Whisky Live from the Other Side

I once had a girlfriend who always snapped at me, tossed things at me or punched me whenever she saw me looking in a mirror. Or a window. Or a silver metal object. Apparently, at that point in my life I was, according to her, “so f*#$%*# obsessed with checking [myself] out!” that I couldn’t pass a reflective surface without doing so. Admittedly, I was a dashing lad…

I would still be in ICU if she would have seen me at Whisky Live LA last week. I was surrounded by me. Lots and lots of me. For the first time since I started writing about whisky more than a decade ago, I was at an industry show and I wasn’t writing about it. My many pensive visages were scattered about the table where I sat selling copies of my book, “Distilling Rob.” There were Rob postcards, Rob posterboards and Rob books. More me than even I need to see.

Lots of lots of Rob selling "Distilling Rob" to the Whisky Live masses.

Lots of lots of Rob selling “Distilling Rob” to the Whisky Live masses.

It was a strange perspective – sitting down while everyone else walked from table to table sampling whiskies. I had people occasionally stop by my table asking who the guy on the book cover was (it’s only seven months since the photo shoot! It must have been the leather gloves in the cover photo that threw them off).

I sold more books than I expected helped by 1) my bombshell blonde friend, Erin, staffing the table with me, 2) whisky pulsing through the buyers’ veins, and 3) two big bowls of mini-candy bars at my table. I’ve gone to dozens of these shows. I know that mini candy bars are like gold after a certain point.

My position as an observer allowed me ample time to ponder the role of whisky shows in the wider whisky universe. Certainly, I would not have been sitting there hawking my memoir had it not been for my own exposure to whisky through attending a show years ago. That first whisky expo opened up a world of writing, traveling and publishing. The journey also led me to new friends around the globe and is responsible for me ending up on an archaeology expedition in Italy (that’s a whole post in and of itself).

When I first started attending expos it was like a Wild West show of whisky. All the biggest names in whisky were there launching new whiskies and telling tales of long-gone drams and distillers. There were pairing dinners, dozens of workshops and seminars. Everything about whisky was celebrated – the people, the culture, the innovation and the burgeoning awareness of the drink in the marketplace.

Recent shows that I’ve gone to have deemphasized the big picture of whisky to focus on the product. As a writer, I’ve found fewer interesting angles to write about coming from these events. And it seems like the types of people who attend the shows have also shifted as the purpose seems to be drinking whiskies verses learning about them.

There are still some knowledgeable and passionate people behind the whisky booths. But, during my brief excursions away from my table during the evening, I heard several of the young ladies tell the patrons they didn’t actually know much about the whiskies because they were models or actresses. Fair enough. That’s not new at these types of events. But, too many of the industry people who shared these booths with models seemed to be reciting language provided to them from their marketing overseers rather than genuinely engaging in a comprehensive conversation about the whiskies.

Then again, not many people on the receiving end, at least that I overheard, were particularly probing with their questions about the whiskies:

“Which is the best?”

“Is that the most expensive one?”

“What does that taste like?”

Not a single question about barley varieties, fermentation times, still shapes, and only a couple about casks.

I engaged people who stopped by my table by asking them questions about their favorite whiskies. Again, the conversation was underwhelming:

“My favorite? Um, the one over there. I think it’s bourbon though, not whiskey.”

“The one that smelled really smoky.”

“There’s this great rum…”

Am I too fondly remembering the “old days”? Certainly there were plenty of people then who drank solely to vomit, it seemed. But, there was also a more inquisitive feel to the shows. A sense of discovery, if not wonder. Maybe those inquisitive people evolved as I did and are now involved on a level that makes attending these shows redundant to their other pursuits of whisky tastes and knowledge.

Whisky Live LA was still fun and attendees seemed to really enjoy the experience. But, it’s kind of like someone seeing the Rolling Stones for the first time today compared to seeing them in the late 60s/early 70s. Great time now, but it was a GREAT TIME then.

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Timing Is Everything in Whisky and Life

I just opened a bottle of 28 year old Scotch distilled at Glenglassaugh Distillery. A bottle I’ve held on to since I bought it in September of 2005 in a London whisky shop. It was distilled just before Christmas, 1976. Ten years after this whisky was placed into a cask to mature, the distillery was mothballed after 111 years of making whisky. The elixir in this bottle has been waiting to be imbibed for nearly 37 years. And here, on a warm Los Angeles night in October 2013, it is finally fulfilling its purpose.

Why tonight? Why not later this week? Or six years ago? Or 15 years from now? The answer, my friends, is because now is the right time to drink it.

Timing, timing, timing is everything. In life. In whisky. In living. In drinking. Whisky making is a delicate dance of timing. Mess up the fermentation time, the distillation time, or the time you keep a whisky in a cask and the entire effort is wasted. And lord knows that timing is crucial for life. The wrong place at the wrong time, the right place at the right time, the nick of time, timing is off, just in time – our language is filled with idioms that capture our fascination with the capricious nature of time.

