Don't Miss the Point
I had to completely get out of the booze world this past weekend. After a week of projecting my emotions into a series of what I'm hoping were entertaining and informative posts, I had to just walk away from the industry for a few days. While I often use humor in these articles, I take this stuff very seriously - booze, that is. That's not to say that I'm not enjoying myself when I write, because I am, but it's almost eliminated the enjoyment I feel from drinking itself. Drinking booze is supposed to be fun. We're supposed to drink it because it makes us feel good. However, as one of my best customers pointed out in an email:
"Right now, it seems to me that you’re a little too wrapped up in your job. I’m hoping this is not your entire life."
Uhhh.......well, it is.
Lately booze has been my entire life, but it's not the actual imbibing that has consumed me. It's everything else.
My wife and I ate dinner with another K&L couple last week and the two spouses bonded over their mutual hatred for wine-related dinners. It's a common theme amongst those married to booze professionals. At our annual store holiday party the employees exalt the quality of each bottle, while our other halves roll their eyes and try to enjoy themselves through food and actual conversation - the kind where you talk about current events and pop culture rather than acidity levels and tannin structure. In the end, isn't that the actual point of drinking wine? To accompany a fine meal and to fuel interesting dialogue unrelated to the actual details of the wine itself? You wouldn't think so by attending a K&L dinner function, with staff members bickering over which vintage of Bordeaux is showing better while swirling, smelling, savoring, and spitting. Sometimes I feel like we've lost our ability to simply enjoy a fine glass of alcohol. We over-analyze every single drop. We're always working.
As I sunk deep into my leather couch Saturday night, I stared almost catatonic at the television screen with a cold beer in my hand and a blank expression adorning my face.
"I need to have fun this weekend," I told my wife.
"Do you remember how?" she asked.
"No," I mumbled, as I sipped my beer slowly.
I used to enjoy coming home from my teaching job, opening a bottle of wine, and cooking dinner while listening to the radio. Those were always the few hours in my day that I could count on for relaxation and genuine pleasure. I wasn't drinking anything of the quality that I consume nowadays, but it seemed like it was more enjoyable. Over the past few years those hours have evolved into a few minutes of frantic microwave preparation, where the booze is fancier, but my enjoyment is diminished. The drinking of alcohol has become a task rather than a pleasure. It's a task that I'm motivated to do, but it has an entirely different meaning now. It's part of who I am, or at least how I see myself.
"I need to taste these for work," I say as I pour four separate glasses of Bourbon. I sit at the table taking notes, typing away on the computer, while my wife watches television alone. I swallow, but my mouth is so fatigued from high-proof spirits that I can barely taste at this point. In this moment, I am beyond any sense of enjoyment. I am simply a routine. I am drinking because it's what I do. I am drinking because I don't know what else to do. I am drinking because drinking is fun, but am I really having fun or am I being blinded by the bitter irony?
I haven't been having fun lately - as a whole. What did I used to do in my leisure time before it became filled with tasting notes and blog articles? I needed to re-learn how to have fun in general, let alone with booze. Instead of waking up early Sunday morning to type a new Spirits Journal post, I slept in. Instead of Grape Nuts with Starbucks Instant coffee for breakfast, we went out. Instead of running errands, we walked the city streets - Valencia, Fillmore, and Market. In the afternoon, I cooked. I never once checked my phone, my email, or the whisky blogosphere. We went to Four Barrel coffee - a wonderfully designed cafe in the vibrant Mission District, cool and chic in its vibe. We sat down to talk and sip our beverages while the couples around us stared at their computer screens. One young hipster had two works of fiction displayed prominently on the table, yet his focus was downward, towards the glow of a smartphone hidden discretely between his legs. It's not just me, I thought. There are many others too distracted to enjoy the moment.
After the name of the distillery, just past the words "limited edition" and "cask strength," and a bit beyond rarity and price, is the actual flavor of a whisky. It's the part of whisky that we're supposed to be enjoying, right? You hear this all the time - the best whiskies are the ones that taste best to you. What does that mean anymore? Drink what you most enjoy? Many of us are far too worried about other issues to enjoy what we're drinking. In fact, I can't enjoy what I'm drinking because I'm not focused on actually enjoying it - I am distracted by the other important tasks at hand. I need to ascertain quality, nuance, and depth. I need to think about what makes this whisky special and therefore what makes me special by drinking it. It's become a race, a contest - who can try the most limited edition whiskies off of this "must-have" list first? ME! I can! Here's a photo of me doing it! I'm having fun! Can't you see how much fun I'm having? Why can't you see?!
