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Monday
Jan262015

D2D Interview: Marc Andreessen

Marc Andreessen as seen in Wired's 2012 feature article. Click photo to read that piece.

The first time I met Marc Andreessen in person was at the Redwood City store more than a year after we had started emailing. I recognized his name not from the countless Silicon Valley news stories that feature him each week, but rather from a continuous presence in our sales queue. "Man, this guy buys a lot of whiskey," I thought to myself. When he came into the store one night to pick up his orders, I said, "I know you! We've been emailing for a bit, right?" He smiled and said yes. That was it. I knew Marc Andreessen as a K&L customer and nothing more.

It was later that evening when my colleague said to me, "You know who that was, right?"

"Yes," I replied naively. "That's Marc. He's a really good customer."

"Right," my colleague said in return. "He's also the guy who pretty much invented the web browser."

Oh. I knew that (no I didn't). It's not easy to breach the whole "I-know-who-you-are-now" line when it comes to celebrity and fame, but luckily in Marc's case it never came up. We just continued as if nothing had ever changed, emailing about whiskey selections, and eventually sharing a glass together when I once offered to drop his orders by his house on my way home. If you don't know who Marc Andreessen is then you need to catch up on your Silicon Valley episodes from HBO On Demand. Marc is the guy who invented Mosaic at age 22: the first graphical web browser that pretty much changed all of our lives. He's the guy who started the dot-com boom by taking Netscape public in 1995. He's on the board at Facebook and HP; and his Sand Hill firm Andreessen-Horowitz is an investor in just about every other tech company you've ever heard of. In 2012, he was added to Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Yet, for most of the time I've been dealing with Marc, I've mostly known him as a nice guy who happens to like whiskey.

Seriously. Marc Andreeseen is quite possibly the perfect whiskey customer. He's humble, curious, polite, and unafraid to try new things. He's easy-going, loyal, never in a hurry, and just as considerate as anyone else I deal with when he needs to place an order; despite the fact that he's probably juggling a million things in his head at all times. I love working with the guy. I'm super loyal to our nicest clients, so if you try to mess with Marc Andreessen you will have to deal with me (or his assistant "Harsh" Arsh, and she will definitely jack you up). Nailing him down for a lengthy conversation isn't easy, however, so when Marc texted me at 10:30 PM this weekend saying he was available, I made sure I was there to take the call.

In this Drinking to Drink interview we talk whiskey elitism, McDonald's fries versus Johnnie Walker, and the time that Michael Jackson had some fun at Marc's expense. Previous D2D interviews can be accessed by clicking this link, or by viewing the archive on the right hand margin of the site.

David: You probably know more about single malt and the K&L spirits program than any other person I’ve spoken with so far (and most people in general). You’re one of our best customers and you have very good taste. Where are you at with your drinking these days?

Marc: I’m pretty much 100% whiskey. I’m very open-minded within the whiskey category. A lot of Scotch. A lot of single malt and blends. A lot of Bourbon. As you know I love to explore with the Amruts from India, the Japanese stuff, Irish whiskies, and more selections coming from all over the world. It’s a lot of fun to explore.

David: When do you find time to drink nowadays? You’re a very busy guy, so when do you actually get to sit down with a glass?

Marc: It’s funny. Someone once told me that you know you’re an alcoholic when you find yourself drinking at home, alone, in the middle of the night; by yourself—which is pretty much the only time I drink (laughs).

David: I’m home alone right now, it’s late, and I’m drinking. So……

Marc: So…..I figured you’re not an alcoholic if you only drink alone at night. That’s my theory, at least. What got me into all of this was that I stopped drinking beer and wine. I wanted to take out the carbohydrates and sugar, but I was at a loss and I didn’t really know what to drink. I had never really had whiskey, as this was several years ago. I ended up learning more about it and found that I loved it. So basically I only drink whiskey. I’ll drink about two glasses of wine a year, if I’m at a dinner or some event, but almost never. What I found, however, with drinking whiskey “out” or at a business dinner is that I need to steer clear. It’s just too good! You go from one glass, to two glasses, etc. So I basically had to stop drinking whenever out of the house. The other thing is that I work out at night.

David: Really? At your house?

Marc: Yeah, we’ve got a little gym downstairs. So I can’t drink at dinner because I’ll lose all my energy. I work out most nights, so that means I’m not drinking when I get home. When I do drink is after the workout. My wife has gone to bed, I’m usually watching TV or doing email, and that’s when the whiskey comes out.

David: What time do you go to bed?

Marc: It depends. If I get a week off I’ll switch my schedule and stay up most nights. I like being up late at night.

