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I’m nursing a $6 glass of Old Crow on the rocks at the legendary Vesuvio Café in San Francisco. Today is labor day. Jazz is playing in the background behind layers of conversation and the crinkling folding paper of tourist maps. The second floor ceiling is low and patched together, like the tattered overalls of a depression-era farmer. My booth is in the corner of the room, giving me a clear shot of 75% of the bar on both floors through the open floor plan that peers down on the bar and surrounding tables.
The weather is just a shade warmer than perfect today. The sun is out in full force and after a chilly summer the city is alive in dusted off shorts and flip flops. My drink is cold and mellows as the ice melts, drips soaking in the standard white bar napkin below it. I feel good. It’s a good day and was a great morning. It has been a memorable time of life with many changes happening across nearly every facet of my life. And today I’m off on my own for a few precious hours – ones that will probably be the last for a while.
The tone changes as an old Thelonious Monk song comes on. I feel strange about the light color of my whiskey. Too light for such a song despite the sun pouring in from the edges of the room. I think back to a bar in Chicago not dissimilar from this – cash only, jazz over the stereo, unusual images along the wall. I can picture a particular night as though it just happened - despite it happening 10 years ago. I can feel the level of the light in the room and speed of the pour from pitchers of cheap Chicago beer. I see friends, closer then, as though here now. I can picture drinking Jack Daniels out of the bottle on the roof of an apartment building as the sun broke through the clouds that morning. I can taste it, feel the burn go down and the thoughts of sleep churning and gaining speed in my then thoroughly exhausted mind.
What constitutes an experience vs a moment? Will I remember the sun and warmth today in 5 years? 10 years? 15? Will this song or reading these very words trigger a flashback, instantly transporting me back to where I am today and all the struggles and challenges, insights and victories that I currently carry? Will the future bring a bright or dark spot and change the tone of Mr. Thelonius’ song for me for as long as I can remember?
I switch to rye - Old Overholt. A group of tourists move in to the table next to me.
It’s a strange era to live in. So many opportunities and options available everywhere. And so many whiskies. Old Crow was the favorite of Mark Twain and General Grant. It was, for their money, the best you could get. Now it’s the well boubron at a divey, old school beat writer bar. Today over 1,000 craft distilleries are operating in the US. And for a collector, where do you stop? Where, for that matter, do you start?
I wonder sometimes what novelty means over the long run. I was just recently discussing the positives and negatives of Pinterest with a colleague. In one sense you get to see what’s possible. In another you get to experience not living up to an expectation set out by someone in some part of the world and their insanely perfect fill in the blank.
And the same goes for whiskey. It is interesting viewing whisky posts on Instagram. I see often the line, “A _____ kind of day” posted with a shot of an extremely rare bottle. I’m just not sure what it is that constitutes a $400-bottle-of-whiskey kind of day, but I must not have experienced it yet.
I was in Las Vegas recently with some old friends. After discovering that Jameson was available on the floor for the price of a tip, we opted to take in 80% of our calories for the weekend at the blackjack tables and on the rocks. And no complaints you will hear from me. Jameson is a delicious drink and meets all of the basic requirements we were going for. But it was also the company and the experience that formed the foundation and context in which we sipped between melting cubes of ice.
This is an expensive hobby and a fun one. The time I’ve spent in bars and distilleries trying new recipes has been amazing. Just last night I found my tally for new whiskies just this year alone is nearly 60 – and most of them have been in the last five months. But when I think back to some of the most wonderful moments I’ve experienced with one bottle or another it has been the bottle that has been mute in favor of the company. It is close to miraculous that a combination of mash, yeast, barrel, and time can produce what it does. And in the same way it is the sounds, sights, time, and people that create the experiences where we get to enjoy the fruits of the distiller’s labor.
As much as I love new whiskies and could drink High West or Whiskey Pig all day long, there is a history in those old logos and flavors. So I’m going to advocate for the well. Here’s to the cheap shit and good friends. Keep making those experiences and listen to more Monk. For now, back to my $6 rye. It is, after all, it’s an Old Overholt kind of day.