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Sunday
Mar312013

Communication Breakdown 

Have you ever written a text or an email to someone where you said something sarcastic, but it didn't come across in the email? Maybe you were straight to the point about an issue or you know what you meant when you wrote it, but any humor or tongue-in-cheek was lost in translation and the written word didn't convey the smirk on your face. It's happened to me before. In fact, it's happened to me quite a lot. I tend to write quickly and sometimes I just assume that everyone knows what I mean.

When you're on the road tasting booze all day long and you're writing down information, jotting down quotes, trying to come up with a quick summation of the day's events, you tend to get worn down by evening's end. So far on this trip I've had about thirty minutes right before bedtime to try and put something interesting together that explains what we've been doing. Sometimes my eyes have glossed over while typing. Sometimes the articles have been full of spelling errors. Sometimes I've just written and assumed that others could see where I was going. When you write like that you miss things and sometimes you don't convey the true intent of your message.

I can think of a million times where I've publicly said something private about my wife that I don't think is particularly embarrassing or controversial – maybe that she doesn't like steak or something trival like that. Then we'll end up eating dinner at someone's house and that person will say to her, "Oh right, you're the person who doesn't like red meat." My wife will then glare at me and I already know what that look means. It means, "How in the hell did this person know I'm picky about my meat?" I know what my first response will be. I'll always say, "Why is that such a big deal?" I'm an open and outgoing person who doesn't get humiliated easily. My wife is the opposite, however. She doesn't want to draw any attention to herself if possible, so even minor details about her preferences or habits can make her upset. I need to remember to respect that at all times.

What does this have to do with anything? It has to do with a post about Bladnoch I wrote a few days ago. Let's refresh our memory on some of what I wrote late one evening:

The South of Scotland isn't a very populated region. About 25,000 people live in a 100 square mile radius. There's not much of an economy down there unless you're a farmer, a plumber, an electrician, or a butcher.
The coastline is completely barren in some places. Some parts look across to the Isle or Arran and at other places you can see Northern Ireland. It is deep within this part of Scotland, almost down near the border with England, that you can find one of the true Lowland distilleries in the Lowlands. It's not near anything you'd want to visit as a tourist and it's not on the way to anywhere else. You need to make the effort if you're going to visit this facility.

Literally everything I wrote in those few sentences came out of the mouth of our hotel manger who was answering a few questions about the region. I was doing my best to write down what he said and when I finally got back to my hotel room that evening I simply typed up this information as fast as I could. It was my intention to paint the Lowlands as a quaint, endearing, small-town country region that most people tend to ignore or forget about. I wanted to start with this description because I wanted to make everyone think I was talking about some forgotten backwoods, only to let you all know that this was really the home of some great people making some great whisky. I was planning to write a second part to this article that showcased all of this, but I got busy and couldn't get back around to it. While nothing I wrote was inherently negative, it was written in a dry and direct manner that seemed rather cold and uninterested. That rubbed some people the wrong way and I can see why. I was planning to say more later.

The river Bladnoch flows through the town bearing the same name. Immediately situated upon this waterway sits the eponymous distillery, a mysterious distillery that has been the subject of much rumor and drama over the past few years. Takeovers, familiy feuds, buyouts, reopenings, closures, and fist-fights have all made their way into this distillery's recent whisky lore. What was once a Diageo operation was purchased by the Armstrong brothers in 1994 and nothing has gone as planned ever since.

Part of what we do on the K&L blog is cover the subjects going on within the industry that don't usually make it onto the average website. That's why people like reading this blog, I think. They learn something about the business they love that they might not have previously known about. Personally, I've been curious about the Bladnoch distillery for years. When I've asked people in the industry about it I've always heard the same thing: it's run by two brothers who don't really get along. That's the first thing people say. That's all anyone seems to know. I've heard all kinds of crazy rumors about the Armstrong family's distillery, but I never knew what to believe and what not to. Gossip is usually just like that. When I wrote the sentence about the "lore" of Bladnoch it was reflecting the nature of what I was predisposed to. I've read emails and message board comments about how the distillery wasn't operational or about how it was on the verge of being sold. I've read all kinds of crap, but I never knew what was true and what wasn't. Therefore, I was excited to go down and find out for myself. What I wanted to do was be the person to dispell all that rumor and replace it with fact.

