “deadlines.” Why kill the line, after all, when one could follow it where it goes instead? Cheers!
Your blunt honesty and love for whiskey would be sorely missed!
I started my whiskey journey a decade ago and have amassed a collection of nearly 600 bottles. Other than a few true “unicorns,” I’m proud to say that (1) I have never, nor will I, resale any of these bottles and (2) almost every one is open. To me, this journey has been about the people I have met, the times and conversations I have shared with others over a warm pour and educating myself because I choose to. It is along this journey that I ran across your writings. Though we’ve never met, it’s almost as I feel like we have, as your blog comes from a point of passion for something really cool. Never lose sight that your writings are much more than just words. Your knowledge has inspired me to continue to learn. There have been many of nights I have poured exactly what you wrote about and try to identify your attention to detail. I hope you this quick note inspires you to continue writing, as you truly do inspire others.
Would love to chat sometime.
I’m a professional career firefighter up in Seattle. My experiences could be more stories for your theater😀
Thanks again so much. I’ve truly enjoyed receiving your posts
Michael, thank you, very much, for sharing about your journey and also your very kind words about the blog. I greatly appreciate your taking the time. It’s heartening to hear directly from someone that what I write here has use and meaning for them… Seattle, eh? Perhaps that’s my cue to open a bottle from Oola Distillery that I’ve been sitting on for too long! Cheers, my friend. 🥃
Oola? Maybe, but I guess I’m a bit of a bourbon snob…. Or purist anyway! Bourbon and rye from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee can’t be beat.
Nothing like southern hospitality…. And whiskey
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