David: Are you up working out until like 5 AM while I’m in a drunken slumber?

Marc: I like to stay up as late as I can. It’s a lot of fun! The middle of the night for me is just my favorite time. So if I can be up at four in the morning, reading, having a nice bottle open, that’s just perfect.

David: Do you find that you’d rather drink by yourself and just enjoy that quiet solitude, rather than drink with other people?

Marc: Usually, for the most part.

David: Because that flies in the face of what other people want to do when they drink. Most people want a bunch of other folks around them when they open a bottle, but I go both ways. Sometimes I want the party, and other times I just want to be alone with my thoughts.

Marc: I’ve got friends who like whiskey, so every once and a while I’ll have them over and we’ll have dinner, drink together, you know. We’ll open some bottles, stay up late, and talk. But, for the most part, since I’m not drinking at dinner most of the time that eliminates my social occasions. So if I drink with others, it’s only with other friends who stay up late like I do. We do that a few times a year, but that’s about it.

David: You’re one of the people who actually inspired this series I’m trying to do. You helped spearhead this with a few quotes and small snippets in the past. One of the coolest stories you shared with me about drinking was the time you got to meet Christopher Hitchens.

Marc: Oh, right!

David: He told you the famous Johnnie Walker quote.

Marc: Do you need me to tell the story again?

David: No, I’ll link to it in the final article. But would you say that’s the one great drinking story you have, or is there anything else in your experience of drinking with people that tops that?

Marc: No, he was such a legend. He was a triple threat—a public figure, a raconteur, and a serious pro. He clearly enjoyed life, and—among other things—drinking a great deal. He was a very successful author and he wrote the forward to Kingsley Amis’s book on drinking. So you know the story: I brought two very nice single malts over to him—being very excited to spend some time with him—and he just completely rejected them out of hand. He didn’t even look at them! It was a complete “no!” (laughs). It was nothing but Johnnie Walker Black for him.

David: So what kind of impression did that make on you? If that would have happened to me I might have questioned my entire drinking experience! Here’s this legendary guy who has obviously stood the test of time, has drunk everything under the sun, and he’s not impressed. If you can’t impress him, who can you impress?

Marc: Exactly. The thing that really stuck with me was that he had basically travelled all over the world—to the worst shit holes and war zones—and he had met with all these dictators and tyrants; criminals, arms dealers, all these crazy people. He said it didn’t matter what corner of the world you were going to; invariably they would have a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. I don’t think I had fully appreciated how prevalent Johnnie Walker was until that point.

David: One of my favorite things you’ve ever told me was that you have a problem with people who don’t like McDonald's fries, because what’s better than something that’s specifically engineered for you to love it?

Marc: Right! My business partner Ben Horowitz actually said this, and I totally agree with him. He said, as far as he’s concerned, a Big Mac and McDonald’s fries are the culinary equivalent of a five-star French restaurant.

David: I love it!

Marc: It’s just as good, right? And maybe better. And certainly more consistent.

David: But that goes against everything that Bay Area food culture holds dearly—which is why I love that you’re saying it, obviously!

Marc: Exactly, it is because the McDonald’s corporation—which goes back about 80 years—optimized this stuff to be the perfect flavor, the perfect texture, and to just explode with flavor in your mouth. There’s a total science to the McDonald’s french fry and it’s very serious. They have these machines that create the optimal french fry and it has to do with the curve of heat that is applied to the fry as it goes into the fryer. One of the main things that impacts the fry—maybe you go to another place and they’re too crisp or too soggy, and it turns out there’s this huge variable—is: how hot is the oil when the fries go in? If it’s too cold, you need more heat. If it’s too hot, you need less heat. But only McDonald’s has a machine that will automatically adjust the temperature of the oil to the perfect level when the fries go in. They’ve tested it for years. It’s a perfectly engineered food. It’s one of the best things in the world! For me, the Johnnie Walker Black and Gold—and I’m bummed that they’re no longer making the same 18 year old Gold they used to make—those are perfectly engineered whiskies. Just perfect.

David: Why do you think that there’s this inability for Americans—or foodies and other similarly-typed people who take drinking seriously—to come to terms with the fact that we can like Hostess Cupcakes and the boutique pastry as well? Why can’t we have both and be happy?

Marc: Hostess Cupcakes! Another perfect example. Absolutely awesome; nothing better. The simple answer has to be elitism. It’s so important to our cultural identity that we not be like what “common people” are like. I grew up in Wisconsin where going to McDonalds was a special treat.

David: Hey man, so did I! I grew up in Modesto. Modesto is the Wisconsin of California.