Has anyone seen the above commercial? I think it's the worst commercial I've ever seen. At the same time, it's incredibly poignant because of its unbelievable lack of subtlety and tact. It describes perfectly what I'm talking about. I'm boring? Really? How about now? Am I still boring with all of these things that I've bought with money? Yes, you're still boring and now you're also a giant tool as well. I knew people like this in high school and college who looked at music the same way. It wasn't about listening to the album or artist as much as it was about proving something to others. They had record collections based off of the "Top 100 Albums of All Time" list on Pitchfork, rather than their own actual interests. They didn't know how to enjoy the music, nor did they know what enjoyment meant in general. Life was a checklist. Being cool meant studying the list, doing what the list said, and following the rules. That's not cool, however, and it definitely isn't fun.
Now we're back to that statement again - drink what you like. I don't disagree with that, but that means you have to like drinking whisky to begin with. Even if you drink Pappy 20, Brora, and Port Ellen every night of the week, you can still be the most boring person in the world. Having fun isn't just about what you're drinking, but rather what you do while you're drinking. If you sat across from someone in dead silence for an hour drinking amazing whisky, would that still be fun? It wouldn't be for me. Right now, however, my inability to think outside of the spirits world and engage in everyday fun is making me very uninteresting, and no amount of Alicia Keys concerts, Giada food classes or bottles of George T. Stagg can change that. Better, more expensive whisky will not help either. That's why that girl broke up with you, dude. Even in situations that are supposed to be fun, you still don't know what to do. That's a complete turn off.
I mentioned in a previous article that my favorite part about this job is the interaction with customers. I have met so many interesting people through our mutual appreciation for booze and I am so thankful for it. One of those people is Marc Andreessen. Marc and I email each other periodically and this week he sent me his review of the new Johnnie Walker Platinum. Marc loves some of the Walker whiskies and I asked him this morning what keeps bringing him back to the blends, even though he has access to many of the best single malts available. With someone of Marc's stature, I am very cautious about privacy issues and I would never write anything publicly without his personal approval, but he wrote me the following with permission to post it here:
I like really good blends... same reason I like McDonald's french fries... what's better than a product specifically engineered for you to love it?
Also I have a soft spot for Black... my partner Ben and I had a chance to drink for six hours one night with Christopher Hitchens, a couple years before he died -- having read about his prodigious drinking capability (e.g. he wrote the forward to the most recent reissue of Kingsley Amis's book "On Drinking"), I brought a couple of bottles of great single malt. He refused to touch them, explaining that he only drank JW Black. I said, why only JW Black? He said, "I've travelled all over the world to all of the worst (places) to interview all of the really nasty dictators and warlords, and no matter how godawful the place, they always have JW Black, because that's what the dictators and warlords drink."
What an amazing association (both for Marc and Hitchens himself)! He sat and talked with one of the great writers and philosophical minds of our era and drank Walker Black. That must have been a wonderful evening. Many pleasures in life are often related to nostalgia and memory. Personally, I enjoy drinking blended whisky for the same reasons Marc does: it reminds me of special moments in my life and it just tastes good. In some circles it's not cool to like blended whisky, but I associate it with having fun. It reminds me of staying up all night in college, smoking packs of cigarettes, and discussing what at the time were deep philosophical issues. It reminds me of what booze is supposed to be about: enjoyment and relaxation. I don't analyze it, I don't think about it, I just drink and enjoy myself. And he's right about McDonald's french fries. Who doesn't like those fries? People who are no fun, that's who!
I would have loved to have met Christopher Hitchens. I would have loved to share a drink with him. We have a question we ask all the K&L staff members in our monthly "Getting to Know You" section, that ponders: if you could invite any person in history to dinner, who would it be and what would you drink? My answer to that is simple. I would put a bunch of booze on the table and let my favorite historical figures drink whatever the heck they wanted. If I could invite anyone from history over to my house, why in the heck would I worry about which vintage of wine to open? That's the least of my concerns! What's more important is not running out of it! After a few drinks, do you really think the quality of the booze would make or break that evening? I'd say that an anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive booze snob would be more of an impediment to an enjoyable time.
All of the great moments in my life have been completely unrelated to the quality of the booze I had within them. Yet, I seem hellbent on making sure I'm always drinking the right thing at the right time, in fear of not maximizing the experience. It doesn't make any sense. I've got nothing to prove. It usually never lives up to the hype, anyway. We've all brought great booze to a party and experienced the disappointment that followed when no one appreciated it. We were so excited to share our enthusiasm with others, but for some reason they didn't react like we expected. You know why? It's not because they have "unsophisticated palates." It's because most parties are for socializing, not analyzing booze (that's for your Thursday night tasting group). I cringe when I hear people say, "I would bring something nice to the party, but the people there wouldn't understand it." It may be true, but since you're there to drink and have fun, what does it matter?
I need to loosen up. I need to unwind. I need to refocus. I'm so wrapped up in the details and the process of whisky that I'm missing the point of its actual existence - and perhaps mine as well. That's no fun. No fun at all.