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Saturday
Apr132013

Our Whisk(e)y Could Be Your Life

There's a famous book by Michael Azerrad called Our Band Could Be Your Life that documents the influence of punk rock during the 1980s. I've always loved the title of that work because I think it succinctly summarizes how seriously some people take their music. Imagine if you started a band and you had people following you from city to city, getting tattoos of your name across their chest, reciting your lyrics at every show, even arguing over what they think you mean by them. I remember going to watch Stephen Malkmus at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco about five years ago and it was nuts. The whole room was full of people who were cat-calling songs they wanted him to play. He already had a setlist he was working through, but people were really clamoring for old Pavement tracks. At one point he forgot the lyrics to a song he was playing by request, "Vanessa From Queens." We all shouted the words out to him so he could keep going. I remember thinking, "I know all the words to every Stephen Malkmus song by heart, but Stephen Malkmus doesn't?" When it comes to music I think we, as fans, have a tendency to over-inflate the importance of these songs to the artists themselves. What may mean the world to you could be just another jingle to them, one of hundreds that they're forgotten about over time. I think similar analogies could be made about whisky.

We've all been to a concert where an older artist is supporting new material. The artist wants to play the new stuff, but we want to hear the old stuff. We politely tolerate a few Bridges to Babylon tracks because we know Mick is going to pump out "Brown Sugar" and "Gimme Shelter" if we're patient enough. As it pertains to whisky, I've watched grown men practically grill brand ambassadors or master distillers over releasing more Supernova or making another batch of Parker's Heritage #1. I've sponsored customer events where people show up for free food and free booze with the whiskymaker, but sit there and argue with the guest over changing the specs to fit their particular desire. "Can't you make a peated Aberlour? Why not? I'd buy one! Isn't that reason enough?"

In all of my time playing the middleman between customers and producers, I've learned one very important lesson: the companies making the spirits usually don't care nearly as much as the customers do about their alcohol. They're trying to make money, not friends. If their particular product resonates with you, that's great. They're happy to hear it. However, when a customer starts showing up at company meetings, emailing regularly, and exhibiting groupie-esque behavior, it can start to get a little weird for the guys making the whisky. On the other side of that coin, the producers often times do not understand that creating a spirit automatically enters them into a passionate community of liquor fans. Whether they like it or not, they now have websites dedicated to their cause, message board threads documenting their every move, and an HR employee whose inbox is likely overloaded with detailed questions about production. Some spirits will achieve rock star status. Some will simply enjoy a few years of moderate fame. Some will resent success, others will embrace it.

If you asked me to list off every Ardbeg release since 2005 in chronological order, I could do it. If you asked Bill Lumsden the same question on the spot, he could probably answer it as well. However, if he forgot a few names or misplaced the order of a few, I wouldn't be surprised. Nor would I read anything into it. The guys making the whisky are busy doing that - actually making the whisky. They're not categorically managing the entirety of whisky culture in their minds at all times. A lot of whiskymakers have no idea what's going on outside of their own company. Kilchoman? What's that? Whereas someone like me thinks about booze all day and all night, it doesn't necessarily follow that the people making it do as well.

Like the time I had to help Stephen Malkmus remember the lines to one of his more obscure songs. What was more embarrassing? The fact that he had forgotten them? Or the fact that I knew them and had the nerve to shout them out?

-David Driscoll