Come Taste With MBD Master of Malt: Iain McCallum

I've been really impressed with both Beam and Suntory since they joined forces to take on the world's biggest booze brands. The Beam Bourbon portfolio has really started moving in the right direction and now I've learned that the Morisson Bowmore whiskies are also getting the rub. I had the chance to taste through some of the new Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch whiskies this morning and I was quite taken aback. When they told me that former blender and current Master of Malt Iain McCallum was coming into town later this month, I said, "We should let everyone taste how good these whiskies are with Iain as a guide." So we put together this little event for you.

Same set up as our tasting with Bruichladdich last week, but with more whisky! Same price too!

Morrison-Bowmore Tasting w/Iain McCallum Event @ Donato, Tuesday March 24th, 2015 - 7-9pm $10 - Come and taste an extensive lineup of single malt whiskies from Bowmore, Glen Garioch, and Auchentoshan distilleries along side former MBD blender and current global brand ambassador Iain McCallum. This will be a sit down event with light food. There are no paper tickets for this event, your name will simply be on a guest list. Only 60 spots available.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

-David Driscoll


More on Canadian Whisky: Hiram Walker

As I was saying last week, I got the chance to visit with Hiram Walker master blender Don Livermore recently and was thoroughly impressed by his knowledge. You ask the guy one question and he gives you ten questions worth of answers. He's fantastic! I'm of the firm belief that Canadian whisky is going to do some big business in the United States this year. There's too much good stock north of the border and the prices are simply too affordable to pass up. That being said, there's too much I don't know about Canadian whisky to make educated and confident decisions about what direction K&L should take as a company. How is Canadian whisky made? What makes it different from other rye whiskies? Why does it taste the way it does? And why do Canadians like their whisky that way? These are the main questions I needed detailed answers to.

That's why I decided to phone Don Livermore and recreate the conversation we had in the Redwood City store for everyone's benefit. He was hanging out in his office at the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario—just across the river from Detroit—and was happy to take the call. Don is a super nice guy and he's very eager to help. I'm sure he'll continue to be a great source of information for us as we make our foray into the Canadian whisky category. As I'm planning on making a large purchase of Wiser's 18 in the near future, I wanted to make sure I had all my ducks in a row concerning its make-up—my i's dotted, and my t's crossed. Therefore, that's where we begin our chat.

Check out our conversation below: 

Hiram Walker distiller & blender Don LivermoreDavid: Can you tell me a bit about what goes into the JP Wiser’s 18? I know there are going to be a lot of people interested in an 18 year old Canadian whisky, but they’re going to want to understand more about it.

Don: With Canadian whisky we ferment corn, rye, wheat, and barley separately, distill them separately, age them separately, and then blend them together at the end. That is why they have a job like mine as a master blender. The distilling of Canadian whisky can be done by a number of different techniques. There are three types of distillates that we make at the JP Wiser’s distillery. One pass through a copper column still produces a full and robust spirit from all the grain characters and yeast congeners.  This is similar to that of a Bourbon distillation. A second pass through a column still removes most of the characters to make a lighter-smoother base whisky, traditional to the early Canadian whisky styles. We can also use pot distillations to create concentrated distillates that add unique characters and complex aromas to our brands. So in Canada we can use either a single column distilled spirit, double column distilled spirit, or a combination of column then pot distilled spirits. JP Wiser’s 18 year is a blend.  The majority of the blend is a double column distilled corn whisky which makes a smooth tasting spirit. There is an added amount of single column distilled rye whisky which gives a subtle peppery nuance or a spice to the blend.  All the whiskies are aged entirely in used Canadian whisky barrels. I’ll often describe the brand as: the taste of the angel’s share.

David: What about the taste of rye? How important is that particular grain to the flavor?

Don: One thing that drives me crazy is when people ask me the percentages of the grains we use, either for mashbills or distillates because via the distillation process we can concentrate up the character of rye or we can strip out the character of rye.  The more pertinent question is how is your whisky distilled?  If the product is double column distilled it strips out the character of rye, if the product is column distilled then pot distilled then it concentrates up the character of rye. I like to say: we’re brewers as well as distillers. 