I said goodbye tonight to someone that I barely had time to know. Emily and I met for the first time a month ago when we talked for two hours over drinks. The fact that I was able to converse at all is a minor miracle. I spent the first ten minutes with my head voice screaming, “Good lord she’s beautiful!” at neuron rattling volume. But, talk we did. It wasn’t one of those conversations that leave you shaken to the core with the “wow” of an intense connection (which are, ultimately, often short-lived). Rather, it was a fun conversation. An easy flow. But, there was an undertone of energy led me to recognize we were kindred spirits. We were fellow curiousity seekers, rabble-rousers, secret door openers and risk embracers. The kind of people who could say the most hilarious thing at the most inappropriate time and be unable to contain our laughter, even with the rest of the room looking on in horror.

Something about her transported me back in time. I felt like I was 15 with all the nervousness that accompanies a boy when the pretty girl from Spanish class calls and he answers the phone all a’flutter and a’flubbing. OK. That’s a little Rob revisionism. If the pretty girl from Spanish class had called me I wouldn’t be here today because my heart would have ceased to beat from the shock. Thankfully, I outgrew that nervousness years ago. In fact, this summer I went out for drinks with a famous actress. I was suave, smooth, calm and cool as ice. But, get me on ice with Emily, as happened on our second date of ice skating, and I felt like I was back in the junior high roller rink days of trying to avoid smashing into small kids due to being too distracted by the hottie near me.

The ice skating was followed an evening of rye whiskey cocktails (and a quick lesson about LDI) and Korean fusion tacos. And, it was filled with more fun, twisted conversation and the same undertone of kindred energy I’d detected before. The night was delightful. I knew that, given time, exploring the person beneath her eclectic exterior would be a journey worth taking.

A few days after our ice dance, she told me her company had informed her that she was being transferred out of state. She’d be leaving in a week.


The same weekend Emily was to bid farewell to me and others in LA, some of my favorite whisky personalities were saying hello to each other in New York at WhiskyFest. Many of them were meeting in person for the first time after years of sharing thoughts, insights, jokes and playful insults with each other online. They each came into the world of whisky from different places at different times, but the threads they wove together formed what is now known as the Whisky Fabric: “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

Wait. That’s the definition of “The Force.”

Still, those in the Whisky Fabric are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to loyalty, friendship and sharing drams. Everything aligned for those East Coast members of the Whisky Fabric to come together for the first time. I’m sure they enjoyed plenty of whisky together. What were the whiskies? It doesn’t matter. They could have been awful. Those Fabric friends still would have enjoyed that moment in time together.

Time is what told me to open this bottle of Glenglassaugh tonight. One of only 279 ever made.

I bought it while traveling in London with Katie (whom features prominently in my book “Distilling Rob”). Without getting too much into that tale (buy the book!) I will say the bottle has special significance. The trip with Katie was a turning point in our time together. The years that followed that trip were a compressed lifetime. There was a time I thought I’d marry her. There was a time I thought I’d resent her forever. A time I thought I’d never hear from her again. A time to move on. A time for forgiveness. And a time for redemption.

Through it all, the bottle sat unopened. At first, I kept it sealed to save it for a special moment. Then I kept it sealed out of some cold, twisted sense of keeping the past in the past. Most recently, it was kept sealed because the bottle had become a good remembrance time capsule of sorts, thanks to warmth returning to my memories of that trip.

Katie and I are again in touch, our connection now bonded in friendship. She’s married. She has a young daughter and young son. Two weeks ago, her father died. Too soon. I shared with Katie a conversation I had with her father years earlier. It was a short conversation. Maybe 30 seconds. His words stayed with me. And those words he spoke came back through me to give Katie some measure of comfort in her time of tremendous grief.

My mom told me a story yesterday. Two weeks ago, a church in my hometown held a special anniversary ceremony celebrating its 100 years in the community. Church leaders asked, and then pleaded, with an older woman in the congregation who had a penchant for poetry to write a special poem for the anniversary. The woman reluctantly agreed.

At the anniversary celebration, she stood up in front of the entire church and began her poem:

“A time to remember…”

She paused. For effect, she looked up at the congregation. Slowly, she looked back to the poem. Then, she collapsed to the floor, dead.

Her timing was perfect.

Rarely is timing perfect. Something we can control and anticipate. But, that is fine with me.

It’s the unexpected opportunities that time gives you which make life interesting: meeting a unique girl just in time to have her touch your life before she leaves it; stumbling across a whisky shop on the other side of the world and having your girlfriend give you the time to explore its offerings; taking the time to allow 140 character tweets shared between whisky writers around the world to meld into true connection and friendship; having just enough time left in the ticker to make a grand exit in front of the entire congregation.

That’s why now is the right time to open this Glenglassaugh – because there was never a wrong time.

It’s time for me to have another sip. So as I end this musing, I raise a toast for Katie and the journey we’ve shared; I raise a toast for her father and the lives he touched; I raise a toast for my Whisky Fabric family; I raise a toast for the dead church lady; and I raise a toast, in the words of Paul Simon, for Emily, whenever I may find her.


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Making Time for Whisky and Writing

The malleability of time. That’s the title of a chapter in my new book, Distilling Rob: Manly Lies and Whisky Truths. The chapter deals with the passage of time and the perception of Distilling Rob front cover mediumtime, which are two significantly different ways to experience this life. I also think that phrase is an appropriate way to dive into this post.

