“People living deeply have no fear of death.” – Anais Nin
I’ve loved that quote from the first time I heard it. The words express everything I feel about life and living: absorb it all, good and bad, every step of the way. The number of years doesn’t matter, but what you do with those years does. When you go out at the end, you’ll leave knowing you have experienced most of the colors and flavors life offers. Get your money’s worth. I suppose whisky is similar. If you take short cuts, don’t get all you can get out of each step along the way, you’re left with a long time spent creating a missed opportunity.
The whiskey community lost someone last week who seemed to have touched a lot of people, if the number of blogs, tweets and Facebook posts about the unexpected death of Truman Cox, the Master Distiller at A. Smith Bowman Distillery are a measure. I never met Truman, but his death at the young age of 44 really shocked and impacted a number of writers and industry insiders. Words like “friend” “fun” and “great guy” dominated the descriptions of those who mourned his loss. Mentions of him as a skillful whiskey maker were afterthoughts compared to people talking about who he was as a man.
Two weeks ago, someone I did know personally was killed in a high profile shooting in Arizona. Mark Hummels was an attorney who, along with his client, was gunned down by an elderly man who was in a legal dispute with the client. I lived next to Mark for a year in college and was amazed by his ability to not sleep, to absorb all kinds of influences into his mind and body, to play trombone at 3:00 a.m., to get up at 5:00 a.m. for swim practice, and get to class by 9:00 in time to ace a test. In Facebook posts by friends from then, and from throughout his life, he was recounted as someone whose intelligence was only outmeasured by his zest for living. Mark was a true good guy who, like Truman Cox, left behind a wife and family with many long years in front of them without their loved one.
My whisky writings have long been about the larger issues of life that I see whisky tapping into or being analogous of. When I first became involved in the world of whisky more than a decade ago, I was all about the drink – going on and on about flavors, aroma notes, grain varieties, still shapes, water sources and everything else about the product. Before the days of Twitter threads I’d sit in the few whisky bars in L.A. and converse for hours with other whisky lovers about the merits of uniform alcohol levels in bottling versus cask strength.
One day, I was sipping a 32 year-old Caperdonich from Duncan Taylor, which had been distilled in 1970, and it dawned on me that some of the people involved in the production of that Scotch may not have lived long enough to enjoy the result of their efforts. That personal insight led to my slow shift from focusing on the product of whisky to examining the people behind the whisky. I continued that evolution by moving beyond people in the whisky world to thinking about how whisky could reflect and speak about life for people around the world. I’ve been writing from that perspective ever since then.
There is a need and a place for people who discuss, debate and dissect the product of whisky. I love reading about and occasionally participating in those conversations. One absolutely needs to examine the details of the composition in order to fully enjoy and understand it. But, there’s also something to be said for stepping back and carefully contemplating the big picture.
For me, the biggest measure of a whisky isn’t the particular notes of the dram, but how it makes you feel when you’re finished with it. I’ve poured some low scoring whiskies in my life that have been elevated beyond measure due to the circumstances in which they were imbibed. That’s not to say that I prefer those whiskies over better whiskies. Certainly not! Give me a Port Ellen 2009 release over a Glenfiddich any day of the week. Or night. Or morning. Preferably all three. But, how can I appreciate the former if I’ve never had the latter to help paint a fuller, richer whisky picture? That’s why I’ve never understood people who say, “This is my drink” or band, or running shoe, or chair, or anything else that they cling to exclusively and limits their openness to different experiences and interactions.
Living deeply. No fear of what comes with death because you’ve taken all you can from life. Comparing the lives of a beloved hard-working master distiller or a brilliantly eccentric lawyer to whisky isn’t the point of this piece. Celebrating the fleeting moment we have in time to embrace both the breadth and nuance of life is. Not all of us can go out with the heartfelt tributes that Truman and Mark received. But, every day we’re here gives us another opportunity to connect more deeply with life and with those whose lives we touch.