David: Can you expand on that a bit?

Don: Sure, we all distill differently and we pull out things at different boiling points. The tradition of Canadian whisky, if you go back into the history books, begins with a patent made by a company called Gooderham & Worts that started double-distilling their whisky through two column stills to make a lighter smoother whisky in order to compete with moonshiners. The consumer didn’t want the moonshine taste, so the double-distillation made a lighter, smoother style. In 1830, there were about 230 registered distillers, and by the time we get to about 1870 there were only about fifteen left; and those were the guys making that lighter-style spirit. That’s why Canadian whiskies tend to be light and smooth. While they primarily used corn, they would also utilize the properties they had around their distilleries, which grew rye. So they would make their rye whiskies; either single column distilled, or column distilled and pot distilled—which concentrates the character of the rye. 

David: The JP Wiser’s 18 year is made primarily from the smoother base whisky, right?

Don: The 18 year is largely that double-distilled spirit, traditional to Canadian whisky. In aging our whisky there are four things that happen in a barrel; one of them is a chemical reaction. Oxygen going into a cask will first displace the whisky, taking the angel’s share, but when oxygen hits ethanol it turns it into something called ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate smells and tastes like a green apple. It gives you that tingly note on the palate. When you age something in a barrel you expose it to oxygen, and for us we create about ten parts per million of ethyl acetate per year. If you can remember your science days from high school, chemical reactions are induced by heat. Here in southern Ontario, I’ve never seen a place that ages whisky that gets as extreme of a temperature change as we do. The warehouses have no electricity because they’ll go “Boom!” if there’s a spark, so that change of temperature expands and contracts the barrels—the oxygen going in and out—during the warms days and cold nights. When the warm air comes in and interacts with the cold whisky, we get condensation on the outside of the barrels which ends up rusting the hoops. When the Scotch guys come to visit our warehouse, they ask: “Why are all the hoops rusted on the outside of your barrels?” It’s the drastic change in temperature, which you don’t see in Scotland. 

David: So the flavors in the JP Wiser’s 18 come from that reaction?

Don: That’s the taste of the angel’s share, the oxygen interacting with the whisky, the ethyl acetate, that tingly, green apple character, which ultimately becomes the dominate character of the whisky.

David: I like that you keep using the word “tingly” because when I wrote the tasting notes for our website that’s exactly the word I used, and it’s not a word I use often. It makes me feel better now about my description.

Don: Remember this tingly character because you’ll find it in Scotch, but it often gets buried under the peat or the sherry. You’ll find it in Bourbon, but it’s often buried under the grain and the yeast characters because they only column distill it once. 

David: That’s interesting because some discerning folks consider the double-distillation to be a drawback rather than an attribute. In this case, it’s actually part of the tingly character.

Don: With the double-distillation you create the lighter smoother style, and that’s right there in your face. After 18 years in wood, you really get the taste of age in the JP Wiser’s 18. That’s what highly-aged whisky should taste like, in my opinion. 

David: I think there are a number of whisky drinkers out there who would like to understand how the JP Wiser’s 18 differs from another of your famous whisky—the Lot 40.

Don: Right, the Lot 40 is 100% the polar opposite. It’s 100% rye whisky. The rye is passed once through a column still and then a pot still. When yeast ferments, it makes fruity, floral, green grass, soapy, and sulfur characters. We can control the fermentation’s temperature, the nitrogen level, the pH, grain levels or a number of other things in order to influence the yeast to make these characteristics. We do a warm ferment that helps the yeast grow quickly and ultimately make alcohol quickly.  After 3 days of fermentation we achieve 8% abv.   When you put that fermented rye mash once through the column still you keep the grain character (spicy), as well as the floral, the fruity, the green grass, and the soapy notes that yeast has made. What’s missing? The sulfur. Where does it go? It actually salts out in the copper column still to create copper sulfide. So at the end of the week we actually have to clean out our stills to remove the salt residue.  We then pass the column distilled liquid through a pot still for Lot 40.   

