What Traveling Through Whiskey Country Taught Me About Being Myself

Look at that beautiful booze

When you really think about it, the advice we most commonly give each other – the sort of panaceaic wisdom that is a supposed be a balm for any and every situation – is also life’s most confounding.

“Just be yourself?” What does that even mean? Far as I can tell, life is pretty much an experience in not being yourself. From fitting in in middle school to trying to look cool in high school to making friends in college, you’re anything but. You’re always trying to temper or twist how you are, changing your outer appearance and inner disposition. All in some futile attempt to make yourself what you want to be. I don’t mean that in like the self-improvement sense. Something more sinster and less healthy to your well being.

I’m almost 32 and, while I wish I could say it goes away, it doesn’t. I just moved to Brooklyn, and it’s like starting middle school all over again. Although I rolled into a group of already existing friends from my freshman year of college, I hadn’t seen any of them since I transferred and all those old fears came back. Do these people like me? Do they really want to be hanging out with me? Do they like me or do they just feel obligated to? Like I said, the worry never goes away.

In that sort of mindset, a couple months ago, I got to go on a press junket to tour the Wild Turkey distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.

Look at the big turkey!

It was one of those fantastic, bourgie, all-expense paid trips where you’re treated lavishly, almost like royalty. The objective of it, obviously, was to make everyone on it (a bunch of media types) tell you readers reading this to drink Wild Turkey. I’m not gonna tell you do to that, because that would be counter to what I learned.

(Not because the booze was bad. On the contrary. Wild Turkey is very, very good. Just… you’ll see.)

Whiskey, bourbon especially, is all the rage these days. So much so that there’s an actual shortage afoot. It wasn’t always this way. Other spirits used to dominate. So why has it exploded in such popularity for seemingly no reason? To me, and this is solely pure speculation, I think it’s because everything’s so unreal these days. Not in an awe sense, but in a fake sense. Just think about your job. You can barely explain to someone what you do, let alone point to any tangible crap you produce. You don’t work a hard day. Not in the slightest.

But at least with a whiskey you can pretend you did. It’s steeped in a time when people actually did shit. Back in the day, you didn’t chop down a tree then pour yourself a vodka tonic. Drinking it makes you feel like you weren’t just surreptitiously sneaking glances at SnapChat until five o’ clock hit and you could leave. It’s just, I can’t say much more than it tastes real. It tastes like it’s worked. And it has. Most of it has been aging for six or ten years just to provide you with that first sip. That’s more time and effort than you’ve ever spent on anything.

It’s that allure. Of a realness that exists. The problem these days is so much of whiskey, which didn’t ever do anything to cultivate an image except exist and be good, is now plied to consumers the same way fast food burgers are. Filled with bullshit and flowery prose and fake truths.

Small batch and new aged and blah blah whatever.

The only thing that should make you buy a whiskey is if the whiskey is good.

That’s it. That’s why I said I wouldn’t tell you what to drink. Because that would be antithetical to the point of whiskey. Although if you do want my opinion, after sampling 70 some odd whiskies from every distillery in the area, Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed is damn near the finest booze I’ve ever had. (You can take that as you may given they paid for my trip, but it’s the truth. It punches you in the face your first sip in the most perfect kind of way (which is what I want in a whiskey) and only cost about 45 bucks.) But again, don’t listen to me anymore than you’d listen to an ad.

Because you should listen to yourself. And trust yourself. That’s something the master distiller at Wild Turkey, Eddie Russell, said during a tour of the facility. Something that really surprised me, coming from the head of a huge company. We were standing at a display case, looking at all the bottles Wild Turkey offered. He went through a bunch of high-end stuff then pointed to the one you’ve heard of.

“Look, we know how it works. Everyone goes to college, and they take their 101 class and they never drink Wild Turkey again. That’s just how it works.”

I was surprised. Here was a brand admitting people hated its product. But it’s so true. The drink of choice before football games at Virginia Tech was whiskey and cola. Wild Turkey 101 often. After about a hundred of those, starting at eight a.m. and going til noon every weekend, I swore off whiskey. Terrible, foul, nasty stuff I thought. Heck when I was 22, my best friend bought me a bottle of gin for my birthday. If he did that now, I’d probably pour it down the sink. Whiskey, it’s pretty much the only thing I drink.

It took a while to redevelop a passion for it. But even when I did, I didn’t go near Wild Turkey. Because I remembered it as bad.

So I asked Eddie what, if anything, they did to try and prevent that negative connotation from developing among college kids.

I don’t want to say he shrugged, but he sort of shrugged. He said they were confident in what they made and that they made good whiskey. People would come around if they wanted to. Which years later, I did. A friend offered me some and insisted it wasn’t like I’d remembered. I sipped it and thought he was right. That’s pretty damn good. Because it is. And it always has been. They haven’t changed anything. Used the same recipe, bought from the same corn growers, everything identical since before forever. Never changing a thing because they believed in what they were doing.

That’s so hard to do, especially these days. There’s so much noise. But everywhere I went in Louisville, which was a delightfully quiet town, I saw that same faith in self. From stillmakers who kept their factory in the same location for over a 100 years, to barrelmakers who were using wood from the same forests as when they first started. So much of life is reaching, but these people weren’t. They were just doing what they did, and succeeding tremendously. So much so that, like I said, they’re all part of what’s now the most popular beverage in America.

Not because they’d changed things and marketed it and shit, but because they trusted that they were producing a booze that’s good.

Also, they used a lot of fire, which is cool

Later on on the trip I found myself staring down at the Kentucky River, having climbed a fence to wander along an abandoned bridge. High up and alone. And I thought all about everything. About how much of my life I spent trying to please others, how often I was not me, how I was afraid sometimes to just be myself.

And I thought, hell, if a company, whose sole job – when you really get down to it – is ensure that people care about them and like them, can be unbothered by it all, why can’t I, too?

Goober ME

See look. It’s me. I’m a goober.