“What do you think you could do? For your part in the program?” I heard the voice ask.
I looked around my desk. Papers, sticky notes, a leftover bowl of quinoa the cat was extremely interested in exploring.
“Umm …” I hesitated and tried to buy some time. I glanced at my phone, hoping it would ping with some notification that I could cleverly read out.
The phone was not helping. And the person on the other side of the line was waiting for my answer.
Yes. Yes, I very much wanted to be part of an evening called Women In Whiskey, hosted by a distillery I held in the highest of esteem. And Leslie, their head of PR, was offering me just that opportunity IF … I could create a marketable angle for why I should be there—and a persuadable reason people would feel inclined to attend because I was part of it.
The cat pulled a paw out of the bowl of quinoa, now coated with the sticky red grain.
She stared at it intently. She nosed it. Then stuck a tiny pink tongue out and gave it a tentative taste.
Shaking her head to rid herself of the apparently foul flavor, I sighed and frowned.
She didn’t even really give it a try. Judged it unpalatable without truly knowing anything about it.
If only cats were teachable … and not obligate carnivores.
“Whiskey Tasting 101,” I blurted out. “I can do an introductory course.”
There was a short pause on the other end of the line. “In ten minutes?” Leslie asked.
“Fifteen. I will squish four lessons into fifteen minutes.”
“Hmm … what kind of lessons? Remember, you’re going to be working with a food and spirits critic, a mixologist, and a distiller. You’ll have to bring something different to the table.”
Leslie knew I wrote books—middle grade, YA literature, non-fiction essays, and a lot about whisky. She knew I’d apprenticed in Scotland—studied with distillers and people who were hugely passionate with their work—all because I’d eventually developed a great love for the spirit and a yearning to make it. But my main labors were simply writing about it.
How many people would want to come to an event to hear women speak about their work in the industry and find out my part was just “Lemme tell you about my books.”
Can’t imagine that would fly.
But for the past twenty-five years I had done something that morphed accidentally into a profession. I became a teacher.
Enthusiasm can do that to a person.
Or fanaticism. Samey samey.
My history was one that was both typical and atypical of a person first introduced to brown spirits.
Typical, in that I thought it was the most disgusting thing ever to touch my lips—save for Jeremy Krazinski, who, in fifth grade, tried to plant a big one on me just beneath the monkey bars when I had no idea it was coming.
Atypical, in that only a few short years later, after having traveled repeatedly to Scotland and gaining a depth and breadth of appreciation for everything falling between the barley and the bottle, I found myself determined to make it. To understand the craft, the science, and the magic of that spirit.
My longing for a deep dive found fulfillment because of a great distillery, but my love for whisky blossomed because of a great teacher—one who discovered my first handshake with the spirit had been an avoidably painful one. I’d learned incorrectly and had a good bit of erasing ahead of me. From that moment on I’d grown resolute to not allow the same “first time flop” unfold for other people. I wanted them to love whisky as much as I did.
“What will you teach?” Leslie repeated.
I recalled a series of essays I’d long ago written called Belly Up to the Bar. “Eyeing, Nosing, Tasting, and Finish,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
Indeed, the more pertinent question going through my mind was, Sure, I can write about it, but can I aptly teach it?
I thought about the most proficient instructors in my life thus far. The ones whose lessons have left the greatest indelible imprint on me had no degrees in education—nor fancy lettering following their names. They had instinct, purpose, and need.
A cat has schooled me in the necessity of paying attention to the most muted of reverberations as much as any sound engineer. You wish to catch a prey? Listen like your life depends upon it. Hunger can tutor the stupid right out of you.
An elderly Polish neighbor repeatedly walked me through the woods as a child, revealing what will taste good raw, what will taste good cooked, and what will outright kill you if you so much as lick it.
And no doubt my parents have left me with life lessons near impossible to accumulate from anyone else: Do what you love, love what you do, and please pay attention goddammit to what Mrs. Sobieski warns you not to lick.
We are surrounded by teachers. Many have a desire to give you what they already possess: comprehension of the world. And oftentimes for free—simply because of the passion they possess with the subject.
“Okay, you’re hired,” Leslie decided.
I was thrilled. Most times in life I’ve found myself as the student—the hungry pupil desperate for know-how, happy to be on the receiving end of it. But on this night, I would get to be that teacher.
That teacher who teaches what she loves, and loves what she teaches.
Likely I will start off the session with an introductory phrase such as: “Thank you all for coming, thank you for being willing to learn, but mostly I’d like to thank Mrs. Sobieski for allowing me to be here tonight.”
The Reservoir Distillery’s “Women in Whiskey” event.
(Robey Martin, Beth Dixon, Mary Allison, and Shelley Sackier)
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