Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Influences

Lately, I've been thinking about things. Weird, right? Well, the proverbial smoke has been pouring out of my ears like a locomotive. The topic at hand? Surely something deep and profound. Something that would make Freud weep, give Plato restless nights of worry, and Sagan...well...Sagan wouldn't do anything. That man's unflappable. Like stone. Something philosophical, right? Nope. It's mainly been:

"What the HELL am I doing?"

To be fair, I think it's a pretty important question. Six years ago I thought I'd be going to Cornell and working for Intel as a Chemical Engineer. Now...I work at a distillery as a MSc in Brewing and Distilling Science. How did this happen? What frantic tapestry was woven to result in this? Well, I think it's time we had a flashback session on In With Bacchus. So think of this as a new Fireside Chat with FDR. Only FDR is as sodden with booze as a rum cake.

So where do we begin. Well, let's begin with this man:

That man is Mark Davidson. When I was a wee lad...alright, not so wee. I was 18/19 and I was in, surprise surprise, Edinburgh for vacation. My mother, deciding that she'd like to spend a lovely night in the creepy-as-hell plague crypts under Edinburgh known as Mary King's close, left me to my own devices in a land where I was of legal drinking age and surrounded by pubs. Did I get blackout drunk? Not quite. Knowing full well that she wanted to spend the night enshrouded in the creepies, I decided to enshrine myself in the scotchies for a night. While walking down the Royal Mile, I spied W.M. Cadenhead's and a sign for a blind scotch tasting on that very night. For about £15, I got the schooling of my life. Where I had broken my drinking teeth on Captain Morgan, Bacardi 151, and Johnnie Walker Black...this man came up to me with five glasses of upside-the-head. We tasted some Nikka Coffey Still, Ardbeg Corryvreckan (the 2008 Committee Bottling!), and a Michael Couvreur Bere Barley Single Malt, along with two others that my brain has unfortunately misplaced. It opened my mind to the fact that there was so much more in spirits that I hadn't even fathomed. Ol' Mark Davidson planted the distilling seed. But who helped it flourish? This guy: Truman Cox. Former Lead Chemist for Buffalo Trace (now Master Distiller for A. Smith Bowman in Virginia). I managed to get talking to him about his background as a chemist and how he got into the industry. We talked via email for a good few months, just discussing things, when I finally realized that my unhappiness with my undergraduate degree (Chemical Engineering) could be turned into something much, much better. So I posed the ultimate question: where can I go from here. And he recommended Heriot-Watt for my masters. To Mr. Cox, I owe a great deal. He helped me turn a life of mind-numbing monotony (that I wasn't particularly good at) into a veritable Wonka-land of awesome. But, I'm sure dear reader, you're wondering how I found out about what many would consider a relatively obscure (but major) player in the spirits industry. For that, I introduce this man:

I heard about Truman Cox through this man's podcast, Whiskycast. Some know him as Mark Gillespie. This is true. I know him as "You can be a whisk(e)y journalist?!" He was the man that partially inspired me to start this website. His podcast and website chronicle almost everything he's ever tasted and he shares them with the world. I thought that was a pretty sweet idea that killed three birds with one stone. Improve my palate (after all, Mark Davidson taught me that there's a big world out there), keep a tangible record of what I've liked/disliked, and get feedback from friends. I actually first listened to Whiskycast back in 2006 (I was only 19! Gasp!) and began to listen to it in earnest in 2008, shortly after my whisk(e)y revelation and about a year before I started the blog. While the Jolly Toper (Mark Davidson's whisky slinging alter ego) made a crack in the foundations of my whisk(e)y ignorance, Mark Gillespie and his Whiskycast put a wedge in there and hit it with a hammer. Only by "put a wedge in there" I mean "bought a wrecking ball" and by "with a hammer" I mean "with a wrecking ball". In my younger days, I couldn't even fathom what whisk(e)y meant. The subtle nuances of cask choice, of condenser type, of still design, of column and pot still blend choice. Mark opened the door to both whisk(e)y journalism and the technical side of manufacturing whisk(e)y for me. Heriot-Watt served to re-lay the foundation of my whisk(e)y intelligence. The man who finished the house, and who I have quite a deal of respect and admiration (not to mention owe quite a bit), is this man:

This is Dave Broom, eminent spirits writer and knower of many things. He managed, straight out of school, to introduce me to my editor at Whisky Magazine and help me get published in such a prestigious tome. Not only that, but he tolerates my occasional calls to ask him about obscure spirit things. To sum it up, Dave has done two things: pushed me further into whisk(e)y journalism...and broadened my horizons to spirits journalism. For a long time, my focal point was whisk(e)y. Scotch, Irish, American, Japanese. I reveled in it all. But his continued conversations and articles about traveling to Japan for sake and shochu, his depth and breadth of knowledge of rum, and his wisdom on cognac have made me realize that I'm being too shortsighted in my work. Because of him, I'm seeking out rum to try, sake to sample, and (for the first time ever) I'm contemplating broaching the subject of cognac, which I know only in technical terms but not in flavor or aroma.

These men, legends in their own ways within their industries, shape what I do on a daily basis. There are others, however, that shape HOW I do it. My writing style can be said to be...unique. "Crazy" is more often the appropriate term; the rantings of mercury-laden hatter. But I do draw my style from a few sources. To some extent, I draw influence in my writing methodology from my engineering background. Frankness and truth are well regarded in my writing. There is no gilding of the lily in the sciences: you are either wrong, or right until someone proves you wrong. Being forthright is key. But that's not to say that don't incorporate other facets. One of my main figureheads of journalism is this man, the most reverent (and crazy) of them all:

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Raoul Duke. The Grand Pubaa of Crazy Journalism. Many of my generation enshrine the Good Doctor due to his prodigious and grandiose usage of illegal substances (in vast quantities and inappropriate times). While I find this entertaining to a certain degree, it's not what draws me to him. It's his style of writing. Gonzo journalism, as defined by Wikipedia, "is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative." It is journalism at its extreme opposite. Instead of the journalist remaining distanced and observing, it sees the journalist immersing and interacting. While this may be horrid for your standard (read: important) news, I find in the spirits industry that it's a most beneficial and beautiful form of coverage. They say that you can't know a man until you've drank with him and I feel that doing it gonzo is the only way to fit that pearl of wisdom into a journalistic setting. To be fair, I don't go as far fledged as the Good Doctor did (although if funds weren't limited all the time, I most certainly would go full gonzo), I do try to adhere to what Hunter S. Thompson has created with his time. Also, his writing style is impeccable. If you saw the Rum Diary with Johnny Depp, try reading the book. I haven't even seen the movie and I can tell you its better. Don't feel bad about perusing Thompson's works; they're very, very good.

My other inspiration for writing may surprise some of you. It is a man that made his bones elsewhere in another industry and decided to write a book about it. His work is the quintessence of the phrase "write how you talk."

The man is Anthony Bourdain. I greatly admire his works (Kitchen Confidential, Nasty Bits, Medium Raw). Upon reading those books, its as if the man is sitting next to you, narrating it to you like an episode of No Reservations. His uncanny wit, scathing sarcasm, and almost venomous self-depreciating humor come across exactly as he speaks. And it is ungodly beautiful. He can spin a true story like no other I've met. It is poignant, funny, and particularly jabbing. I likes it. So, naturally, I'm borrowing it. Except I'm no great artist, so I think I just proved Picasso wrong. So HA, you Spanish Cubist genius. Not so genius after all, huh?

This is, of course, the short list. I could name dozens of others who I greatly admire and draw infrequently on (this post itself contains several references to another comedic savant, Brad Neely) but I'm pretty sure I lost most of you about 3/4 the page up so I won't go any further. I just wanted to put this out there not just to enlighten you, but to thank those that have inspired, guided, and helped me to be what I am. Maybe in ten years time I'll do another post like this (assuming we're still using blogger, or even computers) and update my list. I'm sure that as time rolls inexorably forward, this list will grow significantly longer.

Thanks, folks.

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