Marc: Yeah! So you remember! Going to McDonalds was a big deal! My town was not even big enough to support a McDonalds. We had a Hardee’s instead. So when we’d go to Madison and hit up McDonalds it was an event. I grew up like that, so that’s part of it. But I also feel it’s silly to be elitist. It’s silly to be that way. If a product is fantastic, super cheap, and super mass-produced, it can still be just as wonderful as something exceptional and rare.

David: I’m with you. Sometimes I don't like the elitism of the wine and food world for that reason. It can seem like an act.

Marc: I’m not a wine person, so I can't speak to that part. But I will say that I enjoy it when these studies come out that—in blind tastings—not only can many wine aficionados not tell the difference between various reds, but it also turns out that, with no visibility, they can’t even tell the difference between white and red. I don't know how legit these studies are, but they always makes me laugh. It doesn't mean wine tasting or appreciation is pointless, but maybe it turns out that you can’t scientifically support the elitism.

David: It does. Absolutely. Let me switch subjects on you here. I know I’ve told you this story, but in 1995, when I was fifteen years old, I was sleeping over at a friend’s house and I woke up on the living room floor to find his father going into hysterics. It turns out that his stock broker had called him and told him he had invested in a certain start up company that had gone public. That company was called Netscape and it was all over the news that day.

Marc: Wow! That’s fantastic.

David: Right? So, that was in 1995. Soon after that you were on the cover of Time magazine. Twenty years later I’m sitting here, drinking a glass of whiskey, having a late-night phone conversation about alcohol with the guy that made that event happen. This is a memory from my childhood that I still remember clearly, and has ultimately come back into my life at a later point because I’ve started this interview series about booze and I’ve now met all these really interesting people. And because we both like to drink we’re now speaking about a common interest. So my question for you is: has your internet and investment work ever allowed you to come into contact or meet someone that you knew about as a child, but never thought you’d actually meet?

Marc: The number one person would have to be Michael Jackson.

David: YOU GOT TO MEET MICHAEL JACKSON?!!

Marc: I spent a whole afternoon with Michael Jackson.

David: Shut the fuck up! When was this?

Marc: This was in 2002 or 2003, so it was before he got hauled into all those court cases. There was a reason for it. He was trying to get out of his contract with Sony and he wanted to get them to sell him his music back; saying the label was conspiring against performers. His people called us and basically said that Michael wants to meet you guys because he wants to start his own record label and he wants it to be an internet label. This is like 2002—when the iPod was just coming out and iTunes was just getting started—so there still wasn’t really a legal way to distribute music online. So they said we want to start an internet record label, but we don’t know anything about the internet. We want to learn more about how it works, so would you mind coming down to spend some time with Michael? It took me about two nanoseconds to say yes!

David: This is incredible! Did you get to go to Neverland Ranch?!

Marc: Originally we were supposed to go to Neverland, but it got called off at the last minute and they changed the location. To this day I have no idea why, but they changed it to the Bel Air Hotel. So my business partner Ben and I flew down and then drove over to the hotel to meet with Michael and his team of business managers. And, of course, they’re all in the most expensive suite. It was the middle of summer, so everything was gorgeous—the sun was out and the patio was open. We basically spent the whole day with him.

David: Did you get to have a drink with him? I’m not sure Michael was a drinker, so maybe not.

Marc: There was no drinking on our part. I won’t speculate as to whether anyone else was on anything (laughs), but we didn’t have anything. He was very nice though. We had a very nice afternoon.

David: What was your impression of him? Was he quiet? Was he shy? Did he ask you questions?

Marc: Well this was before any of the allegations against him came out and some of the business that eventually became controversial. The public image of him in his final years is as this frail, rather thin person. This was before all of that went down, so he was still in good shape. He looked quite healthy when he was there. We spent the entire time talking to him about this internet record label, but it turned out he really had no interest in it at all.

David: Oh no, that’s weird.

Marc: Well, let me explain why. Afterward we realized it was all just a part of his negotiations with his record label. They wanted to be able to say that they had met with us about the possibility, but as we continued talking with him—and I don’t propose to understand him or analyze him—to me it seemed like he was completely isolated from regular existence. Just cut off. And I got the impression it had been like this for many years; probably since he was a kid. He didn’t have a relationship with a normal way of living that any of us would recognize. He lived in a bubble; a universe that revolved around him where everyone’s always telling him he’s a genius. It gave me a real sense of what happens when you become a superstar. People are catering to your every whim all the time. You don’t even ask for things, they just magically happen.

David: Isn’t that what Neverland Ranch was all about? Magic?

