It’s always fun to get insights from people who work in the whisky industry. These people get paid to buy, sell and taste whisky – but how did they get there? Here’s a story about a social worker turned whisky specialist. Linh Do quit her job and followed her zeal for whisky to Scotland and back. She’s currently the spirit specialist for Hi-Times Wines in Costa Mesa, California. Her specialty is single malt whisky and bourbons. She’s also a bartender at Seven Grand, the premier whisky bar in Los Angeles. But a year ago she was a social worker who wanted a change (pun intended). I thought it’d be interesting to hear how she made the transition from an enthusiastic layman to a spirits professional. This story goes beyond whisky and is really about someone who boldly followed her passions and dreams despite many reasons not to. In case you missed it check out part one before you read on. The following is part two of the Q&A with Linh Do.
What specifically about scotch whisky attracted you to the spirit?
Linh: There’s multiple reasons why I became attracted to scotch. My first exposure to whiskey was actually the Connemara 12 Year. It attracted me because of the sensation it gave me – and not in a drunken sense either. I remember when I sampled the Connemara, the smoke traveled up my nostrils and tickled my nasal cavity. That sort of sensation instantly transported me back in time. All of a sudden I am a two year old pressed in my parents’ one bedroom apartment and I am nestled in a yellow hoodie, holding a cookie in my hand, while my mother is holding me. I am slightly sick, having mucus run down my lips. Right before my family and I leave our home my mother walks into the kitchen and reaches for an emerald green bottle. and inside this glass jar is eucalyptus oil. She untwists the white cap and turns the bottle upside down to let the liquid latch onto to her skin. She begins to motion her index finger towards my face and begins painting this oil on my upper lip. an as it seeps into my skin, leaving a prickling sensation, the bright aroma of this oil travels all the way up to my nasal cavity and awakens my senses. I hear laughter around me and my father, looking at this image of my mother embracing me, he then grabs his camera and snaps a photo of my mom and me.
This was my first cognizant memory. My mother wanted me to feel healthy and my mother wanted me to experience as much elation as I possibly could. I was so surprised that something like whiskey would cause me to self examine myself and my memories. It was such a pleasant surprise. Ever since then I have been hooked on smoky single malts.
Another scotch that hooked me was the Highland Park 18. I knew when I sampled it that I needed to go to Scotland; it was this magnetic pull that drew me there, even though I knew nothing about it. I can’t explain it, but I just knew in my heart I had to and needed to go see Scotland. I love scotch because I am also reminded of the people I met in Scotland. People were openly nice and genuine to me. Scotland had me at Highland Park 18, but Islay has my heart, body and soul! HA! But let me be clear, I love both Highland Park and Laphroaig equally. They’re stunning scotches.
Another reason why I’m attracted to scotch: Three years ago I discovered whisky by complete accident. During the time when I was a social worker (and no, I didn’t drink as a result of my job!), I woke up at one in the morning and the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey! You should use whisky as a form of muse to write poetry.” I knew nothing about whisky, but being that it was a random thought I figured, “Eh. What the hell. Why not?”
A few days later I walked into a bar and told the bartender that I wanted to learn about whisky. He proceeded to explain to me about the different regions of scotch – the lowlands, highlands, etc. And it quickly peaked my interest because I thought, “Wow. One can approach this from a pedagogical point of view.” I quickly fell in love with the subject matter because it was the closest thing to 20th century literature in the sense that there was this constant tension and elasticity between the hard and soft.
Whisky is often associated with masculinity but I feel one must tap into one’s childhood enthusiasm, so one can reference confectionery notes like creme brulee, toffee, and caramel, etc. I am often reminded of Ezra Pound when he talks about literature and writing, and how they should “startle the reader into alertness,” and that’s what whisky does. It shocks the brain and forces the imbiber to utilize all of one’s senses, where one must pay attention to the subtle nuance of the drink shifting from one note to the next.
I am also fascinated by the concept of synesthesia on a literary scale when whisky comes into full view. If it has aromas of caramel are you, then, going to think texturally and flavor-wise that it will “sweeter” and “thicker” than it actually is? To me, whisky is like poetry. There are so many ways to analyze the beverage and often times I feel as though I am barely scraping past the lithosphere of this subject matter.
Seven Grand Whiskey Bar
How do you increase your whisky knowledge? What are your favorite resources?