As those of you who follow me are aware, I’ve been quiet on the blogging front the past few months as my writing energies focused on the final revisions of my book. The book is finally finished, printed, and ready for launch next week. The end of a journey that started more than four years ago when I stepped off a ferry and onto an island off the coast of Scotland and then walked through the front gates of a distillery.

Four years of writing, rewriting, pitching, making deals, having those deals fall apart, being less than 10 minutes away from signing with a major agent after months of courtship only have him to pull the plug just before the 5:00 p.m. deadline of sending me the contract. The proverbial ticking clock.

The book itself covers six months living on Islay as well as more than thirty years living on this planet. Moments that last mere minutes have a lifelong impact. Peat that has been buried in bogs for millennia is burned away in a matter of hours to flavor whisky that will sit for decades before being imbibed in minutes.

I realized today that I could have distilled, aged and bottled a legal whisky in the time it’s taken me to publish Distilling Rob. Yet, the effort to write the book or to make the whisky would seem like it took less time than the effort spent trying to sit through the latest Adam Sandler movie.

Time is the rarely talked about but most vital of ingredients in the whisky mix. Time is also the thread that links stories and storytellers of today to the themes and emotions that have woven together the tapestry of human expression from the beginning of, well, time.

Time is a connector, a healer, a redemptive force. An unforgiving reminder.

As an archaeologist, I’ve excavated tombs that have held bodies for 2,000 years. The last time those bodies were seen they were surrounded by the weeping faces of those who Rob and his new friendloved them. Faces lost to time. Working in a whisky warehouse, I’ve filled and moved hundreds of casks, which utilize the marvelously innovative technologies developed around the time that those bodies entered the tombs I’ve excavated. The casks will sit, for a time, until their wooden staves have had tempered the feistiness of the whisky and imparted the kind of maturation that only happens over time.

In two weeks, I’ll talk to high school friends I haven’t seen in years when I return to my scan0001hometown for a book-signing event. I will try to get together with the other members of my legendary high school band, Maximum Capacity, for a jam session. We will attempt to bridge nearly twenty years apart by cranking out the bridges of songs that only last three minutes. Time won’t give me time/but time makes lovers feel like they’ve got something real/but you and me we know we’ve got nothing but time. O.K. We never played Culture Club songs back in the day. But maybe we will. This time.

What has prompted this musing on time? Is it the momentous occasion of having my book finally published? Is it the eager anticipation of drinking a whisky I said I wouldn’t open until the book was published? Is it the one week countdown to the launch of my first book tour? No. None of the above. I was walking down my street this evening and ran into someone who knows about my book and has known about it for nearly three years. He asked me, as he always does, when the book is coming out. I cheerfully told him it would be next week. His response?

“It’s about time.”

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The Slog to Blog

“You don’t drink whisky?”

Variations of that reaction have escaped my lips numerous times while meeting or interviewing people who work in the whisky industry. Not the brand ambassadors, of course. Nor the distillery managers or the master blenders. The people I’m referring to are the actual whisky makers: the mash man, the still man, warehouse workers or engineers. Sure, they may drink it once in a while, but for the most part, most of those guys would much rather have a pint than a dram.

No matter how many times I heard this refrain, I still expressed shock. Here they are, working in a whisky distillery, surrounded by a spirit desired round the world at often exorbitant prices, and they essentially ignore it.

Eventually, I realized that they were no different than plumbers who don’t fix their own sinks, mechanics who don’t fix their own cars, accountants who don’t do their own taxes: this is their work life. They can’t make it their whole life.

Lately, I’ve fallen into step with such people. In mid-February, I began working as the director of communications and marketing for an organization in Los Angeles that puts on some pretty significant public arts and open streets events. Our last one at the end of April drew nearly 200,000 people.

My job consists of writing, doing social media and giving interviews, among other things. On top of that, I’m still finalizing my book release, so my “free” time has been spent focusing on things like design, contracts and such.

As a result, the Whisky Guy Blog has been very quiet as of late. I’ve also been mostly absent from the whisky discussions I so love on Twitter and on the whisky writers Facebook page. I follow discussions as best I can, and I start most mornings catching up on reading blogs from my favorite whisky thinkers, but I don’t interact the way I would like.

Not that I’m absent from tweets and Facebook comments. In fact, I spend two to three hours a day doing that from sunup to bedtime. I just happen to be doing it for my job.

The absence from my personal tweeting, updating and blogging has bothered me, quite frankly. I love writing about whisky and love engaging with everyone in the whisky fabric. I feel like everyone else has been at a party, and I’ve been stuck at work. Which, in a way, is the truth. I’ve also had plenty to say in my abstract whisky/life way, but by the time I’m able to write, the thought is gone or the timeliness of the insight is stale.

Interestingly enough, while my participation in the whisky conversation has diminished, my enjoyment of the drink has increased. During my five year semi-retirement from a “real job,” there was nothing special about taking time to drink a whisky because I had time to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Now, with time at a premium, having a nightly dram is a pleasure, a respite, an eagerly anticipated moment to savor flavors that excite me and ignite memories that move me.

Every so often, when the stress of not blogging or joining the whisky conversation builds, I stop and think about the subject of whisky.

