Galapagods and Goddesses

“So what are you most excited about, Mom? The giant tortoises? The penguins? The Blue-footed Boobies?”

That last one always makes every one laugh—until you see a picture of the bird, in which case you’re trying to figure out how to slyly shove one of those cutey patooties into your suitcase to return home with.

“The distillery,” I answered truthfully.

I heard the distinct sound of a hand suctioning itself onto a forehead. It would be a familiar thump as well over the next couple of weeks, as we were nearing the end of Chloe’s “Countdown to the Galapagos” calendar—the trip of a lifetime my daughter had gifted me.

Weeks earlier she had surprised me on a Zoom call.

“I’ve checked with your work—all is thumbs up, and all the animals will be looked after. I’m taking you to the Galapagos Islands.”

“What?” I was stunned. “Why?”

“Firstly, you’re welcome. And secondly, as a thank you.”

I chose to ignore the firstly bit and moved on to the latter half of her explanation. “Thank you for what?”

“You know, the whole thanks for raising, clothing, caring, feeding bit, plus all the extra effort helping me get to where I am so that I could accomplish what I have.”

She was referring to her ever so awesome job and lifelong dream of sending shit up into space. “You are welcome. I knew those math flash cards were going to pay off one day.”

“I’m serious,” she said. “You were there with the support and encouragement and shoulder—”

“Don’t forget ice cream.”

“Yes, and ice cream too,” she added.

“Why the Galapagos?”

She smiled with glee through the screen. “Well, I may never be able to take you to Mars to study what we’re hoping to discover there—possibly some origin of life, so I’m taking you to where Charles Darwin first studied it on our little planet.”

Obviously, Chloe knew exactly how the poetic parallel would fill me with admiration, and it neatly explained why she had mailed me a beautiful copy of On the Origin of Species just a few days before phoning.

And so, every day for the next two weeks I received some version of the text ELEVEN MORE DAYS TILL GALAPAGOS, MOTHER!!! And I would send her back a picture of one of the animals I could not wait to lay eyes on.

This, of course, after researching whether any of the islands had some form of working distillery upon them, and after discovering one did, announcing that this was where we had to go first.

“We are leaving work behind, Madre—no computers, no spreadsheets, and no liquor apart from that which any charming South American bartender hands you in a glass, got it?”

“But this is not work, Chloe. This is learning. This is research. And as we are going to be spending hours wandering through the ample exhibition halls, gardens, library, and living labs of the Charles Darwin Research Station, we surely will wish to further our research on other aspects of the islands’ elements as well, right?”

“Discovering how some old geezer is distilling sugarcane will likely disappoint you. It’s not going to be like you’re in Scotland, and as you’re hunting through castles and stone circles you accidentally stumble upon some ancient, perfect, long silent but suddenly brought back to life prized distillery.”

I huffed. “I will not be disappointed, Chloe. Clearly, there is an artist waiting to be appreciated—and likely frustrated that Charles Darwin is constantly overshadowing his work. I aim to aid his need for recognition.”

“You aim to be poisoned, likely by a large dose of methanol, is my guess.”

But my sweet, generous, overly and uncomfortably educated child was wrong. Meeting Adriano Cabrera of El Trapiche was one of the most memorable moments ever.  Maybe because having seen some of the world’s most impressive and flush-with-cash companies, with their shiny copper pots, their massive barrel-filled warehouses, and their gleaming tasting rooms, experiencing Adriano’s barebones setup was the refreshing, reaffirming chapter I needed to slip in to my ‘book of life.’ It brought back the this process is magic feeling that can sometimes be buried beneath all the new glamour whisky making tours now provide to consumers.

Not one of the countless distilleries I’ve visited ever employed animals as part of the workforce, and yet Adriano had harnessed not just a braying donkey to run the press that squeezes the liquid out of the cane sugar, but every bit of flora and fauna he had available to utilize.

All throughout the facility—and by facility, I mean a long, open air shack—he was growing plants indigenous to his island of Santa Cruz. Whether it was the sugar cane, the coffee bushes, or cacao beans, the surrounding landscape was filled with flowering plants.

Those flowering plants brought birds, butterflies, and bees to pollinate them, and those thriving plants introduced an abundance of wild, ambient yeasts. Those indigenous yeasts then fermented that sugar cane juice, which attracted a good handful of insects looking to score a solid buzz on their buzziness and ended up dying for the cause. And still flying with the theme that Adriano was capturing flavor everywhere, surely there’s got to be a scientist who would agree with me that those insects added a bit of nuttiness to the mash, or that their natural fats and mineral-rich exoskeletons left some “flavorprint” behind.

It doesn’t matter. I have empirical evidence. My tongue was the judge.

Once that mash trickled downhill via garden hose to the antiquated, blackened oil drum that was his makeshift still, flames licking and embracing its bottom half as it heated and fractionated the fermented juice within, the magic was nearly done.

Adriano’s method of testing his alcohol’s proof was to use a scuffed-up glass hydrometer, but more to my amusement, was his flamboyant technique of simply throwing a cupful of distillate right onto the still’s flames.

If it goes boom, we bottle, could be a motto he might consider putting onto the label.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding as well, which to me—any small, albeit worrisome, overdose of methanol aside—was a nip worth sipping and a risk worth taking.

As I see it, the El Trapiche distillery succeeded in distilling the entire experience of The Galapagos Islands’ essence of origins into liquid form. The smells, the taste, the sights, the sounds. The true flavor of all its endemic species.

Charles Darwin would have been proud.

~Shelley

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In Good Spirits

I needed help.

