It’s 1980 and summer is coming to an end. College starts in a few weeks and I need a job. $93 per semester at Cal State Long Beach is a fortune. Ninety-three freaking dollars…for one semester! Were they ripping off the Future of America back then or what? And books weren’t included! I needed some scratch. The local big box record store was hiring so I took their last and final offer of minimum wage and joined the working class. And there was nothing like working in a record store. Nothing.
I was immersed in the “industry” almost immediately designing 6′ wall displays of current albums that we’d build ourselves. They were sort of like the window displays of department stores but without mannequins or Santa Claus. Record company reps would come in, drop off posters, “flats” of the album cover, goofy promo display stuff and would let us have at it. We were cheap labor. Knock yourself out, kid. Sometimes concert tickets fell our way too though I was low on the hierarchy of such riches (my ears are still ringing from free 14th row floor seats at Long Beach Arena for Iron Maiden and UFO). Our wall displays were works of art in our Vinyl Louvre. REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity was my first work of wall art (I was in my “throw up period”). The Wall, Zenyatta Mondatta, Back in Black, Moving Pictures, Dirty Deeds. They all had their few weeks on the wall and then they got ripped down for new ones to go up. Queen, Pink Floyd, The Police, Ozzy. Rock Stars, pure and simple.
But there was this other little place in the store that didn’t have the glitz and marketing of the rock stars. We had two small record bins that I found myself gravitating to often: Imports and Punk. Now, Imports was a fairly obvious category but very limited in supply. The big bosses weren’t going to stock hundreds of copies of the third Peter Gabriel album sung entirely in German (though that version of “Games Without Frontiers” is haunting). The Punk bin was a little less defined. There were copies of The Cars mixed in with the Sex Pistols alongside X and Siousxie, The Circle Jerks and Bauhaus. It was an undervalued, underdeveloped, catch all of music that didn’t fit anywhere else. And I loved it. The bin never had more than two or three dozen records but they were, well, they were different. The Imported ones looked…foreign. They felt different in your hand, they had plastic sleeves ON THE OUTSIDE, the vinyl sometimes wasn’t black, the liner notes read differently. These bands, faces, songs and art weren’t getting on our big wall displays. The Punk records could’ve been from Mars; songs as short as a few seconds, with rage, anger and spit being the three chords. These records were for a different demographic. We just didn’t know who that demo was at the time. In fact, we didn’t know what demographic meant.
I liked the offbeat, DIY, indie attitudes in that music, although Indie wasn’t even a term back then. As much as I loved Ozzy or Freddie Mercury or Roger Waters, listening to Motörhead, Black Flag or The Ramones was a whole new experience with completely new sensibilities. “Let’s do what we want to do because we have a really cool idea and see where it goes,” was the attitude. And now, many years later, I find myself gravitating to those same types in the whisky world. Free spirits and thinkers daring to challenge the status quo with their creativity. Two of those indie whisky Rock Stars are Rob Gard and Allison Patel.
Rob Gard is a writer and former journalist who was one of the early bloggers on the subject of whisky. His fascinating spins are from the perspective of storytelling and the relationship between whisky and people. It’s the thinking man’s game instead of the drinking man’s game for Rob. Maybe he’s the post-Genesis Peter Gabriel. Words mean something to Rob and whisky binding people together is his fascination. When he sought out to write his recent book, Distilling Rob, he was looking to delve into the metaphor of the process of distillation equating in some ways to the process of men maturing – from seed to growing to something down the road – maybe better, maybe not, but certainly different from the beginning. But as many a good storyteller will tell you, the road to one place inevitably leads to another and to another and to another.
Distilling Rob is about a journey. Rob goes from journalist in Los Angeles to distillery worker on Islay, an island off the west coast of Scotland, in order to interview employees at Bruichladdich for his book research. But the road to his book idea changes as he listens to stories from his newfound co-workers and starts to look inward. As he learns the art and science of distillation in his somewhat nomadic life on that tiny, cold island, he learns much more about himself. Making whisky is hard. Making oneself whole is harder.
Rob related much of his experience at a Bruichladdich charity tasting recently hosted by the South Bay Whisky Tribe of which this former record store worker is a founding member. He dazzled all in attendance with stories of Islay, the distillery and whisky. Rock Stars, even the indie types, can dazzle a crowd. Each whisky we tried, be it Rocks or PC10 or Laddie 16 came with a story with soul and appreciation for the experience behind it. As we planned the event, one night, Rob spoke with Lee Zaro and I via Skype to nail down the details, I could feel the passion Rob had for putting a crowd together to share in stories and in whisky. Whether the topic was food pairing or music or anything else, you could sense that this is a special part of Rob’s life. The evening was spectacular as Rob led us in learning, tasting and laughing. But as the Rock Stars do best, he connected us. He connected us to the soul of where whisky comes from, the rain that becomes the water in the rivers, to the wood from trees thousands of miles away that becomes barrels, to the hands of people that labor to create the luscious spirit.
Rob is and always will be storyteller. A few weeks later Rob again donned the storyteller’s hat at Tom Bergin’s, a wonderful Irish pub in West Los Angeles. Reading from his book with a dram close by, in front of a glowing fireplace, he captured the Bruichladdich experience again with humor and enthusiasm. Tom Bergin’s we learned was the the site of Rob’s first blind date when he first came to L.A. We also learned that saying “Yes” emphatically on a blind date might get you your very own stigmata markings. Call Rob for details. The essence of the storyteller leaves the listener or reader learning and questioning and entertained. Rob has the unique ability to accomplish all with a three-run homer that pleases the senses and sensibilities of all. In his book he says that the wood for the barrels in whisky making is very powerful and masculine, but whisky itself is quite feminine as the water comes from “babbling brooks, soft streams”. Whisky as a metaphor for nature, for sexuality, for life. Maybe it is more than just a alcoholic beverage. Maybe Rob has found something that connects us to this “water of life” more than fancy labels and glasses. This is what Rob does.