David: The JP Wiser’s would not fall into that category.

Don: Right, with the JP Wiser’s we strip out the grain character. I could make that whisky from corn, rye, wheat, or barley and you wouldn’t know the difference. A brand could call itself 100% rye, but the question, of course, is: how was it distilled? If they say it’s double-distilled through two column stills, then what’s the point of calling it rye? The rye character has been stripped out. Remember we’re brewers as well as distillers. When you’re distilling, you separate those compounds out at different boiling points. Or, you can concentrate them, which would apply to the Lot 40. You column distill it, take that liquid, and put it into a pot still. You know about heads and tails from there; the low boilers come out first, those are your green grass notes. We cut that and take it out of the whisky. What comes over next are the fruity characters, then the floral characters, and as the pot gets hotter, next come the grain characters. What’s left at the end are the soapy characteristics from the yeast, from the fatty acids in the cell wall. Those are your tails. 

David: And that intensifies the rye flavor?

Don: Yes, you’ve taken out the green grass and the soapy part, and you’re left with the fruity, the floral, and the rye notes. The more pertinent question is, however: how much 4-ethylguaiacol is in the whisky? Rather than ask how much rye is in the mashbill, this is what people should really be asking. That is one of the phenolic compounds that actually bring out the rye spices. This is what I mean when I say we’re both brewers and distillers, separating the compounds at different boiling points.

David: Can you explain that a bit more?

Don: Sure, so when you’re pot distilling, you’re raising the temperature of the liquid. As you get to 21oC acetaldehyde will turn into a vapor, come over into the condenser, and that becomes your heads. Dimethyl sulfide boils at 37oC, acetal at 55oC, so we’re cutting out those components. Once we hit around 77oC, that’s where the ethyl acetate comes out—that nice fruity character—and that’s where we start doing the heart cut. 

David: So when you’re distilling any grain, you’re really looking for the boiling points of those characters that yeast makes, which you will then use to dictate the flavor of the spirit. 

Don: You got it. So at 235oC, you’ve got the 4-ethylguaiacol, which is right near our tails cut. The soapy characters are around 260oC. Pot distilling is basically like boiling soup—it’s not that difficult. I will also say that the temperatures can vary from still to still as the pressure of the still will also influence the boiling point of each compound, but you get the idea that yeast or grain characters are separated on boiling points.   

David: So what do you say to folks who are uninterested in Canadian whisky—things like JP Wiser’s 18—because they feel the grains are unimportant to the flavor? 

Don: With Canadian whisky it’s more about the taste of pure age than the taste of the grain. It’s the angel’s share flavor, the reaction of the ethyl acetate, and that green apple, tingly flavor we talked about. Obviously, you’re going to get vanilla, caramel, and toffee, along with that little bit of peppery rye that we blend in. That’s the Canadian whisky style. This is what aging does, and in my mind it doesn’t get any better than that. With the climactic changes we get here in Windsor, it really drives home that flavor. I always tell people: taste the JP Wiser’s if you want to know what good, aged whiskey tastes like. There’s nothing else getting in the way of that flavor. 

David: Basically, it’s the pure taste of concentration through evaporation?

Don: Yes, along with reaction—that oxidative reaction we talked about—so concentration along with reaction.

David: The JP Wiser’s portoflio is entirely made from blended whiskies, right? It’s not just one in any of the expressions?

Don: Right, the JP Wiser’s has the double-distilled column still whisky and the single column rye. We don’t use the pot distilled whisky in it. We want the dominate character to be the age, not the rye. Not everyone likes the peppery flavor of rye, so we like to give people options.

David: When you’re double-distilling to ninety-four percent, do you think that detracts from the quality of the spirit you’re making? 

