On a Wednesday night in late September, The Keepers of the Quaich, the prestigious industry group that honours individuals who have committed their career to promoting Scotch whisky (a task I’m more inclined to refer to as “spreading the love”), launched the U.S. Chapter of the organisation at a fancy banquet in midtown Manhattan. People are inducted by nomination and there is an air of mystery and secrecy that surrounds the society, like a Gaelic Freemasonry type thing.
This column is a rumination on devotion. In my 15 or so years of writing about the global whisky industry, I never cease to be amazed by people’s commitment to the drink, by how whisky seems to ensnare the hearts of people in all corners of the industry: distillers, warehousemen, coopers, salespeople, marketers, retailers, bartenders, writers and so on; and permeate their souls. All this at a time when people proudly make big career changes. Fewer and fewer people in countless fields hold long tenures at their job the way people did in prior generations.
It’s easy to point a finger at the internet as the culprit, what with its unrelenting churn-and-burn of distractions. It tells us there’s always something else, something better and more fulfilling to be found elsewhere. Read this book, watch this YouTube channel, follow this tastemaker on Instagram, watch this TED Talk, manifest your opportunity, it tells us. We abide, feeling awkward and out of place if we settle. Everyone else is having fun and feeling satisfied and shows no hint of ennui or discontent, we think. Just look at their social media feed. (This is a good place to note that scientific studies have been conducted that conclude that Facebook makes us sad, what with us always looking at everyone’s happy feed, their always-on “best self.”)
That ceaseless source of distraction also makes me wonder if we’ll ever see another Great American Novel (or epic novel from an author of any nation). Can we ever have another work of like Joyce’s Ulysses or Mann’s Magic Mountain or Shakespeare’s Richard plays or Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Diego Rivera’s famous highly detailed 27-panel Detroit Industry mural when we’re so enchanted by interference?
Amid all this, the Keepers shows that people are capable of epic feats of intense and narrow focus. More and more these days we hear of another distiller marking a landmark year at work or a distillery celebrating a monumental birthday. The Keepers honours people who not only devote their career to whisky, but they pretty nearly devote their lives. Few people ever seem to leave the industry. They might move companies or get promoted, but whisky exerts a centripetal force that keeps people’s lives in a steady revolving path.
I often ask myself why this is. The hedonist might simply say: because it’s fun. Whisky folks are, arguably, more fun than wine and beer folks. (And yes, I realise that’s a rather controversial position, but it’s been my experience. That’s all.) The intellectual might say: because the history of the stuff is deep and rich. Learning about whisky always leads you to something more, something bigger, be it international relations, economics, the chemistry of the different parts of the process, music or art. And the poetic will say: because it requires patience. Because to make a fast exit defeats the purpose. Because a lifetime of commitment is required to fully understand what it means for a whisky to fully form.
Anyone in the whisky industry must be fluent in time.
Or maybe it’s because it’s such a full-body experience. Once you visit a distillery, and whisky has pervaded every one of your senses, it’s hard to shake its pull. My first distillery visit, in 2005, was Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky, the heart of horse country. The late, great Dave Pickerell, master distiller there at the time, offered me my first taste of fresh new make. It was like seeing a photo of your loved one as a child for the first time. I stood in the dim barrel warehouse and the smell, and feel, of the angels’ share entered my body and mind like some sort of poltergeist. I haven’t been able to exorcise myself of it since.