Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Nurse the Hate: WSET Spirits Report

I had committed to a weekend of tasting spirits in San Francisco, on the face of it an enjoyable task.  I figured I would jet in, sip a little scotch, talk some shit, and pop back home.  How hard could that be?  The WSET Spirits portion of the Diploma is a unit that most of the people involved seem to begrudgingly approach.  There is certainly a line in the sand between “Spirits People” and “Wine People”.  “Spirits People” tend to be 100% male, have ironic facial hair, and walk with the misplaced swagger of someone that has worked in bars too long.  I find it confusing as to why guys that spend 6 days a week mixing up cosmos with an aloof disdain for their customers are under the impression that they have anything really going on.  What is the difference between a guy mixing a cosmo at 95% of taverns and a Subway “Sandwich Technician” anyway?  The guy making the drink gets a tip whereas the poor stiff at Subway gets to deal with mouthy students and truck drivers?

Disaster struck early.  My flight to Denver was delayed by an hour.  The good news was that my friends at United Airlines had also delayed my connection to San Francisco by an hour as well.  Then another 30 minutes.  And another 30 minutes.  And so on.  In the end I found myself with a gutful of overpriced Cabernet with my two new pals I made at the United Club, a hedge fund manager and an attorney with an affinity for the University of Davidson basketball team.  I talked the two of them into making an irresponsible wager on Davidson over St. Bonaventure (pick ‘em) and we white knuckled it to an overtime victory.  Bam!  I almost made enough to cover my overpriced airport food and drink.  Four and a half hours later I was en route to SFO wedged in between a 6 foot 8 red headed monster and his almost as robust goateed drunk buddy.  We all passed out on the 45 minute delay on the runway.  It was a long day.

My plan had been to hit the ground running at 800p, get a nice meal, and maybe a nightcap at a nearby swanky bar.  Instead I limped into my hotel room at 1:11 am and crashed out.  My body was definitely telling me it was still on 4:11 EST.  I remembered to set the alarm and even set myself up for enough time to eat something prior to class the next day.  My guess that sampling liquor all day on an empty stomach would end in my barfing all over the immediate area and earning the type of disdain within the program normally reserved for sexual offenders and traitors.

I won’t lie.  The alarm came early.  I decided to avoid wandering around outside in the rain and instead eat at what I was sure would be a disappointing and wildly overpriced breakfast at the hotel.  I recall the previous evening in the elevator noticing what might have been the most heavy handed hotel restaurant advertisement I had seen in years, a photo of a male model dressed as a hipster lumberjack knocking back a cold one with a woman that appeared to be a witch.  Jaspers.  The ads had the feel of corporate group think.  They were what suburban moms think “hip” people look like at a bar.  I knew I would be spending $7 for toast.  My expectations were low.  They were met.  I headed out in the rain to the Holiday Inn Van Ness to drink some spirits.

There were multiple tables filled with students, probably 20 people or so.  It’s an interesting mix of people.  Every single one is in the wine industry in some capacity.  When a sheet was passed around by a lecturer to fill in our name/title, I wasn’t sure if “lead singer” would cut the mustard.  I thought about “licensed open water diver” and “puppeteer” but figured someone would lose their mind.  There are some very serious people involved that have no time for fun.  Frankly, it’s a bit difficult to explain my rationale for putting myself through this process with no apparent professional payback.  As a friend of mine put it, “you just got a wild hair up yer ass”.  People blink in a confused state when I tell them I am doing this just to see if I can.  It’s best just to keep quiet.

As I had noted before, my past interest in spirits waned when I realized that scotch and I were not necessarily good dance partners.  I already have enough problems.  Being really into expensive scotch isn’t something I really need to add into my life right now.  It’s like being 84 years old and thinking “maybe I should start snowboarding”.  That being said, it doesn’t mean I‘m not interested in what these spirits are all about.  It’s sort of unbelievable that people hundreds of years ago with almost no understanding of science or technology figured out how to distill barley.  “Dude… See that grain over there?  I wonder if we can figure out how to get fucked up on that?  Let’s build a machine and get wasted.”