Don: The spirit we’re making is heavier than the heaviest vodka, so it’s not lacking in character. We want it to be light and fruity and smooth. Plus, we’re eventually blending in some of the rye spirit. We’re still working with flavor compounds here. 

-David Driscoll


Big Bourbon Week

There's going to be a lot of American whiskey action around K&L this week. We've got a number of new casks coming in, plus a few new labels to talk about. Perhaps the most interesting one is the Lost Republic Bourbon out of Healdsburg. Matt Weese is contracting spirit from Indiana, Tennessee, and California, aging it in his Napa warehouse, and blending it into his own expression of delicious 45.5% whiskey. With a bold, grainy goodness of flavor and a mysterious cepage, I think he's got a good chance to become the next Black Maple Hill. 

Check back in soon for more news about new Bourbon arrivals.

-David Driscoll


D2D Interview: Chuck Bradshaw

Famous directors, Pro Bowl quarterbacks, rock stars, Silicon Valley moguls: we've been covering some serious ground here with the Drinking to Drink Interview series. That being said, I've been staying safely within the confines of movies, music, and sports—three of my favorite things in life—and while I'm more than happy to continue in that direction, I'd like to move beyond my comfort zone every now and again just to keep things interesting. With interview number ten quickly approaching, I decided it might be a good time to move a bit outside of the box I was unintentionally pinning myself inside of. It was just a matter of finding the right person, and hoping the opportunity would present itself. Last week at our annual staff holiday party (we have ours in March because in December we're too busy helping you with yours), I had the good fortune of sitting next to a guy named Chuck Bradshaw—the other half of our beloved accounting staff member Michele Elkins. It was serendipity. After an hour's worth of drinks, food, and good conversation, I knew exactly who I wanted to feature for the tenth installment of D2D.

Let me tell you a bit about Chuck Bradshaw (as if his tough guy name didn't already spell it out): he races dirt-track drag cars, builds his own sniper rifles, lives off the land, and was once a heralded member of the Belmont Police Department. He's pulled unconscious men from burning vehicles and wrestled criminals to the ground. He's a decorated sharpshooter, an avid hunter, and a recipient of the Medal of Valor. He's a real-life superhero, the guy in the room who makes other men feel insecure, and an intimidating force of masculinity, yet—despite all of his accolades—he's as humble and reserved of a guy as I've ever met. He has humility, compassion, and respect for the old way of doing things, despite the fact that he can rip you limb from limb with his bare hands. I don't know anyone like him, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation we had together. He's like a modern cowboy, and everyone knows that cowboys enjoy a good drink from time to time.

In this Drinking to Drink interview we talk about what it takes to be an American sniper, sipping one's Bourbon in peace, and the importance of good company to the enjoyment of any alcoholic beverage. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.

David: You are one of the most-manly men I’ve ever met, and I mean that in a good way. There’s a calm, cowboy-esque demeanor about you that is rare to see in society today. Where do you think that comes from?

Chuck: Well, I grew up in Santa Rosa County around Petaluma, and we had a little ranch type thing with all of our own animals. We raised all of our own food and I’ve hunted for my entire life. I don’t want to say from birth, but my mom tells stories about my dad hunting with me on his back when I was just a couple of years old. I wasn’t hunting, but I was with him! It kinda went from there. From the time I was allowed a hunting license, I’ve hunted—everything from waterfowl, to upland birds, to elk, deer, bear, antelope, pretty much everything.

David: Does one gain a certain respect for living things or a more mild temperament from growing up that way?

Chuck: That’s tough to say because I’ve never known anything different. I didn’t really know that you could buy beans or corn at the store until I was about ten years old. We raised it all and when we’d go to eat, all the food would be out on the back porch. I’d grab a glass jar of whatever and that’s what we’d have. We slaughtered all of our own animals, we had our own eggs with the chickens, so everything was there for us. For some people I know that killing a living thing is difficult, or odd. The stalking of the animal, and the hunt itself was the interesting part for me. The taking of the animal wasn’t the difficult part. It’s a challenge. People make it sound like you can just walk out and shoot something, but there’s a lot more to it and I think understanding that builds respect—if you do it correctly.

