TIP: S10E05 "Mr. Deadly"
I’m not sure that a more appropriate candidate could be scripted if I tried. This week, I’m presenting an interview I did with a whisky enthusiast of sorts, and here are his credentials:
Science Fiction nerd
Whisky (and whiskey) enthusiast turned professional
Got into whisky because of an experience at a Rush concert.
His name is Brett (fortunately for him, he is not a magnet for bullets)
Getting straight to the point, this week, we’ll be drinking whisky, and to help guide us along the process of academically tasting it, I’m honored to introduce you to a man known across the empire for his passion for this beverage, the one and only, Brett Ferencz, better known as “Scotch Trooper”.
Known for his playful photography, combining Star Wars figurines with whisky bottles, Scotch Trooper carved an early path, showing it was possible to use social media as a springboard for a new career. I took a short bike ride from my house to meet Brett at American Spirit Works (ASW) Exchange, a rickhouse and tasting room located on Atlanta’s Westside Beltline Trail. We’ll get to the whiskey tasting shortly, but for the moment, let’s lay down the groundwork.
THE POURS AWAKEN
DOM: First things first, how did Scotch Trooper come about? What’s the origin story?
BRETT: Scotch Trooper started very organically. I had a background in photography, and I was working in web development at the time and I was trying to find what my next step was going to be professionally. I also had a friend that had been trying to get me into whisky for a long time, because I was a big lover of teas and cigars and I was getting into the intricacies of sugar profiles. And so he was like, “Man, if you love that sort of stuff, you’ll love whisky”.
Then I got some free tickets to go to a Rush concert in Nashville, and since I wasn’t paying anything to get in the door, I figured I would give some whisky a try from the bar while I was there. That was my first taste and that kick started all of it.
At that point, I found an online community that was sharing tasting notes and sending samples to each other, and I just started diving deeper into the subject. I created the Scotch Trooper profile on twitter like the next weekend. Really I just wanted a handle that people would know I was into whisky, but that I also didn’t know anything. I didn’t want it to seem like I was a pretentious know-it-all or something. I wasn’t trying to teach people anything. I just wanted to learn and I wanted to be kind of cheeky at the same time, so I put the Star Wars reference in there. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it at the time.
DOM: That is a very web-developer thing to do. Like a week after finding a new hobby you claimed a web handle to document your new experiences with it.
BRETT: I know. Exactly. But I also had these photography skills, so I also just wanted an excuse to take some pretty bottle shots. Which, no one seemed to be doing at the time. Of course you blink and there’s thousands of those accounts now, but at the time there wasn’t. So I started randomly putting in some Star Wars references. Like my wife bought me a Boba Fett whisky glass, and the more I put in those sorts of elements into the content, I saw a lot more interaction and engagement. Then I put a small stormtrooper action figure in front of some bottles of Balvanie. It got shared by their account, and the next day I had 200 more followers, and realized that I was onto something.
So those were just some Fisher Price toys, and I just couldn’t get the poses out of them that I was imagining. I eventually found the Star Wars Black Series 6 inch figures, which were exactly what I was looking for. That’s also when I switched from using an iPhone camera, to using my Nikon. For a while it was kind of frowned upon to use a nice camera for instagram, because it wasn’t seen as a place “real photography”.
Anyway, I had these nice figures, and I was taking higher quality photos and like 2 months later, I had an article published in Huffington Post about my account, and it just took off from there. I’d just wake up in the morning to two thousand more followers, eventually getting somewhere around 60K.
DOM: So, you become this social media brand. Which led you to doing photography work and social media consulting for these whisky brands, but then you hit an unexpected snag, right?
BRETT: Right. So I woke up one morning as I was getting ready for a trip to Disney with my family and I took a phone call from Edmonton, saying that there is this big complaint that had come down. It was 26 pages, documenting my last two or three years working in the whisky industry. who I met with on what dates with which brands. It pretty much said that every brand that I was working with was advertising to minors because I was photographing toys. They never asked me for my demographics or my 2 cents. I was just kind of put on the chopping block and got to watch it all unfold which brought on cease-and-desist letters from most of the major brands.
DOM: And these brands did so, kind of begrudgingly, right?
BRETT: Yeah. Because they had hired me to do photography for them. And invited me to release parties, and got to visit distilleries and so some brands were real apologetic about it. But others had their legal teams contact me and say, "I can't believe we ever worked with you.” Which was like, “Wow. You didn’t have to be a dick about it!”
DOM: Well hopefully this interview doesn’t cause you any issues. It is associated with a cartoon, and obviously all cartoons are for children.
BRETT: haha, oh god. You’re right. Well, these were Star Wars characters that we grew up with as kids, but we're still finding a connection with them as adults. So many followers reached out to me and were like, “I started following you just because I love Star Wars, but I recognized a bottle that you’d posted while I was at a bar, and so I gave it a try, and now I love it.” To be able to combine two loves of mine, for other people who grew up with this, there was just never any thought that this was being targeted to minors.
DOM: And so to a certain extent, you’ve never been required to stop posting photos with the figurines. No one at Lucas Arts told you to stop using their characters.
BRETT: Right. Yeah, that’s actually what I had been expecting though. However, a follower of mine was working on the Rogue One and she worked for Lucas Films and reached out to me and said, “We love what you're doing and would love for you to come out to San Francisco and take some photos here.” So I was like “I'm buying my ticket right now. I’ll be there.”