Rock stars as we all know come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Their talent and creativity shine through their music or in Allison Patel’s case, her whisky. Finding herself a “retired” ballet dancer at the ripe old age of 23 left Allison searching for a next chapter in her life. A bit early for Social Security checks and a life of wine and cheese, she started importing whisky as all retired ballerinas do. And somewhere in there she met up with a French cognac maker in France, no less, who by chance also made whisky as a side gig for friends and family. When life pours you French whisky, you drink it, or in Allison’s case, you bottle it and sell it. Now, how someone pirouettes from dancing to distilling is a great mystery but this is how rock stars are born. Sometimes they find the music and sometimes the music finds them. For Allison, she found the music. And she named it Brenne.
Allison recently made her way to Los Angeles on the Brenne West Coast tour touting the beauty of her French oak cask single malt that’s finished richly in cognac barrels. Read that last part back and it sounds a bit crazy but so is Ms. Patel. Rock stars are risk takers. They leap where no one has leapt. They roar where no one has roared. They find their voice when they didn’t know they had one. Brenne is Allison’s voice. It’s her baby, her labor of love, her first album. Countless hours were spent with the French cognac makers to bring out Allison’s vision of what a French whisky should taste like. Creating a brand is no easy task. Creating a brand out of nothing but a 120 year French cognac distillery that has never made commercial ready whisky is just nuts. It was her idea to take this “seed to spirit” whisky and finish it in cognac barrels for two years after five years in French oak. More wackiness. But rock stars are visionaries too. They see things, opportunities, life, excitement where others don’t. Allison also sees the human connection that whisky has. For her, that is reason enough to give this thing a go, bringing more people together.
Brenne – The First Album – is fascinating. Floral, butterscotch, and vanilla notes with apricot and lemon bouncing off the tongue. It’s a sit back and enjoy with friends whisky. She very much is a believer in the “slow eating movement” which could be right out of Portlandia but in reality is all about sipping and enjoying more, and consuming less. Much has gone on to create Brenne and it’s not hard to think of the all the elements to its story. Allison’s hands and arms flail away as she tells her story at Tom Bergin’s in front of the fireplace. Rob is standing a few feet away and one wonders if he’s a bit worried that he might get bludgeoned in the noggin by that beautiful bottle of Brenne that Allison is waving around. I’m in fear and I’m 15′ away. She’s dancing again but this time the art is whisky instead of ballet. She tells the crowd various first album stories that are funny now but were more than likely stressful and upsetting at the time for her. From defining the hypnotic blue color in the labeling to errors in dates on the label, Allison laughs but as any new businessperson can attest, these “little” things can add up and make you question what the hell were you thinking when you woke up one day and said I’m going to invent a French single malt whisky and sell it all over the U. S. of A.
There’s a hyperkinetic passion in Allison that fills a room. You can feel that Brenne is more than just her first whisky. It’s her new dance that she’s thrown her whole life into making it a reality and successful one. Allison’s West Coast tour by all accounts was quite successful as Brenne is now on the shelves at our best Los Angeles area wine and spirits shops and some big box ones too. When I wanted to buy it back in 2012, I searched high and low near home. It was like looking for that import version of the “Anarchy In The UK”. I finally bought a bottle online and it lived up to what I read. For all I knew (or believed), it was the only bottle west of the Mississippi. There’s no better excitement of having something from a far off land that no one else has and something so good that all you want to do is share it. It’s Nirvana’s first album, “Bleach”, only heard by a handful of kids on a college radio station late at night. It’s that Peter Gabriel album sung in German. It’s uniquely yours but you need to let others listen and hear what you hear, or in this case, taste what you taste. I brought that bottle of Brenne to dinner parties, tastings, wherever I could. And, lo and behold, a few days before Allison made it to Los Angeles to start her tour, I saw Brenne on the shelf in a store, ten minutes from home. Sigh. But also smiles, because this whisky deserves a larger audience than small jazz clubs. Rocks stars need their music heard in concert halls and Allison needs Brenne in the glasses of many. It’s that good.
When one writes or makes whisky or makes anything else, it can be easy to keep it for yourself. It’s yours and that imparts an ownership to it so close that sharing it with others can be a bit difficult and scary. Rock stars take full ownership of their art but know full well that what they are creating is for more than themselves. It’s not a lesson in selfishness. It’s an effort in sharing their vision by jumping off that cliff, or Marshall stack, and crowd surfing on unknown hands because they’ve created something more; they’ve taken their songs and created a bond, a trust with the listener.
Rob Gard does the same with his words going on journeys that allow him to open up his life and thoughts usually through whisky but not always to a reader who wants to take their own leaps. Allison Patel is crowd surfing in her own way with Brenne. Her graceful yet exuberant style is inherent in Brenne. You can taste the legacy of a quiet French family’s cognac roots and Allison’s frenetic adventurousness. She wants that that dram to enliven its drinker; it’s her spirit that’s in that spirit.
These two are Indie types I would have found in those Import/Punk bins years ago. Cut from a different cloth, Rob and Allison, are about the unconventional, the unique, all to connect us in their own way.
A very special thank you to Editor Sarah (and her red pen) for the extraordinary help on this story without which, you’d be reading this story into next week.