Whisky is a damn slow thing. It’s downright lazy. You stick in a cask and then it…sits. For years. Decades even. That whisky ain’t going anywhere. And, here I am getting stressed about not having written in a month. During that same time frame a few molecules of spirit may have evaporated. Crazy stress in my head. A wee evaporation in a cask.

Besides, there are a few hundred whisky bloggers out there who are keeping the conversation going. There are even whisky bloggers writing about why those few hundred whisky bloggers are so obsessed about writing in the first place.

As for me, I will get the rhythm of the job down, I will get my book published and I will return to whisky conversation when I am able. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy reading your whisky insights, checking in on your conversations and raising a nightly toast to my whisky family.

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Robby O’ILL and the Little People

Durmod wiped the perspiration from his brow with a scrap of cloth that looked huge in his hand. His companions, Teig and Ronan, were equally as slathered in sweat. Though the 60 degree nighttime winter temperature was cool by Los Angeles standards, it was as hot as a summer’s day would be in their native Ireland. The three couldn’t spend time thinking about temperatures though. The magic portal that had connected their home beneath the cliffs near Portballintrae in County Antrim and the alley behind this Hollywood apartment building would only remain accessible for ten more minutes before closing and leaving the trio stranded on this side of the world. They had a mission to complete and no amount of climate discomfort could distract them.

Ronan crouched as Teig leaped on his back and catapulted himself to the narrow window ledge. His felt slippers struggled to maintain footing on the narrow, three inch wide ledge. Teig’s tiny hands clung to the security bars that caged the apartment windows. He steadied himself before lowering a rope, a string to human eyes, to his companions below. Within moments they had pried a narrow opening in the screen that lay beyond the bars. Though the bars could easily keep out most normal sized people, the spaces between were wide enough for the three little folk to squeeze through.

Durmod stopped his fellow faeries before they breeched the window beyond the screen.

“Remember what is at stake. If he can’t be stopped, we may forever lose our golden treasure.”

“Aye,” the other two nodded empathically.

Stealthily, the crew hopped through the window and landed on a couch. They quickly scanned the room for any sign that they’d found the right target. Ronan pointed to a corner on the other side of the room. A long, espresso colored cabinet ran the length of the wall. Atop the cabinet were bottles, glasses and decanters of all shapes and sizes. Different tones of  gold, brown and cimarron filled the bottles and decanters. The wall above the cabinet was covered with framed magazine articles, certificates and photos, all referring to a man and a drink.

“Robert L. Gard,” Teig read the byline of one of the framed articles after the group had summited the cabinet.

“Sounds like a right bodach,” Ronan said.

“Aye,” Durmod said. “Like the rest of those whiskey writers.”

“Look!” Teig said, pointing to a framed certificate. There was no doubt. The “Old Bushmill’s Distillery” name splashed across the top of the certificate was the incriminating evidence they needed. This person was indeed the one who had visited the distillery a decade earlier to learn the secrets of Irish whiskey.

“Look fast! We don’t have much time!” Durmod urged. The three clambered over the cabinet, searching frantically. Suddenly, Ronan reached out and clutched his companions’ arms. His gaze fell across the room to a coffee table.

Rising above the flat table surface was an obelisk-like item. Tall, filled with dark liquid and, much to their relief, unopened. A bottle of Bushmill’s Black Bush.

“He hasn’t touched it, yet!” Ronan whispered excitedly. “We’ve done it!”

He grabbed Teig’s arm and the two began a little jig. Durmod quickly silenced them.

“We’ll celebrate when we’re back on our own shores. We need to get that bottle first, and we’re running out of time.”

Urgently, the three slid down the cabinet and hurried to the coffee table. Suddenly, Teig let out a scream.

“Oh, Mary! A hellhound!”

Between them and the table that held the bottle lay a black beast, easily three times their size, with rabid fangs and soul-searing eyes. The three little folk crashed into each other as they tried to stop short of the beast’s gaping mouth. Durmod grabbed his companions, and they bolted from the room to a darkened hallway beyond.

“There’s no way we can steal that bottle!” Teig gasped.

“And, we only have four more minutes before the portal closes!” Ronan added.

Durmod paced for a moment. He spun to face his partners.

“Plan B.”

Looks of terror swept of Ronan and Teig’s faces.

“You mean…?” Ronan couldn’t finish his sentence.

Durmod nodded grimly. “The bottle is no longer an option. We need to take out Whisky Guy Rob.”


Ronan held a match above his head as the trio made their way down the darkened hallway. The flickering light revealed a door to the left that was partially open. They paused and heard the sound of light breathing in the room beyond. Durmod motioned for Teig to open the door. Single file, they crept across the wooden floor to the foot of the bed. Ronan again served as a platform for Teig to begin his climb, this time scaling the bedding. Teig hauled his companions to the bed.

The three froze as a figure on the bed shifted position. The breathing momentarily deepened before softening again into a steady rhythm. Durmod pulled a long glass tube from his backpack and meticulously went to the head of the bed. He said a silent prayer to half a dozen saints when he saw Whisky Guy Rob’s mouth slightly open. Like a surgeon, he carefully moved the tube to Rob’s mouth. Durmod depressed a stopper on the end of the tube, chanted a few arcane words, and a sparkly mist appeared above Rob’s head, filtering into his mouth and nose with each inhale. Durmod quickly retreated as his companions breathed sighs of relief.