David: The thrill of the hunt, they say.

Chuck: Right, and that doesn’t mean the part where you actually kill the animal. It’s everything that leads up to it.

David: Your love of hunting and your skill at shooting lead you into sniping and sharp-shooting, right? Can you talk a bit about what you did in that realm?

Chuck: I did a lot of competitive shooting growing up, from the time I was young until I was about 22. I’ve done competitions for rifle, pistol, and shotgun shooting. I’ve won some national events, some state championships—just a bunch of different crap; excuse my language.

David: Don’t worry, I usually say things much worse than that.

Chuck: A long time ago I got into building my own rifles, and then I started a business and that’s what I did for quite a while. This is during the early-to-mid nineties until I became a police officer.

David: How old were you when you joined the force?

Chuck: I was thirty-four.

David: Were you the oldest person starting out at that time? It seems like cops usually start at a much younger age.

Chuck: Yeah, I was probably the third oldest in the academy at the time. I started pretty late, but I think that’s better than starting out young. You have more life experience. It’s hard for a young kid to be a police officer, in my opinion. How does some twenty-two year old walk into a domestic argument between two fifty-year olds and solve their problems? I don’t think people should really start being cops until they’re in their late 20s. The way I grew up, I had a lot of life experience prior to my becoming a cop. I had to do a lot of things on my own.

David: What’s the standard cop beverage? Is it beer? Is it shots at the bar? There must be a lot of comradery drinking, right?

Chuck: Cops usually drink a variety of everything. When you’re on a team in a department, you actually spend more time with those guys than your own family at home. I would only see my wife for a couple of hours at night after spending fourteen hours with the guys I worked with, and then you get up and do it again the next day. The things you go through with one another, knowing who you can go through a door with, who’s going to watch your back—you become very close. When something would happen, either good or bad, the team would go out after the shift and get a few drinks together. You decompress, maybe sit back in the corner, and talk about what happened. Good or bad, we still had to go to work the next day, so having a drink together was a good way to deal with the day’s events to help us start over again.

David: I can't imagine having to unwind from a day like that. I think my days are tough and I'm dying to have a drink when I get home.

Chuck: It’s the normal thing to do, even on our days off we would all meet up for cocktails and dinner, just because that comradery was so strong. I’ve never been a big beer drinker, but I’d have a few if we were all up in the mountains hunting. Then maybe I’d switch over to Bourbon. I like vodka, too.

David: I know you’re a big vodka drinker. What is it you enjoy about it so much?

Chuck: I just like the flavor. The stuff I drink isn’t the best out there, but I like it. I’ve never been too into fads. When vodka martinis became popular I quit drinking them (laughs). I switched over to on the rocks at that point. I’ve tried the Ketel Ones and the Grey Gooses, but I really seem to enjoy Absolut. I just like the flavor. It’s not the most expensive, but it’s not the cheapest. Everyone’s taste is different, but since I don’t mix it the full flavor is important to me.

David: So you’d usually grab a glass of vodka after a hard day?

Chuck: Yes, I enjoyed those times. I don’t know if it was the ritual of drinking, sitting there discussing everything, or…..

David: This is on the peninsula, right?

Chuck: Yes, I worked for Belmont.

David: Did you find it easy to transition from selling rifles and training people to actually doing enforcement?

Chuck: I’d been dealing with cops for the last ten to fifteen years to begin with, so it wasn’t too hard. I specialized in police and military sniper rifles, and I helped to train snipers, which helped me a great deal.

David: So you were working with the police already in a sense?

Chuck: Right, we would do a lot of mental training because the mental side of shooting is perhaps the most important part. If you don’t have the right mindset you’re not going to hit your target. Whether you’re target shooting or hunting, you have to put your mind at ease. You have to forget about what’s happening at home, the mental distractions, because you have to do one shot. If you can’t do that, you can’t pull the trigger correctly.

