A 2016 Scotland Primer
I haven’t talked to my best friend from Modesto in almost five years. I’m not sure what came over me last night, whether I was just feeling nostalgic or perhaps because I finally had some down time to let my thoughts wander, but for the first time ever I did a Google search of his name. I found records of two arrests in the last two years. Certainly worse than what I feared, but probably about what I expected. Now when I look back at our time together I can see all the tell-tale signs, all the reasons for the trouble we got into, and the patterns that with experience become all too familiar. The only thing I ever knew for sure as a kid was that I wanted to be rock star. I don’t ever know what he really wanted to be. The two of us would stay up late into the night, eating carrot cake from Jack in the Box in his coverless Jeep, driving home under the stars, watching the same movies on repeat until we eventually fell asleep. Today, as I type this, I’m on a plane to Scotland. I’m going to try and fall asleep shortly on a vehicle moving five-hundred miles an hour through the dark, cold northern sky. My friend? He might be trying to sleep in a jail cell tonight. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that neither of us ended up where we originally planned.
I’m currently sitting next to a guy named Jeff Jones, who’s sitting in for the occupied David OG this time around. I’ve known Jeff for almost nine years at this point, but I’m surprised by how little I actually know about him as a person. I know he’s gotta be over sixty. I know he’s lived in San Francisco for about thirty years. I know he likes to read and today I learned that one of his lifelong dreams is to go to Sri Lanka. I also found out that this is the first time Jeff has traveled internationally in about three decades. He’s been part of the spirits team in our city store since long before I started working here, but this is the first time he’s gone out in search of Scotch whisky. I’m pretty excited he’s with me, both because Jeff has more than earned the right to travel with us and because I get to see the trip from his perspective. I’m not sure if Jeff ever planned on working in a wine store when he was a kid. He’s pumped to be a part of this process now, however. We discussed our current thoughts on the whisky industry as the rain came down over the aircraft windows, the plane sitting on the tarmac, waiting for its turn in the takeoff queue. After a bumpy first few minutes we were away. The San Francisco storm long behind us and only the warehouses of Scotland ahead.
As it stands now there are no bumps in the high-altitude air. We are coasting. I have to admit it’s nice to finally relax and catch a breath, but I can’t say I’m a fan of coasting for too long. If things start going too well and life becomes too easy I will create drama. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about my behavior that way before, but I know that it’s true. I am not capable of coasting. I’m either accelerating, or crashing in the process. I’m either busting my ass, or I’m worried about the fact that I’m not working enough. I didn’t set out to build a successful spirits department originally. It was never my goal to woo a bunch of whisky connoisseurs over to our store and continue to grow the company. Those things happened as a result of my involvement, but I never came into this position with any set of intentions or expectations. Now that the customers are here, clicking on our webpage, shopping through our selection, rummaging through our shelves, and enjoying the diversity we bring to the market, I can’t say I’m satisfied. I’m happy we’re doing well, but I need bumps. I need turbulence. I need to be reminded constantly that life is short, that anything can happen, and that nothing is for certain. Comfort leads to complacency, in my mind. I don’t need more money or more success, but I do feel like we can continue to increase our standards around here. Yet sometimes I think I invent problems just so we can overcome them.
We do have a few real problems that are not of my making, however. We have a real demand for new single malt whisky and not nearly as much to choose from as before. The prices are higher, the ages are younger, but I’m only becoming more discerning and picky as I get older and so are our customers. It’s often an internal struggle when we go to Scotland and meet with bottlers. We taste and we ask: could we sell that? Perhaps. But the real question is: should we sell that? I’ve always thought the argument for separation of church and state in the booze world—the divide between professional criticism and professional sales—was an interesting one. You can’t trust the store you buy it from? Success and trust go hand in hand. If we sell someone a shitty bottle of Scotch there’s nowhere for us to run. Not only will the customer demand their money back, they’ll also never shop here again. Our reputation is everything. No one is more motivated than us to build trust with consumers. I remind myself of that every time we go on a booze trip. Trust is the reason you are where you are, David. Trust is what separates people. It’s the reason I’m on this plane right now. The absence of trust is the reason I no longer speak with my old friend.
Trust is also the reason I brought Jeff along for the ride this time. I really trust Jeff Jones. I trust his morals, his work ethic, his opinion, and I admire his old school demeanor. We like the same whiskies. We enjoying putting the right bottles in the hands of the right customers. Neither of us set out to be salesmen. We never planned on working for K&L, but now that we’re here we love having the opportunity to do the work we do. We’re 37,000 feet in the air right now. The cabin is dark and the stars are out, but as the late David Bowie once sang: “The stars are never sleeping, the dead ones nor the living.” Neither are we. The stars are driving us. We’ve got a lot to think about and a lot of work to do.