The trio retraced their steps, carefully avoiding the hellhound and made their way back outside. They sprinted into the alley just as the magic portal started to shimmer and close. One by one they dashed through with Ronan crossing the threshold just before the portal slammed shut and disappeared.


“Well done!” the faerie king exclaimed as Durmod finished recapping the mission in a great hall filled with a rapt audience of faerie folk. “You couldn’t get to the bottle of Black Bush, but the magical cold virus you attacked him with is certain to keep Whisky Guy Rob sneezing and coughing for days!

There is no way in heaven he’ll be able to smell the fruit and spice that float above a glass of the wonderful elixir, taste the subtle influence of sherry casks and the refinement of Bushmills distilling process. His aching throat will not feel the sweet warmth that follows a sip of Black Bush. He won’t be able to write about our golden treasure on St. Patrick’s Day. People around the world will never hear of Black Bush, and we will have an unending supply of this water of life right in our back yard!”

The faerie crowd erupted into cheers as bottles of Black Bush were liberally poured into eagerly waiting glasses. The faerie king turned to Durmod, Teig and Ronan.

“So, now tell me. How did you take care of the other Bushmills Flash Blog Mob writers?”

Ronan turned to Teig who turned to Durmod. A silence fell over the great hall.

“Other…writers?” Durmod asked. The faerie king sternly leaned forward. Durmod turned toward the nearest little person pouring Black Bush.

“Make mine a double.”

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A Dram for Living Deeply

“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.

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Whiskey and Democracy: Let Your Voice Be Heard

President Barack Obama, descended from Kentucky whiskey makers.

On this day, when we inaugurate Barack Obama to a second term as U.S. President, I’m going to take a little time to get all political with this post about whiskey.  I’m going to talk about democracy, the rights of the common folk, the equal access to consumer products, and most importantly, what YOU can do to have my cousin change a few silly U.S. regulations. My cousin? How can he help? Turns out that my cousin is the aforementioned Mr. Obama.

Kentucky, around 150 years ago, was a frontier land for the U.S. Much of it was settled by second and third generation Scots-Irish who’d been chased out of Pennsylvania years earlier following the Whiskey Rebellion. Think today’s Tea Partiers are dangerous? The Whiskey Rebellion saw thousands of people rise up to exercise their Second Amendment Rights as part of an organized militia and march across Pennsylvania to forcefully protest what they saw as unfair taxation against their livelihood. The agricultural commodity that was being unfairly taxed? Whiskey.

There is a perception that much of whiskey regulation through the years has to do with temperance and keeping the Devil’s spirit away from a God-fearing soul. Well…that’s not exactly correct. Most of the “sin” taxes against whiskey, from 17th Century Ireland to 21st Century UK have to do with hoarding money for those in power, pure and simple. And, from day one the wealthier and larger whiskey producers received better tax deals than the small, independent whiskey makers. By small and independent, I’m referring to farmers on the fringes of the wild who needed to make whiskey in order to get the best possible yield from whatever grain they grew.

I could go on and on about details of taxation, the people who were unfairly targeted and affected by it, how the temperance movement politically and morally attached themselves to alcohol taxation (and eventual suppression here in the U.S.). But, we’ll leave the history lesson for a book. The upshot of all of this is that my progenitors left Pennsylvania shortly after the Whiskey Rebellion and ended up in Kentucky where, family lore has it, they made some palatable whiskey.

A family branch split 170 years ago resulting in one descendent sitting at his laptop on Inauguration Day writing about democracy and another descendent standing in front of the world pledging to uphold the principles of democracy. So, today, Barack Obama continues a line of democratic succession unbroken since our first president, George Washington. Which brings me back to whiskey. You see, President Washington was once the biggest whiskey maker in America. In some ways, his sympathetic understanding of those whiskey makers (many of them his former soldiers) involved in the Whiskey Rebellion helped to mitigate what could have been an even more violent uprising.

All the cluttered U.S. government regulations that resulted from years of alcohol taxation and the temperance movement have led to a convoluted maze of federal, state, and local laws which makes buying alcohol seem like a really bad, “choose your own adventure” book. I mean, how bizarre is it that one of America’s biggest whiskey producing states, Kentucky, has counties in it where one is not allowed to purchase alcohol?

One of the most frustrating effects of these bizarre laws is the fact that U.S. regulations require alcohol to be sold in specific bottles sizes, including the 750ml bottle size (to learn why, check out http://inebrio.com/thescotchblog/?p=442 which I first read via www.cooperedtot.com). Why is that frustrating? Most of the rest of the world puts alcohol in 700ml bottles. The upshot? There are hundreds of fantastic whisky expressions from around the world which we cannot import into the U.S. due to difference in bottle size.

In my opinion, the U.S. regulation about bottle size is as much of a class issue as a consumer protection issue. Producing bottles this size is illegal in the U.S., but possessing 700ml bottles is not illegal. It is perfectly acceptable for me to fly to Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, India or anywhere else in the world and bring a limited number of 700ml bottles home with me. But, flying across the world on a regular basis to shop for whisky is cost prohibitive for me, and for most people, I assume.