I could continue to explain why I wrote what I eventually wrote, and I could completely justify why I wrote it, but that would go against the point of what I have to say right now. Regardless of whether what I stated was true, I got completely lost in trying to get to the bottom of a mystery rather than paying attention to the personal feelings of a family. It was just like the situation with my wife. When I don't think it's a big deal I assume it's not a big deal for that person either. There was plenty of widely-known information about the Bladnoch situation. There was a story just a few years back about Wemyss thinking they had a purchase agreement for the distillery until the brothers decided they weren't in agreement and things fell apart. These stories were corroborated upon our visit when we asked. In my opinion it was already widely known that the Armstrongs could disagree at times. It didn't seem outlandish to simply state that as a fact and try to move beyond it. When we learned that Bladnoch was at a complete standstill for the moment because of a current dispute, it seemed that the story got more interesting by the minute. I just kept writing from what I had in my notes.

Ultimately, what I wanted to actually talk about was how, despite all of the problems that Bladnoch had faced and overcome since 1994, they had still managed to create some damn fine whisky. Despite the fact that some critics of the distillery had dismissed the direct expressions as funky or sulphury, we had been able to taste directly from the cask and were very impressed. Despite what you might have heard about these brothers, we had met directly with Colin who had stopped everything, welcomed two strangers into his distillery, and continued to show them a fantastic time. The problem with all of this is that I was supposed to make all of this clear in that article. What happened, however, was that I ran out of time, had to run off and take care of something, and ended up posting a half-assed review of a distillery that, while completely factual, wasn't really indicative of what I wanted to convey. First I was talking about how crazy this place was, but then I was talking about how good the booze was? What the heck was I trying to say?

More importantly, I assumed that because the disagreements between the brothers seemed to be publicly known, and that there was no attempt to hide this fact during our visit, it was therefore alright to shed further light upon this situation. That's what I can't really justify thinking about it now. No matter who is aware of that fact it isn't something that really needs to be brought up again and I should have realized that. In my mind, the story of Bladnoch is the Armstrong brothers. That's what gets me interested in their booze. It's an endearing story of two guys who are passionate about what they do. To me, a single malt whisky is only as good as the people making it and what I had wanted to eventually say about these gentlemen is that their fiery emotions had led to some outstanding hooch. I thought all of these details would get people interested in trying the whisky as well. That all of this hoopla we've heard on the internet or on message boards is really irrelevant. I wanted to get some of this whisky for K&L and show people why it was important. I wanted to say to our customers, "This whisky isn't available in the U.S. but we drove all the way down to Bladnoch to get it because of this crazy story we had been hearing. A story that intrigued us and made us want to know more. However, in the end these passionate emotions had been distilled into an amazing distillate. That's why we purchased three casks of it and we can't wait for you to try them!"

Unfortunately, I've never been able to finish that story. Because of my poor writing I've upset some people who deserved better represention. They didn't need to have their grievances hashed about again on some stupid blog. My intent was to take that information, throw it out there, and then move beyond it to what was really important: the whisky. What I should have known, however, is that while I see all of this as an endearing, emotional, and exciting story about some damn fine whisky, this is real life to other people. While I find it amazing, it's not the way that the Armstrongs want to market their whisky. Not because it isn't true, but because it isn't something they want to discuss publicly.

So let me close with this: the whisky we found at Bladnoch is outstanding. It comes from a quaint, rustic place in the Lowlands that is actually deep within the region. It's the real Lowland distillery, in my opinion, and it's run by two brothers who are quite passionate. We tasted three casks from this distillery and we thought they were quite outstanding. Despite what we had been told, we went drove a long way for this whisky and we learned not to believe everything that people tell you.

And I learned that sometimes whisky doesn't need a story to get people excited about it. It can just be good. That's it. My apologies to the Armstrongs for the poorly-crafted, incomplete, and rushed-to-print report. I hope to be a better ambassador for your whisky.

-David Driscoll