The Meticulously Precise and Non-Magical Way to make Whiskey

I’m nearly finished writing another book.

This one won’t be published for the public though. It’s a technical manual.

I’d never done a technical manual before; therefore, this genre has been entirely new to me.

I was at one point reminded, Technically speaking, technical manuals do not fall into a “genre,” Shelley.

Disappointing news.

I was also at one point informed that my other skills of fiction writing were, although appreciated, inapplicable with this work.

“What do you mean?” I’d asked, halfway through the job.

Please do not allow the machinery to have any “dialogue.”

Hugely disappointing news.

In my mind, everything is conversing with anything beside it. Refrigerators hum, clocks tic, boats roar, trees creek, tea kettles whistle, grills hiss, frying pans spit, drains gurgle—I could go on.

There is conversation with their purpose, with their function, and it is our choice to tune in to hear it if we choose to do so—or maybe it’s just a special type of non-worrisome derangement those of us who practice anthropomorphizing inanimate objects experience every day.

So, okay, the mash tuns, the fermenters, the stills, and bottling equipment will not be engaged with any discourse. Fine.

Also, no need to “set the scene.”

Wait. What? No “Once upon a time”? No “In a galaxy far, far away”?

No.

No “Imagine if you can, a farm field in Virginia filled with rows of waving grain. Corn so tall, so yellow, so sweet. Wheat so soft, so feathery, so—”

No. Also, just list the manufacturer of each piece of equipment. No need to give colorful backstory that creates a uh … biography for them.

Damn.

But the still is an old copper Armagnac pot which surely, if you’d allow me to research, has the most fascinating history, connecting it to a village in Gascony, and likely to some illicit brandy making where people’s lives were at risk for defying the king’s orders and skirting around the excise men, right?

No. Louis XVI died in 1793. The still was made in 2006. Write that down.

No excise men?

*insert cold stare here

Fine. Hard facts only. It has been an arduous road to travel. It has been serial numbers, maintenance schedules, standard operating procedures, operator responsibilities, quality controls, ingredient specification sheets, safety protocol, system malfunction detection. It has been measurements, sampling data, testing methods, recording methodology, and out of the realm of tolerance identification.

No language describing the invention of any equipment, the trials and tribulations of the inventor, the recognition, the accolades, the race between rivals to patent first, to reach the market, to make a name and reap rewards.

No timeline of history, the tales of great machinery malfunction and mishaps that caused strife, or injury, or daresay … death.

Nope. Just operator files.

It’s ‘if blank, do blank.’ Or ‘when this, then this.’ It’s ‘measure now, record here.’

There’s no beginning, middle, or end.

It is not a story, not a narrative, no plot.

None of the machinery barely scrapes by, screeches to a halt, or belches out for attention.

The manual is meant to be informative. Concise. Crystal clear. It is meant to provide a “just in case” scenario for an event like a catastrophic pandemic wiping out all previous operators’ ability to fight through throngs of apocalyptic zombies to appear at the facility, allowing any stranger to eventually walk in off the street, discover the book and easily, effectively, and effortlessly pick up where we left off.

No, Shelley. It is meant to use as a teaching guide for new employees.

Yeah, that too, but my take could be plausible (I mumble quietly).

So, I study each piece of equipment. I learn its function. I define its specifications. I describe its purpose. It is thirsty work as I crawl around, beneath, above, and inside many of them. I watch them perform. I study their mechanisms. I research their optimal modes.

And I learn … they are still magical.

I learn it from listening to the operators as they describe their years of experience working with each station.

The grain will stubbornly clump and ball if you don’t chase it with the paddle in the cooker. It likes to hide right in that corner.

If you don’t clamp down the hose securely, the impellor pump turns into a raging snake that’ll spit hot mash on every square inch of the production room floor.

You see that steam rising from the strip still’s parrot spout? We call that the dragon’s breath.

I did find a story. The story of waking up the yeast before releasing it into its comforting, warm bath, of performing the tightly timed choreography between pieces of machinery as they demanded immediate attention to avoid calamity, of discovering that the general consensus for many of the processes was that you just had to feel it, smell it, taste it, gauge it. The machinery had its tells, and a good operator was sensitive to them and could anticipate results because of the accumulated years of a bonding relationship.