The average whisky consumer, who likely has above averages tastes and fairly ambitious curiosity, misses out on the artistry, creativity, passion and craft of far too many whiskies and whisky makers because of this regulation. And the only reason this regulation exists is the zombie-like mentality of bureaucracy and a terrifying fear of the metric system (definitely check out that post I mentioned earlier).

Thankfully, thankfully, thankfully, cuz Barack has opened a door that allows whiskey lovers and people who believe in consumer fairness to speak out. In 2011, the White House launched the “We The People” online petition platform which allows for voices to be heard on any and all subjects that inspire the petitioners. The petitions have ranged from the practical (immigration reform) to the absurd (build a Death Star). But, they do let people speak to issues close to their heart and beliefs. Results from these petitions are mixed, but the petitions are at least a way to start the dialogue.

One petition very close to crossing the threshold of the minimum number of signees is a petition that aims to address the disparity in international and national bottle sizes for spirits. If successful, the petition would not burden domestic spirits bottlers, but would open the markets to imported bottles of smaller size. This would definitely benefit consumer choice and potentially lead to some shifts in pricing. Whether those shifts are up or down is unknown.

I urge you to take time this week, as we celebrate the concept of democracy here in the U.S., to connect with the whiskey making legacy of our first president, and with the ornery attitude of those whiskey rebels who fought for fair taxation and market access for their product, and sign this petition: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/allow-700ml-and-other-sized-bottles-distilled-spirits-be-imported-sale-united-states/C15PWSmY

Tell my cousin I sent you. And, he still owes me money for the parking ticket I got in France. But, that’s another story.

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Unfiltered Whisky and Writing

Last week, I participated in an improv comedy show here in LA at the M.I. Westside Comedy Theater. The theme of the show was diaries. I was one of three readers who shared a passage from their secret jottings in front of a large audience as a troupe of actors listened attentively. Once finished, the actors proceeded to do improvisational “alternate versions” of the passages, using the people, places and emotions revealed in the reading. The results were often hilarious.

I was the first to read. My passage, about meeting some women in Prague a few years ago, was met with much laughter, but also some gasps at my unfiltered descriptions. Even as I read the diary entry, I cringed at some of the repeated references to a woman who had physical peculiarity that…well, you had to be there.

In the same way, there are many anecdotes in my soon-to-be released book, “Distilling Rob: Manly Lies and Whisky Truths”, that make me squirm with palpable unease at their raw retelling. The diary reading the other night and the book have made me think about the connection between authenticity and audience in storytelling – no matter if that story is a fictional romance or if the story is what a person thinks about a particular whisky being reviewed.

Whenever someone new to writing asks me for advice, I always tell them to write, write, write. Don’t filter, don’t censor, and don’t write with fear. Never linger on a first draft. Leave concern over a particular paragraph, sentence, word or chapter for your rewrite. That first rush of emotion, reaction, relaying and relating is where the essence of one’s message lies. Rewriting refines the messages and themes.

Whisky bottling oftentimes utilizes a similar process. Chill filtering is a way to “clean-up” the story of the whisky during the bottling process. In the chill filtering process, whisky is chilled to near freezing to suspend certain sediments, esters, fatty acids and such. As a result, the whisky will not turn hazy when it is chilled or water is added by a person who drinks it. On the flip side, there is a strong sentiment that removing strong sediments also strips away some of the flavor in whisky. The eliminated flavor elements could add surprisingly nice depth to the whisky, or those flavors could harshly affect the enjoyment of the spirit. One doesn’t know without trying an unfiltered version of the whisky.

I’ve had plenty of whisky straight from the cask, and there’s something very connective about seeing charcoal residue in the bottom of your glass when you finish. You don’t feel like you simply had a dram of whisky (at cask strength nonetheless) but that you have ventured through the looking glass into the private world where wood and spirit interact for years to create whisky. Sometimes that journey leaves your mouth feeling gritty, and on occasion finds you spitting out a small piece of charred wood. But, there is never any regret about being exposed to something so rawly authentic.

I admire writers who aren’t afraid to let readers into their authentic world. Filtering words and descriptions might be easier on a writer’s soul and psyche, not to mention his or her inbox should readers respond with passionate disagreement. But, I firmly believe that readers respond to someone who is brave enough to expose the innermost thoughts and feelings.

I read a memoir by the author Robert Goolrick in which he described how his often-drunk father raped him as a child. Talk about taboos: incest, rape, sodomy and child abuse all there on the page for the world to see. I had the chance to talk to Goolrick a couple of years ago after hearing him read from the book at a writer’s conference. He was dazed by the reading. You could tell he didn’t want to share that story at all. His memoir likely shook the lives of family members and friends alike, perhaps even alienating some of them from his life. But, it was obvious he knew that the story needed to tell itself. Truth finds its way through the center of the best storytelling, both in fiction and nonfiction.

I find the same truth-to-self reflected in two of my favorite whisky reviewing bloggers: Gal Granov and Sku’s Recent Eats. Their approach to whisky reviewing is uncompromising, which, for people who are not established whisky writers (as in, someone who can get away with saying something negative about whisky because they’re so big in the industry) is a brave thing. They risk being shut out of samples and invites to industry events, in other words, having access to the very thing they’re passionate about greatly reduced, if not eliminated, by whisky makers who are particularly sensitive to their reviews. Yet, those two consistently call things as they see them, sometimes drawing fierce disagreement from readers, but not disrespect.

