The Saratoga Sun -

Whiskey changed my life

 

August 8, 2018



Providence has thrown a lot of interesting jobs at me over the years, but honestly, most just sort of happened by being in the right place at the right time. That is true to a major degree when it comes to my work with liquor.

But of all the jobs I have had in any particular industry, I can’t help thinking destiny had me fated to work with hard spirits (even soft ones) at a very early age.

I make jokes about my father having me make his Gibsons, Manhattans and Old Fashions at the tender age of five as being the reason I love bartending the way I do. My reward back in the those days, was the leftover garnishes. Plus if we are getting a little Freudian, I probably enjoyed the praise my father gave me for making his drinks well.

Little did I know, or he for that matter, making me comfortable working with alcohol was going to be a game changer in my life.

So yeah, I guess it really was one of those destiny things that I was meant to work with whiskey and spirits because it didn’t end with him.

He did install (or distill?) in me, not only is life too short for a bad drink (especially when he was drinking them), but all jobs taken on should be done right. This included mowing the lawn, weeding, working on cars, houses and certainly his Saturday night cocktails with his steak.

I fully accept many of his lessons were lost on me, especially when it came to working with my hands. I am lame when it comes to carpentry, plumbing, electronics and mechanics. I am thankful he was relentless about me assisting him (only son syndrome) in doing work around the house and cars.

Don’t get me wrong, I would be in a world of hurt more than I am concerning being a homeowner if he had not taught me the basics. Plus he and my mother turned me into a decent gardener, but no doubt the praise I received for making his drinks gave me confidence to keep doing it as I got older.

I learned to respect alcohol and its potency at age 15 at my stepbrother’s (Ken) bachelor party. My father was there, so in theory my first time drinking hard liquor should have been safe. I have to say, he wasn’t wild I was there to begin with, but he relented when Ken begged to have me come. Long story short, I learned mixing every white liquor with ginger ale and every brown spirit with coke and drinking both within an hour is not a good idea.

Throw in munching on peanuts, a water bed to pass out on, and a woman bouncing on said bed telling me how cute I was; you have a recipe for a kid losing everything in his stomach on the bed, himself and woman. The humiliation of being stripped down in front of all—I actually didn’t care at that point—and given a shower by my father, made me stay away from hard liquor for years.

It was a family joke when I would make drinks for my father (what can I say, he liked the way I made his Manhattans), I would be asked if I wanted a sip and I was emphatic with my “no!”

I was fine about not drinking until I was legal. I’m not saying I didn’t have a beer or two, but no hard stuff went down my throat.

Slowly, I started to try hard liquor again but I was a stickler for recipes and not mixing for the purpose of getting drunk. Plus I have to say, I have a pretty high resistance.

When I worked for a summer in Ocean City, MD, I did start drinking enough to where occasionally I would get drunk. When I let my guard down and go a little crazy, there was a price to pay, and I didn’t like it.

So again, I say it was fate or destiny making me aware to respect alcohol at a time many of my peers were abusing it.

Then I started bartending and I loved it.

Instead of getting to eat garnishes, my reward was hearing I made a great drink for someone which usually led to getting tipped some cash. I won’t lie, that is cool and it was often instant gratification.

Who doesn’t like instant gratification?

I had a lot of jobs in Washington D.C. that were not bar oriented, but it was rare for me not to have a bartending job as secondary income.

Serendipity was determined I keep those mixology skills honed after I thought I had left it all behind.

Going overseas, my first year in Taiwan, I was a pure English teacher, but destiny was not finished with me concerning alcohol.

Teaching English I made a pretty good income, but my frustration was spending my earnings in places that offered only beer or whiskey and coke.

Before Taiwan I had lived in Hawaii and got to bartend in a few really good places where the Mai Tai, Zombie and Pina Colada were staples on every bar’s menus.

I started making these drinks at home because the ingredients were easy enough to find in Taiwan. A Chinese friend who was opening a bar for Westerners tasted some of these tropical wonders and he asked me to help him with his bar.

Assisting him changed my career path entirely.

Not only did I help open his bar, other bars and nightclubs hired me. It was great. I was in demand and paid a salary versus depending on getting tipped as it was in the U.S.

Overseas tipping isn’t the standard, which could be another column on why American service is so much better because of the tip.

Bartending in Asia in the time period I did opened up doors to so much as I look back.

However, it was learning about whiskey (or whisky if we are talking about Canadian or Scotch) that made me recognize how textured the liquor industry can be.

Good fortune was determined I was going to learn about this spirit in depth.

Got to thank my father for all those Manhattans and Old Fashions he had me make. Since I was pretty proficient in those cocktails versus any other bartender on the island at that time, it set me apart from the bartenders who struggled to make anything that was more than one mixer.

Here I have to thank Jim Beam for starting my serious education when they made me a brand ambassador in Asia after they realized I could train other bartenders in whiskey drinks.

They sent me on my first trip on the Bourbon Trail, where many bourbon distillers are still making whiskey.

Because I was helping open up the Chinese market for Jim Beam, I got inordinate attention from producers from countries that weren’t in the U.S.

There are four notable whiskey producing countries, U.S., Canada, Ireland and Scotland. As I understand, the term whiskey comes from the Gaelic words “usque baugh”, meaning “water of life”. Later the slang word “usky” took over and from that, the English word whiskey evolved.

After leaving Taiwan, I found myself working for one of the largest liquor importers and distributors in China because I could differentiate all the different whiskies being offered.

A quick basic lesson on whiskey that might be opportune to put forth.

Whiskey’s ingredients; grain, water and yeast are easily obtainable. The difference between whiskies comes from the distillation methods, the type of yeast used, the kinds of woods employed for aging, the size of the barrel the liquor is stored in, the water source, the type of grain (corn, rye, wheat, barley, oats) and what proportions.

In a quick summary, five steps serve as a blueprint for all whiskies world wide; cooking the grains (also known as malting), mashing which prepares the grainy liquid for fermentation, fermentation which takes place in another vat where yeast is introduced, distillation which is the process where the final product is formed and aging. Once done, a distiller looks at the purity, aromatic and flavor properties then finally the finish.

I still love talking about whiskey.

Obviously.

Now that I am a reporter, it might be said my destiny with whiskey and spirits is over.

Doubt it.

I have learned fate, predestination, providence, kismet, God’s will or whatever you call it; happens for a reason. I just talked about whiskey as a reporter or at least a columnist.

I don’t believe I am done with whiskey being in my life; nor since fate is tricky, is whiskey done with me.

Now where is my glass of Buffalo Trace?

 

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