Professional help.

It’s a phrase I utter at least a dozen times a day it seems, and not every episode is referring to the fact that shock therapy might be just the thing.

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This time I was searching for answers to questions that did not reveal the meaning of life, or my purpose in the universe, or even advice on how to handle the creepy guy at the grocery store who is always asking if he can hold my melons while I search for apples.

Ah … Security??

No, this time I needed help with my new book. The writing “fiction” part is always so much fun. But the “researching the fiction I just wrote and discovered wouldn’t even be remotely believable” part is always a little hard to choke down.

Best to do them in tandem.

And as my new book takes place in a distillery, and there’s one nearly spitting distance from my house, it would be foolish of me not to immediately take advantage of the expertise within grasp.

So I pleaded my case, called the joint, and set up an interview to make sure that my new manuscript wasn’t going to entirely fit into the genre of fantasy.

Or an oval shaped file under my agent’s desk.

At first I thought Ian Thomas, the new director of operations at the Virginia Distillery Company, was worried about the time—because he was always checking his watch.

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And then I thought for a second that maybe the fellow I was standing across was fairly new to the concept of wristwatches, as when he did look down at it, he stared at it with intense focus for at least four or five seconds.

And then I realized that I was the actual idiot.

Ah. An Apple watch.

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Ian was getting about as many requests for attention as if he’d had a tiny toddler tugging at his pant leg—which, coincidentally, he’ll have in a few short weeks as he’s expecting his first child.

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So perhaps coaxing a fledgling whisky distillery through its beginning years full of growing pains is exactly the kind of training a soon-to-be dad should be having.

If nothing more than to reinforce recognizing the blissful joy of losing consciousness for more than ten minutes in a row.

That, and maybe to discover what a bazillion new parents come to realize during the agonizing teething phase of their tiny tot: whisky can act as a damn fine benumbing agent …

For the parents, of course.

And this man is sitting on a gold mine.

The questions I needed answering were specifically related to the running and operating of a single malt distillery:

How much does each ingredient contribute to the overall end product flavor profile?

How much does the temperature and humidity in your warehouses play a part in the maturation process?

How many times have you tried to roll a full wooden cask of spirit into the back of your car to sneak home and feigned surprise when one of your coworkers discovered you struggling with the back hatch of the trunk?

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Yup. All relevant.

We spent hours walking through the facility, and Ian patiently explained every piece of equipment and component involved in the operation: the gristmill, the mashtuns, the washbacks, and stills. The miles of plumbing, the resourceful recycling, the freshly plowed and planted barley fields, and the mile-long list of government officials he had to converse with on a daily basis in order to make this American malt find its way from barley to bottle—or grain to glass—or field to finally in my hot little hands.

At one point, while talking in the warehouse that securely housed the seven hundred wooden casks snugly hugging their aging spirit, Ian received the equivalent of another toddler tug that needed attention and stepped out of the warehouse while I ecstatically and repeatedly filled both my lungs with as much of the intoxicating, spirit-drenched air as they could hold. And then, profoundly lightheaded from hyperventilating, I suddenly worried that I had inhaled enough of the whisky-dense atmosphere to register as too intoxicated to drive home.

Maybe Ian’s watch would keep him busy whilst I slept off the fumes and stretched out across a few ex-bourbon barrels.

I thought about the last jaunt I’d undertaken researching a book—an afternoon spent questioning an internist about all the effective emetics available in the 18th century. There were no heady, soothing scents of toffee and brown sugar, butterscotch and bananas encapsulating me like a giant embrace from the ancient gods of magical elixirs. Just half a dozen homeopathic textbooks opened to pictures of poisonous plants that could make you puke.

Yeah, this one was turning out to be a lot more fun.

We finished the day with Ian allowing me to further question him in hopes that he could provide answers for the stickiest parts of the book—things I was struggling with and that were critical to the book’s authenticity and success: the biology, the chemistry, the plot.

His answers were enlightening. And clarified that there were actually a solid handful of hugely capable, talented, and ingenious people who worked alongside him to craft this outstanding spirit that holds so much promise.

And surprisingly, if not somewhat disappointingly, not one of them were alchemists or felt the need to invoke a series of sorcerous spells to turn this water into wine—er … whisky.

Apparently Gareth Moore,

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Chairman and CEO of Virginia’s newest spiritus frumenti emporium, really knows how to hire his nine-to-fivers and reviews of their work are about as glowing as the cheeks of those who imbibe in their product.

“Okay,” I said to Ian back in his office, “just in case this post goes viral and the only way you can fend off the sudden surge of paparazzi at the distillery is by locking yourself in the waste management warehouse and hiding behind a tank full of lye and caustic soda, is there anything else the world should know about Ian Thomas, young whisky maker hailing from Tennessee?”

“Ah,” he said, glancing at his wrist again and staring at it intensely for about four seconds, “Well,” he chuckled self-consciously. “I like casual strolls along the beach, I’m a good husband, I love my family and Virginia … and I’m working hard to make a world class whisky.”

I don’t doubt for one second all these things are true. Ian is a busy guy with a full life that’s only going to get fuller in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. A new dad. A new home. A new job. Yeah, he’s got his fingers in a lot of pots.

Copper ones to be precise.

And I think the world of ‘world class whiskies” is lucky to have it so.

~Shelley

HEADS UP Y’ALL: Robin has his annual calendar of curiously clever cartoons for sale starting now. If you’re hoping to take a peek a tiny bit farther into his unfathomable brain, then I suggest you head on over and order yours tout de suite! They won’t last!  Robingott.com

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.