As I stood on stage last week and heard nervous laughter and sensed squirming unease as I read certain parts of my diary, I was right there with the audience. I couldn’t believe this person said some of those things. I had the added embarrassment of knowing that person was me. Yet, I looked the audience members in the eye, let my words sink in, and moved on as I delivered more material with which the improv actors could skewer me.

We all, ideally, want others to see the best parts of ourselves. Life is much simpler when you don’t grate against people’s expectations and agendas. However, living or writing in that manner only fades unique voices into the cacophony of the masses. Individuals need to remain loyal to their truths, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable those truths may be for others. That’s not to say adherence to one’s authenticity gives a person license to disrespect those who may hear or read one’s words. Be true, but don’t be a jerk about it (ahem, talk radio hosts).

When you remain sincere to yourself, you express the truths, good and bad, in each of us, which is something people can relate to and respect. How you filter and refine that truth is up to you as a person or a writer. But, you can never lose sight of it.

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Independence in Writing and Whisky

“Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Independent” has such a strong, rebellious connotation that burns beneath the word. Independent means you’ve clawed over the walls that society has closed around you. Independent propels you outside of convention and circumstance. Independent is the beacon light that those left behind the walls shift their gazes toward, wondering, waiting, longing, hoping, regretting.

Independent, however, does not mean alone. Independence, in a way, cannot exist without others to recognize and support the endeavor. Unnoticed independence is similar to a tree falling in a forest: does it make noise? Yes; but without anyone there to hear the crash, the noise is for naught.

I’ve made a lot of noise in the past few weeks in both the writing and whisky worlds. In late October, I launched a campaign to fund an independently-published memoir/travelogue that examines how people mature into adults through the analogy of the whisky maturation process. The campaign caught attention of writers and whisky fans alike, and was featured in several online and print outlets.

Readers know I love discussing the connections between whisky making and storytelling. In the process of my campaign, I had the pleasure of connecting with several people who are making whisky and who are creating stories, and like me, they are doing it independently. The thread we all share is the reliance upon others to help our independent visions come to fruition.

I wrote a piece about my Kickstarter project for independent writing advocate Molly Greene’s blog. Molly is a writer whose debut self-published novel, “Mark of the Loon,” is a sassy mystery featuring four female friends with strong individual personalities. In addition to writing creatively, Molly is a mentor to many new writers, helping them to navigate the murky waters of publishing, editing, building audiences and creating a buzz for their efforts.

Molly and I had a wide-ranging conversation about the challenges that face an independent writer, one who is trying to do everything on their own. To her surprise, when she first started to blog about her questions and struggles with independent writing, she discovered dozens upon dozens of other independent writers who were stuck at the same spot as she. An interconnected community developed around her solo endeavor. Molly is still independent. She is still working to build sales for her book. But, she does so with the encouragement and support of a network that she didn’t know existed when she sat down to write the first words of, “Mark of the Loon.”

That spark of independence is what drives a woman from New York to import an inherently Scottish drink from France. Allison Patel is known to many in the whisky community as “The Whisky Woman” through her blogs and her tweets. But, Allison is more than a member of the community. She stands independently from it as the innovator and visionary of Brenne whisky, the aforementioned French whisky import that is finished in Cognac casks.

Like Molly, Allison ventured down her creative path at her own inner urging. Sure, Brenne fits a unique market niche that appeals to a certain demographic. But, the impetus for Brenne comes not from market research analysis, but from an individual’s recognition that her fledgling whisky palate would have liked a smoother transition from the world of wine and cocktails to the world of whisky. Allison found her whisky, bottled and imported it, with the underlying fear that all people who venture away from the comfort of the crowd experience: How would a newcomer to whisky, importing a spirit from a non-traditional whisky country, finished in Cognac casks, of all things, be treated by the wider whisky world? Would whisky connoisseurs support her new endeavor or shoot it down? In less than two months, Brenne has been featured prominently and positively in numerous media outlets, whisky blogs and tasting events. People, many people, are drinking and enjoying what was once an unrealized dream.

Sprinting into the darkness that surrounds an individual endeavor can be a solitary process like Molly writing a book, a logistical leap like Allison arranging an international business, or a bullhorn shout like my Kickstarter campaign. Carin Castillo, of Sia Scotch, is doing all three.

Carin is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to fund her Sia Scotch whisky blend. Sia comes from years of Carin’s passion for whisky – sipping with a solitary focus as she tried to identify the flavors from different whiskies that most appealed to her; devoting months to business and marketing logistics; and planning and launching a broad-reaching Kickstarter campaign to fund her dream. The initial response was slow in relation to her overall funding level. But, as the word of her project spread and the support of the Kickstarter and whisky communities grew, so did her funding. With less than ten days to go, her Sia campaign has already passed its $39,000 goal.

We are four individuals (three beauties and me – makes me feel like Bosley in “Charlie’s Angels”) who at various points in our lives thought, “I can’t do these things that society expects of me; but, I MUST do this thing that I expect of myself.” We share a desire to connect with the earnest earthiness of creating something with our hands and our minds.