David: So obviously snipers are a hot topic right now with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper being such a popular film this year. Did you read Chris Kyle’s book?

Chuck: Yes. He was one of the most recent snipers to write about his experiences. It was all from him, so it’s all based on what truly happened.

David: Did you think it was controversial at all?

Chuck: I would never judge him for what he did or didn’t do. It’s hard for me to believe that people who have never been put in those situations can be so judgmental.

David: I feel the same way. I saw the movie and I didn’t really find it all too polarizing. It just seemed like an honest war story, presenting what can happen in combat and what happened to one particular man. I was surprised by the reactions.

Chuck: It’s pretty simple really. There are people out there like Chris Kyle who do those things, so that people here can sleep in their beds at night. He went out there and pretty much sacrificed his personal life so that others could live. Whether it’s as a civilian, a cop, or in the military, I can tell you: being a sniper really screws you up—mentally and physically.

David: Do you think that’s partially because you can literally see the impact of the shot through the scope?

Chuck: Yeah, it’s personal that way. Your normal military guy shoots at a silhouette target down range. A sniper sees everything. Some people, either in the military or the police department, can’t take another human life. If you physically can’t do that, then you’re not going to be any good down the road.

David: You’ve actually saved a few lives yourself, which is pretty incredible. You were awarded the Medal of Valor for your actions as a police officer—the first time that honor had been bestowed around here in fifteen years. What did that entail?

Chuck: It’s done through the city and the state and you get a bunch of letters from the governor and the county. It’s a little embarrassing, really.

David: Come on!

Chuck: What I did wasn’t all that incredible.

David: Well, please enlighten me.

Chuck: An older gentleman had suffered a seizure and ran through the back of his carport, down between a couple of houses, and his foot was stuck on the accelerator. The front tires were still spinning, so it eventually started a fire on the fence that he ran over. By the time we got there—we were there before the fire department—the car had become engulfed in flames except for the rear of it. The driver’s side was up against a house and the passenger side was on fire. We could see that there was still a man inside though, so I jumped up on the back of the trunk and broke the window out. I could see him in there, so I stripped off my gun belt and climbed in. At this point the flames were really coming up over the car, and when I got inside I noticed there were flames on the inside as well. So I grabbed him and pulled him into the back seat with me. I could see the flames coming on to the front seat now, so I shoved him out the back window to where my guys were standing. They grabbed him, and I tried to get out the back after him. I rolled off the back off the car and I couldn’t breathe anymore at that point. The smoke from all the plastic burning inside the car had got to me. In any case, they got the guy into the ambulance, then treated me, and ended up taking me to the hospital for bad smoke inhalation. I spent a day there, then took a few days off to clear out my lungs. This was about seven or eight years ago.

David: I’m thirty five and I could never do that. You were like forty-three when that happened!

Chuck: I ended up doing a bunch of interviews about it, and the way I looked at it was: I only did it before one of the other guys I was with did it. They say no way—they wouldn’t have gone in, but I don’t believe that. If I hadn’t of done it, one of the other guys would have. This is what we get paid to do. I just happened to do it first.

David: That’s pretty modest.

Chuck: It was my job. Was I just supposed to let him burn in there? (laughs)

David: What did you drink after that to celebrate the award?

Chuck: Vodka (laughs).

David: I’m sure that helped to kill the pain. You must have been injured all the time with the hands-on way you approach things.

Chuck: I’ve blown my shoulder out. Torn hamstrings. Little stuff here and there. You get in fights and you get banged up. My shoulder is what retired me, however. It was from training, a fight, and carrying some girls who had passed out at a track meet. We had fifteen of them pass out from dehydration. There were six or seven ER units, ambulances, three or four rigs, and these girls were laying all over, getting IVs. I grabbed them carried them up to where they needed to get treatment and that just did me in.