So she reached out to their PR team, and said, “Hey, Scotch Trooper’s coming. We want to do this, this, and this.” I'm sure the PR team was like "he does what with whisky?” So yeah, at that point, they knew who I was and they still extended the invitation. They just had some rules about where I could or couldn't take the whisky. They knew who I was and they didn't want to take me down for using their characters. So for this complaint to instead be coming from the whisky industry was kind of mind blowing.
But I always knew there was a shelf life to what I was doing, so I was always looking for what was going to be the next phase. Even though I was able to turn that into a full-time job it wasn't really because the Instagram account made any money. Scotch Trooper basically just gave me the connections. And that is how I got here today to work with American Spirit Whiskey. I had a great relationship with Jim Chasteen and the ASW team and we had always wanted to find a way to work together. So this eventually was a perfect fit.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
DOM: So, tell us about what your role is here at ASW now.
BRETT: My title here is "Keeper of Sleeping Whiskey". Essentially I'm at the tasting room manager in a rickhouse manager. So I manage all of the barrels and their aging process for all the whiskey.
DOM: I have to imagine that involves a lot of spreadsheets.
BRETT: Oh god. Yes. So many spreadsheets. But also a lot of me making forts out of whiskey barrels. But yeah, basically our main distillery was running out of room so anytime we would fill a barrel we would just throw it into whatever available corner there was. And whenever it came time to harvest, it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There was just no organization. No system or anything. So we were looking for some space to manage that a lot better.
DOM: I know that the environment has a big influence on how spirits age, so now that you’re in this new space, how much of the process involves checking on the whiskey and seeing how this change is affecting it?
BRETT: Right. We’re just starting that process really. We’ve only been using this space for about 4 months now. Our other location is climate-controlled so all the barrels were sitting at the same temperature for their whole life. This new space brings a challenge but also an opportunity with fluctuations in temperature. These barrels are going to interact with the whiskey a lot more than they did at the other location. So we're coming up with more of a plan of being able to taste these barrels and make sure that they're going in the direction that we want them to. A lot of this comes down to our Master Distiller, Justin Manglanz’s, palette and what he sees the whiskey as becoming. There’s always going to be a balancing act of checking on things to figure out how it’s working.
Author’s Note: I’m gonna keep myself out of this section and just let Brett be the teacher.
BRETT: What I like to tell people before tasting whiskey, is that it is not a test. It is a way for you to interact with the whiskey, and for you to get what you want out of it. There shouldn’t be some pretension of “If you’re not getting notes of vanilla in this, than you’re doing it wrong”. Everyone’s palate is different, and everyone is going to experience different things from each whiskey. But what you should be doing, is learning how to approach each new whiskey in the same way, and you’re going to be able to differentiate between each one, and get what you want out of them.
We’re not using the best glasses for tasting. I’d typically try to use a glencairn if possible, since it kind of tapers and focuses the nose.
But, in order to get a proper sampling of a whiskey, you first want to give it a quick nose. The idea way to do that is by having your mouth slightly open, but inhaling through your nose. If you do the same thing with your mouth closed, you might notice that you get a lot more alcohol burn. You’ll still get a lot both ways, but with your mouth open it’ll slide through a bit easier. (Whiskey phrasing. Boom). I like to walk people through a whiskey from “top to bottom”. So if you think about it as a whole: with your mouth closed you're going to get a lot of burn, sharpness on the top. With your mouth open, you’re going to get a lot more of the mid tones, a lot more of the “heart” of the whiskey. And as for the third. If you leave your mouth open just a little, and just breathe in through your mouth, you’re going to get the bottom and the “lower” subtle notes.
So that’s “nosing”. When it comes to tasting, you want to coat your mouth fully when you take a taste. So you take a solid sip, swirl it around in your mouth, which is going to kind of prepare your mouth for the flavors. The first taste is mostly going to feel numbing, especially depending on what level of alcohol it is, like a cask strength whiskey is going to really burn at first. You want to take the first few sips neat, without any water added or ice. From there as you take your second and third sips, that’s when more of the flavor profile is going to come through. After that point, you can start deciding to add drops of water to let the alcohol burn come down, and be softer on the palate, and also will allow you to potentially pick up on more flavors. I’ve met with some Master Distillers that go so far as to dilute the whiskey 2 parts water to 1 part whiskey. That’s a bit too diluted for my personal taste, but if it works for them, to each their own.
You’ll still see people using terms to describe flavors and aromas using “examples”, like cookie dough, or salted toffee, or whatever, but some people are starting to steer away from using actual flavors, and instead stick towards more broad terms like, “this had extra spice notes and this one is sweeter”, instead of tangible mental images of something like “caramel apple”
That said, when I talk about ASW's Fiddler Bourbon, I get grassy qualities, a heavy sweetness, a little bit of the malted barley comes through.
Some of this, will only really come across with exposure. So people shouldn’t be frustrated the first time they try to do a tasting if they don’t feel like they pick up on much. The more whiskeys you try, the broader your vocabulary, and the more you’ll be able to compare between them. It’s also nice to keep some notes. To keep track of what you’ve had, and what flavor profiles you get from them, and you can kind of go back to those over time, and revisit a whiskey and see if you notice something now that you didn’t pick up on before. It’s a great way to kind of see where you started and gauge if your palate is changing.