I think that’s why so many people root for individuals who take risks, even if they don’t embrace the same level of independence in their own lives. They see our efforts as something that is more than us and more than them. They understand that within our endeavors lie the very elements of human creativity.

Our individual efforts don’t succeed because we rise above everyone else. We only find success, approbation, meaning and fulfillment because everyone joins together to lift us up and helps us thrive as the individuals they believe we can be.

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Vampires, Whisky and Writing Give My Book a Kickstart

“Vampires. Kinky sex. I should have had vampires and kinky sex.”

That was the thought that stumbled into my head around 3:30 this morning as I tossed and turned with the half-conscious gauziness that covers one’s brain in the middle of the night. My mind was working in the off-hours, trying to figure out what would further propel my Kickstarter book funding campaign to greater success.

For those who haven’t seen my updates on Twitter or Facebook, I’ve spent the last four weeks focused on funding my memoir/travelogue, “Distilling Rob: Manly Lies and Whisky Truths” via the Kickstarter crowdsource funding platform. The true story tells of my brief time working at the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay. The story uses the whisky maturation process as an analogy for how boys mature into men, and we all try to mature into adults. The present-day time at the distillery is balanced with flashbacks of my own journey through life as a medium to vessel that analogy.

Funds raised through the Kickstarter campaign will be used to finance the final edit, design and publishing of the book. I decided to go the independent publishing route after several near-connections with literary agents and publishing companies fell through over the course of the past 18 months. There is a huge movement in the independent publishing world that is very similar to the movement happening in the craft distillery universe. People with passion, and more often than not the skill to match, are taking their creative endeavors into their own hands. Rather than waiting for the world to discover their efforts, they are bringing their efforts to the world.

Which brings me to vampires. And kinky sex.

Independent publishing, like launching a new whiskey distillery, is often a losing game. Many people who venture down either of those roads don’t have the personal infrastructure, the experience, the capital, or the marketing vision to succeed. Plenty of passion and talent, but that only gets you so far. In the world of self-publishing it seems many writers try to make up for those shortcomings by writing about vampires. Or kinky sex. Ideally, both. And, that does get them to a certain point, as both are such “literary” hot topics.

I guess in the middle of the night, my thought of adding a tryst among the grist (whisky joke) with a sensitive, yet sexy, undead being whose complexion is fifty shades of grey, seemed like a sure winner to boost my book sales. But, that idea disintegrated in the morning light. And, considering “Distilling Rob” is a true-life story, I’d be hard-pressed to add either of those things to my experiences on Islay or in my life. Though, the anecdote of my blind date with an L.A. Goth girl who wanted to nail my hands to her wooden floor “like Jesus” so she could have her way with me comes close (as you’ll find out in Chapter 23).

Vampires and such are devices for fiction writers whose goal is to distract readers from their lives – and we all have needs for distractions. “Distilling Rob” on the other hand, delves into the raw, dark, unrehearsed, triumphant and hilarious parts of my life as the story rides the theme of maturity and adulthood. My personal recollections serve as a conduit into each reader’s life, allowing them to examine their own choices and experiences to see how they ended up where they are. Mine is a story of introspection rather than a story of distraction.

I never intended to write my “life story.” Far from it. My original goal was to explore the theme of whisky/human maturation by interviewing people who worked at distilleries to learn how the job made them the adults they are today. Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan radically shifted that vision when he offered me the opportunity to discover whisky making from behind the scenes. Suddenly, I was part of the story I wanted to examine. The book took shape from there, much to my reluctance (trust me; I’ve little desire to “Distill Rob” before the world, but my book had other ideas).

The “Manly Lies” in the title refers to the misinformation about adulthood that is given to children by mass media; the way adults shift their own life perspective to better fit into the mold society expects; and, ultimately, the lies we live within our hearts when we deviate from our path of passion and fail to follow our bliss.

“Whisky Truths,” in an ideal world, is a reflection of the simplicity of whisky-making – water, grain, yeast, and casks – which results in a product with unique, individual characteristics. Those of us in the whisky world are fully aware of the “non-truths” in whisky: caramel coloring to make whiskies “look” better; “Reserve” editions that are oftentimes ways to dump mediocre whiskies onto the market at a premium price; and fancy bottles and packaging to drive up prices of “rare” whiskies that, while good, don’t necessarily match their alleged value.

But, for the sake of this story, I focused on the life truths one finds in whisky-making – or rather, the truths one seeks in whisky-making. What I find is revealed along the way.

This story and campaign has resonated with people. Within 24-hours of launching, I’d topped my initial funding goal. Within a week, I reached my second goal. Now, I am less than $500 away from my next goal, and the project has more than 100 backers. The campaign was featured on independent writer advocate Molly Greene’s influential blog. I was also interviewed about the book for a newspaper article. All in all, not bad for such a short campaign.

In two days, the campaign will end. Within three to four months, the book will be released. Like a whisky once it is bottled, when the book is packaged, all my thoughts and words will be immutable. No more life going into them, no new life coming from them. Hmmm… kind of like a vampire. Guess I pulled that off after all.

My next blog will dig deeper into the commonalities shared by independent whisky and writing, as I focus on efforts by Molly Greene, Allison Regnault Patel, Johanne McInnis and others.

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