Making whiskey requires procedural care, yes. It’s a recipe. It’s a step by step adventure that when timed perfectly churns out a salable product.

But to me, and to others, the machinery is responsible for the alchemy, the head-spinning potions, the conjuration that leads grains to glass, this honeyed, headying elixir.

But the manual will not reveal that magic. The manual will not even hint at it. The manual conceals the story.

Except it’s there. We just don’t capture it within the pages that keep the secret safe. It is for others to read between the lines, to unearth the buried story within it.

If they find it after the zombie apocalypse.

~Shelley

For the time being, the 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’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

Booze, Britain, & Maybe Someone’s Bride

If you’re asked any questions you can’t answer, just send those folks to me.

I looked at my boss. The one who brought me to the London Whisky Show with just barely enough information to sound like I was dangerously competent but not snarkily egotistical.

You mean like, “How many proof liters are you pulling off the still between noon and 6pm on every third Saturday of the month?”

Or how about, “Exactly what percentage of liquor are you extracting from that rare twenty-five year old rum cask you’re resting your bourbon in for two years?”

Or even this one. How bout this one? “Will you marry me?” *hic* Can I lob that one over to you as well?

He gave me a look from beneath his brow. Umm … no. You can deal with the drunken fan boy bits on your own.

Fab. Back to work.

And work it was, as setting up a booth in Old Billingsgate—one of London’s myriad iconic buildings, notably a venue that used to house the world’s largest fish market—was not just as easy as plunking down a few bottles of booze and then flipping a shingle to say ‘open for business’ as thirsty customers strolled by.

Instead, it was setting up the most eye-catching, magnetically plumaged display of all your finest award winning wares right beside hundreds of other eye-catching, magnetically plumaged displays of award winning wares.

And for most of us, all on the size of a postage stamp.

The festival brought distillers and whisky lovers from all over the world together to experience some of the most coveted, laurel wreathed drams begging to be savored. Participants wandered (and eventually stumbled) about from booth to booth over the two festival days with supremely developed palates and highly developed expectations.

Now there may only officially be listed just over 100 carefully selected global distillers, but each one of them had some version of, You think that was good … (pulls bottle from beneath hidden shelf) … wrap your tongue around this one!

Altogether, a patron had somewhere between 600-800 drams of whisky to filter through in 48 hours.

As did their liver.

Of course, there was recommended show etiquette.

Spit, don’t swallow.

Drink lots of water—hell, bring your own IV pole if it’s not too unwieldy.

And if you are officially documented by the patrolling Security Stewards to have asked more than three exhibitors for their hand in marriage, the last one has the right to hold you responsible for their children’s college fund.

Gamble as you may.

One of the most challenging aspects of the festival was to reel in the participants, convince them that Reservoir’s whiskies stood head and shoulder above most others because we were not a carbon copy of the vast menu list available.

Our ingredients are of the utmost importance.

We pride ourselves on those ingredients being local.

Our process is different, our distillate is unique, our people are unprecedented, and for Pete’s sake, every day we festoon our bosses’ office doors with balloons and thank you notes because we just frickin’ love working here!

PLEASE JUST COME TASTE OUR WHISKIES!

In truth, we may not have sounded quite so desperate, but you get my point. You have to stand out. And not in a gimmicky way. You have to present them with something that’s memorable, that’s meaningful, that matters.

You have to make them want to take you home in a bag.

Okay, that did not come out right, but again you get my point.

It was an opportunity to meet people who love whisky and who make whisky from every corner of the Earth. To share what we’ve made, to learn from others, and to come home filled to the brim with the vim and vigor of pursuing our future.

We also come home smelling a little bit of fish, but that’s beside the point.

We travel the world with our wares. Sometimes we come to you. Sometimes you come to us. Most importantly, we come together, our spirits aligned.

Now, agreeing whether you want to make monthly payments to the university or just one lump sum is where we might diverge, but we can always work that out over a dram or two.

~Shelley

My favorite customer …

For the time being, the 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’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

 

 

You Cannot Teach An Old Cat New Tricks … Or Anything Really

“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)

For the time being, the 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’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

~Shelley