I sat and listened to what was going on during the lectures, swirled and spit a bunch of wacky ass spirits, and listened to a bunch of people in the room raise their hands in different versions of “Is this going to be on the test?”.  Hey genius.  The guy talking to us doesn’t make the test.  If it has to do with the subject at hand, it might be on the test.  Stop worrying about your stupid grade, relax and learn something.  I do have a massive advantage in that there is no payback to me if I flame out on a test.  I mean, what’s gonna happen?  They won’t let me sing at the Hi Watt in Nashville next month?  That does enable me to sort of glide in, phase in and out of conversation, and drift around with an intellectual curiosity.  “Bourbon barrels were originally charred to get rid of the whale oil that were in them?  No shit?  Huh…” 

After the first class is when a terrible decision was made, a decision that would offer harsh consequences.  I decided to go to The Tonga Room with a friend.  The Tonga Room is a tiki bar institution.  Enormous huts.  A big pool with thunderstorms in the middle of the room.  A drink menu that Satan himself concocted.  The hurricane I had was a bad idea.  The zombie I followed it up with was worse.  Hours later as I gorged on a massive slab of prime rib at The House of Prime Rib like a rabid dog, I knew I would have to pay the fiddler.  I attempted to wander back to my hotel, weaving around some residential area like a gunshot victim.  When my destination refused to get any closer on Google Maps, I did the male version of taking off my heels and sitting down in my skirt.  I shot uber a digital flare and got airlifted out of there. 
I have never had the experience of having a slight hangover and tasting through a selection of cognacs at 1030am before.  Yet that's what I did Sunday morning.  I should have been flooding my body with orange juice, not swishing around barrel aged French spirits like Armagnac and Calvados.  This was a touch and go situation for a bit, especially when the tequilas came out.  I righted the ship though, and actually sort of enjoyed the scotch, bourbons, and rye whiskeys.  That’s probably not good.  The class ended and I got down to the business of killing 5 hours before my flight.  

This is where the trouble really started.  I had a fabulous plan.  Take a 1030p Red Eye out of San Francisco, land at 5am for a 609a to Cleveland.  I would land at 800a, whisk myself across town for a shower at my health club, hop into a suit and breeze into work as a proud member of The American Workforce.  Once again United had other plans for me.  The departing flight took off at 1145p.  I missed my connection in Chicago.  “Well, you can try standby at the 7am but I booked you at the first available at 925.”  925?  That’s three hours from now?  The clerk smiled at me grimly and slid a document across the counter.  The boarding pass said 925pm.  I stared at it again.  It couldn’t be right.  Excuse me?  Are you telling me that America’s busiest airport can’t get me to Cleveland for another 15 hours?  “Well, it’s very busy…”

I failed to get on the standby.  I failed to get on the next standby.  The same people in front of me at the first failed standby were also at the second.  I was screwed.  I tried other airlines.  Other airports.  Fuck.  In the back of my mind I knew what I had to do, but prayed it wouldn’t happen.  But it had.  I went to Budget Rent A Car and payed $144 for a Hyundai to drive the 6 hours home.  Not having slept since Saturday night, I was in that hazy headache lack of sleep world.  I climbed into the Hyundai and immediately drove into the teeth of Chicago rush hour.  I was unshaven, drowsy, and hunched over in my Shimanski jacket.  Things were bad.  But not as bad as when the Indiana State Police pulled me over.

I rolled down the window and cut the serious trooper off before the “license and registration” request.  “Hey look man…  I really need you to cut me a break.  I haven’t slept since Saturday… I was in San Francisco.  United fucked me over.  15 hours in the airport.  15 hours!  I just have to get home so I can sleep…  I… I…”  Do you know how fast you were going?  “I dunno man…  80?  85?”  He stared at me with an incredulous look.  He looked in the car to see the espresso cups on the floor.  He spoke again.  You were really close to that other car too.  “I drive this 911 normally.  Brakes like a motherfucker.  I’m not used to this Hyundai.  C’mon man.  I’ll set the cruise control and you’ll never see me again.  I just need one break…  One…”  I saw the expression of the trooper change to concern and slight fear, not that I would do something but that a human being could fall apart to such a level.  He feared me like someone would fear a skunk.  He didn’t want any of what had enveloped me to even spray his shoes.  He took my license to make sure I wasn’t an escaped mental patient.  Amazingly he gave me a warning.  Just try to keep it together…  “Thanks man!  Hey, you want the rest of this bagel?”

I had left for the SFO Airport at 730p Sunday.  I walked into the CLE airport at 515pm Monday.  I found my bag sitting unattended by a conveyor belt.  I wheeled off.  My phone buzzed with a text.  It was United.  My 925p out of O’Hare would be delayed 20 minutes.  I drove home and found a package in my mailbox.  A book on distilling had arrived.  The hounds and I sat on the couch.  I opened the book.  I really have a lot to learn.  I read for about 15 minutes and fell asleep.       


At April 22, 2016 at 4:49:00 AM EDT , Blogger Martin said...

The best thing that you can do when it comes to getting the best deal on a new car is to know your competition. Don't just tell the dealer about lower prices, bring in the newspaper ad or print the information you found online. This is huge because not only will the dealer try to beat the price, they will know you mean business about leaving.

Martin @ Fiesta Hyundai

At May 4, 2016 at 4:51:00 PM EDT , Blogger Greg Miller said...


You are a damn fool.



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