David: You are by far the most chivalrous, man’s man I’ve ever met. What’s funny is that all that manly stuff you took for granted growing up is now super trendy again. It’s very metro. You grew up eating your own home-grown vegetables, hunted and slaughtered your own meat, and so on. These are all points of pride for restaurants these days, but for you it was just normal life.

Chuck: What’s funny is we did all that because we were poor (laughs). Honestly, that’s the way I used to think about it. What gets me the most is that the quality of the food at these places isn’t stressed as much as the concept is. The idea sounds really good, but the food sucks. People get carried away with the branding of an idea, but—I’m going to sound really bad here—it’s like what happens when famous celebs endorse a restaurant or a product. You’ve seen it I’m sure in the liquor business.

David: You mean when they endorse their own alcoholic beverage? That doesn’t make you want it?

Chuck: I don’t see the big deal about their endorsements, no. I like what I like, so what I do I care what they like?

David: But that’s because you’re a throwback kind of guy. Guys like you don’t exist anymore, at least not in the Bay Area. You actually say what you mean. You do what you enjoy. You drink what you like. You know how to survive with the basic necessities that life gives you—and how to enjoy them. You have all these people in the booze business getting caught up with the details, but forgetting about the basic tenements of happiness and self-satisfaction. That’s why I like talking to you so much.

Chuck: I guess. I’ve never thought of it that way. I do have a pretty simple approach.

David: That’s not to say it’s unsophisticated, it’s just to say there’s no BS.

Chuck: I’ve never looked down on anyone based on their preferences for certain things. I would never judge someone based on what they drink, or anything really. You can do some things I can’t do, and I can do some things you can’t do. In the end, we’re all pretty even. Just don’t piss me off.

David: You’re joking, I know, but you’re a pretty intimidating dude.

Chuck: I’m a giant teddy bear.

David: Were you this intimidating as a cop?

Chuck: I might have been known as a guy who took care of business. But Michele will tell you—I’ve never once raised my voice around her.

David: Where do you guys like to go drinking these days? What’s your current spot?

Chuck: You’re probably going to make fun of me, but lately it’s been The Van’s.

David: Are you kidding?! Why would I make fun of you?! That’s my favorite spot on the Peninsula, by far. It’s such a throwback. Kind of like you, actually.

Chuck: Last night, actually, we went to Red Robin. I can get Absolut and a burger, you know?

David: The last time I went to Red Robin my wife had to carry me out. I was in a complete food coma.

Chuck: I enjoy drinking anywhere as long as Michele is there. I don’t need it to be a $500 night or a fancy restaurant; if she’s with me I’m going to have a good time.

David: You see?! That’s such a romantic, old school guy thing to say. You’re the kind of guy that women say they wish more guys were like these days! It’s like what Paula Cole says in “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?”

Chuck: For her and I to go to Red Robin where we each had a couple of drinks, and a meal—it’s like our decompression night. I always look forward to Friday evenings because I’m going to go out with her, we’re gonna have a couple of drinks, and we’re going to talk about the day. I always tell the waitress, “We’re not in a hurry, so we’re going to start with a few drinks, then order our food, then sit and talk for awhile.” I think I enjoy doing that more than anything.

David: Your number one gal with a glass of Absolut on the rocks. With an olive?

Chuck: Yeah, I’ll do olives. I still drink a little Bourbon now and again, too. I’ve tried a whole bunch of different ones, but I always go back to the Bulleit 10 year. I’ve tried some real expensive bottles, but I think I get more pleasure from the inexpensive ones.

David: I’m the same way, although I have to say that I enjoy the experience regardless. Like you, however, I need good company around me.

Chuck: I like the act of drinking, so I have to like what I’m drinking. When I used to go out with the guys, they’d say “Hey, let’s do a shot!” But, you know what? I don’t do shots. I’m not one for peer pressure, so I say, “Give me a shot of Bulleit 10 year and I’ll sip it.” I’ll order a shot, I just won’t shoot it. I like the flavor too much to rush it. I like the aroma and everything that comes with it.