Marc: Yeah, exactly. He created a magical environment for himself that was just the way he wanted it. But while he was disengaged on one hand, he was intensely curious on the other. He was asking us questions about everything because he didn’t really know about anything. He knew about his music, and his own interests, but it didn’t seem like he knew much about the outside world. My partner Ben—he and his kids are huge fans of Michael—brought his digital camera and asked Michael if he could take a picture with him. Michael was absolutely transfixed by it. He was asking us, “You mean it doesn’t have film?” This was late 2002 or 2003, so digital cameras had been around for a while at that point. But he had just never heard of one or seen one. Ben walked out of the meeting and said, “We literally just spent the afternoon with Peter Pan.”

David: That’s how a lot of people saw him. I think that’s even how he saw himself.

Marc: I’ll tell you another story from that day as well. When we got to the Bel Air Hotel we were given specific instructions not to ask for Michael Jackson. They said ask for Mr. Smith.

David: Wow, what an inconspicuous name (laughs)!

Marc: So we go to the front desk and we say, “We’re here to see Mr. Smith,” and it’s clear right then that Michael has his own Secret Service—all these guys, big bodyguards, ear pieces, the whole thing. So they confirm “Mr. Smith” and then this huge security force leads us down a hallway. The whole thing is already a little weird—you know, it’s Michael Jackson. So we’re sitting in the living room at the suite—couches and chairs around a coffee table area—and I’m watching Ben talk to Michael while other people are walking around. The balcony doors are open and you can look out onto these absolutely gorgeous grounds with flowers and bushes and trees; just this very lush environment and I’m sitting there taking it all in. Suddenly I look back over to my partner Ben and just out of the corner of my eye I can see there’s a red laser dot on his chest over his heart.

David: What?! Like a sniper?

Marc: Right. I see this just from a side view and then it vanishes. So then I start having this internal monologue like in a movie: did I actually just see that, or did I imagine it? And if I did see that, then what the fuck was it? Could it be a sniper? Is someone trying to kill us? Is there somebody out there in the fucking bushes with a fucking sniper rifle looking to take us out through the balcony window? (laughs). And then I start thinking: “Why of all reasons is he aiming at Ben?” At that point, I am literally two-tenths of a second from jumping out of my seat, tackling Ben to the ground, and screaming for everyone to get down, but then I hear giggles. I turn my head and I see Michael, who’s looking right at me, and giggling. Turns out that Michael had a watch with a built-in laser pointer and for the last three minutes he had been flashing Ben with the red dot. Ben had no idea that this was going on. So Michael Jackson straight up punked me.

David: Michael Jackson purposely tricked you into thinking that there was a sniper looking to take out your business partner?

Marc: Yes, he made me think there was someone about to open fire by using a tiny wristwatch with a laser pointer. He saw the look on my face and knew what I was thinking and he just broke out into laughter. He thought it was the funniest thing ever. I had all this adrenaline going and he could tell.

David: That is HILARIOUS! So Michael Jackson didn’t have a drink with you, but he did play a joke on you.

Marc: He loved jokes. I mean he wore that watch for the purpose of playing tricks on people.

David: That’s a fantastic story. I hope you share that with other people because I really enjoyed hearing you tell it. Seeing that you didn’t get to drink with Michael, who’s someone that you would want to share a drink with and maybe haven’t had the chance to?

Marc: Well, the ultimate would have to be a glass of whiskey with the president in the Oval Office.

David: You haven’t met Obama? I figured you would have run into him at a fundraiser or been invited in already.

Marc: I have met him, but before he was president. I was actually on the other side of that last election, so I have not been invited (laughs). I’d love to get the chance to do that though. That would be fun.

David: We’ll have to work on that. I voted for him, so I’ll see what I can do for you. I definitely owe you a favor at this point.

Marc: Yeah, I’d appreciate that. See if you can pull some strings. Let’s see, who else? I’d love to have met Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, all those guys from the old days. My wife and I really enjoy watching movies together, so any of our favorite hard-drinking characters. Who’s the current one? Oh…James Spader on The Blacklist. I’d like to have a drink with him.

David: That’s funny! I want to have a drink with James Spader, too, but I want to drink with linen-suited, feathered-hair James Spader from Pretty In Pink.

Marc: Yeah, he was always walking around with a flask of liquor in that movie, wasn’t he? I’d also love to have a drink with James Ellroy. I just finished his new novel and it’s just fantastic. I’ve been a huge fan for a long time. I think he must enjoy a nice glass of whiskey from time to time. He might actually be my number one person, I think.

-David Driscoll