David: If you could have a drink with anyone in the world, besides Michele, who would it be?

Chuck: John Wayne would have been a good choice. Even Clint Eastwood.

David: Of course!

Chuck: It’s not their stardom or their movie roles necessarily, but rather their way of life. I think it’s the values that they have, or had in the case of John Wayne. I don’t look at them as movie stars, but rather at the people they are. I actually got to have a drink with a few people I never thought I’d be able to, and again they weren’t stars, they were just real people that I met here and there throughout life and I just enjoyed getting to know them over a cocktail.

David: That’s what I enjoy about talking with you. The values that you uphold—just like what you said you admired about John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—and your way of looking at the world are not philosophies I find too often in people I meet today; especially with the men from my generation. Masculinity and chivalry are often twisted into misogynistic detriments, rather than respected as gentlemanly behavior, because when you do see masculinity it usually comes with a giant chip on its shoulder. I feel like my generation has this burden, like there’s always something to prove. They’re unable to simply bestow a quiet confidence or enjoy an inherent self-satisfaction, and I feel like that inability has crossed over into drinking and eating now. Everyone’s looking around to see what other people are doing, afraid of doing the wrong thing. Then they want to tell you about how passionate they are, but really it’s all just bravado.

Chuck: I’ve never been all that outspoken. I’ve never been the loudest person in the room—maybe the one laughing loudest though. I’ve never had to prove anything with my voice or my words. I’m comfortable in my own skin, I guess.

David: That’s what we like about you.

Chuck: There’s an old saying I have, however: Don’t take my acts of kindness as weakness because, if I have to, I will bury you (laughs).  

-David Driscoll


Motown Highlife

My wife and I went to the movies a few weeks ago and, while watching the previews before the previews, caught wind of a new ABC series called American Crime. It was about thirty seconds in when I spotted the famous "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" sign and looked at my wife in horror. "ABC is making a fucking network television show about Modesto?!!" I whispered firmly to her, my eyes as wide as saucers. Having lived in Modesto from the time of my birth in 1979 until leaving for college in 1997 (and then back for a year later on), I can tell you this came as quite a shock. What didn't surprise me, however, was that the show's morbid and tragic premise would exploit the negative side of the Central Valley locale without actually shooting an episode there. Besides a few choice frames of stock footage, most of the show is filmed around Austin, Texas.

However, last night when we finally caught up to this past week's episode of Looking (the fantastic HBO drama about three gay men in San Francisco), my wife and I about spit our drinks out. Two of the main characters in the show, Dom and Doris, are from Modesto and must return home for a funeral after Doris's father dies. "Here we go," I said to my wife. "They're going to show the archway and a few choice streets, but the rest of it will be filmed somewhere outside the city." That wasn't the case, however. My wife (who also lived in Modesto for much of her life) and I sat there, staring at the television, stupified, while the Volvo rolled into downtown for a half-hour of high school flashbacks. We thought that would be the extent of it, until the unthinkable happened:

The three travellers are sitting in the Clarion Motel just off Highway 99.

Doris: I want to go out. I just spent the whole day at a funeral.

Dom: I know a place nearby.

Patrick: Here? In Modesto?

My wife and I turned to each other, both knowing exactly where this was headed, but still in disbelief. "If they go to the Brave Bull," I said to her, "I'm going to cry."

But that's exactly where they went: the renowned 9th Street tavern, where both my wife and I spent many a night during our early 20s. The Bull is pretty much the only gay bar in town (making it the most fun bar in town), so it was an easy guess. Still, to see HBO cameras walk inside, pull up to the bar for a few Bud Lights, then boogie the night away on the dance floor was something I'll never forget.

It was nice to finally see Modesto get celebrated for an iconic drinking establishment. Usually it's not something nearly so positive that brings my hometown into the limelight. While I shot it down as a poor idea years ago, this newfound popularity does have me reconsidering my "K&L Drinks Around Modesto Bus Tour".

-David Driscoll