L: I am part of the Seven Grand Whisky Society in Los Angeles. Don’t worry. It’s not highfalutin. We get to meet brand ambassadors and master distillers that educate us on their brands. That’s where I get most of my training. I make that 1.5 hour commute up to Downtown Los Angeles because I like learning. I also sample products at my liquor store and learn from reps. If a sales rep at the liquor store doesn’t know some answers then they take the time to forward my questions to the right folks and I’ll find some detailed answers that way.
On a side note, I also work at Bar Jackalope, which is a whisky bar located inside Seven Grand (same company). Every week, besides attending the whisky society, I drive up there for whisky training. It’s been a blast. We’ve only been open for 6 months and just got published in Playboy for being one of the best bars in 2014. It’s exciting! So, all the training I learn at the bar in LA I bring it to the liquor store. What’s amazing about working for a whisky bar is that they’re down to crack open an expensive bottle like a Springbank 21 for educational purposes. It’s been a fun ride and it’s crucial to try the product, so I can speak to customers at Hi Time Wine Cellars with confidence.
My favorite resources to gather information come from Brand Ambassadors and Master Distillers because they offer technical information about the products. I love meeting master distillers because they can tell you about the casks they use, the barley, the length of fermentation process, etc.
Any advice for those people out there who are thinking about transitioning to the spirits industry?
L: I don’t think there is one right answer or path. I think everyone works at different speeds and different paths; thus, there’s no silver bullet. I know I’m a late bloomer and am a tad bit slow, but I’m ok with who I am and going about it at my own pace in terms of handling my alcohol career. I think the answer ultimately is having a true understanding of who you are. If you are a person of logic and concrete thought then go towards the path of researching jobs within in the industry that veers toward that path. The way I have made decisions early on in this career is by listening to my gut instincts and making decisions with my heart. As far as me, I knew that I needed to work on my confidence, so I choose to start working at a liquor store. I think it was a smart decision for me to start off small by working at a liquor store. That way, I could get used to approaching dudes and talk to them about booze with confidence. I used to be really nervous and shy, but I’ve gotten better. Although I can still be shy, now I can joke around with people about alcohol and it makes it fun for everyone. People are more inclined to buy when I can throw in some jokes and show genuine excitement about the products.
Starting at a liquor store is exciting because I get to learn about every product. In some ways, I feel as though I’m Switzerland; I get to be neutral and offer suggestions that may fit that customer’s palate and learn about all the different whiskeys from different parts of the world. It’s very intellectually stimulating.
One thing, however, that I think is really important is that if you want to be in the industry you shouldn’t take “no” for an answer when someone turns you down the first time. I remember when I applied for Hi Time Wine Cellars two years ago. One guy said, “Sorry, Kiddo. We have a low turnover rate here.” I still came back from time to time so the staff could get used to me and finally I walked into the store with my whisky journal that’s 15.5 inches by 11 inches and showed it to a different employee and said, “Hey, I know I don’t know everything about liquor but what I can tell you is that I’m willing to learn and I’m passionate about whisky.” After he saw my book and he told the owner about me and they hired me. But it took me two years to get into Hi Time Wine Cellars.
The reality is that everyone loves to drink. Imbibing is fun and there are hundreds of people who clamor for these types of jobs. People think it’s all about drinking and quipping with people and having fun, but you have to show the people in industry that you’re passionate about the product. It’s still a job. Just like with any job, you just need to be persistent and stay focused. and show up to whisky events and get yourself familiarized with the people who are already in the industry. Once these people start to see you on a consistent basis, they’ll take you more seriously.
Seven Grand Whiskey Bar
I think another key thing is be nice and genuine to people. When you’re in this industry and you’re constantly serving people, you’re going to run into assholes. There’s always that guy who comes off cocky, over confident, cuts you off mid-sentence, name drops, and expects you to serve them a Pappy Van Winkle 23 yr. Don’t be that guy. Just be nice. People in the service industry respect that and they’ll remember you if you thank them. But if you come off like an entitled asshole, then you’re not going to break in the industry as easily. Show respect to the people who have taken the time to let you sample their products or talk to you. Thank them and be respectful. Don’t expect special treatment or expect someone to give you free bottles. Get familiarized with the brand and the people. The more you attend whisky events, the more you’ll learn that it’s a pretty small, niche market. Someone is bound to help you out.
People will give you tons of different answers and points of views to follow a path, but at the end of the day you have to trust yourself. That will guide you in the right path. Lately, I’ve heard people tell me, “Be yourself. Just be you.” And recently I’ve opened up more to people and my coworkers and I’m learning that I can be pretty fun and ridiculously charming! Stay true to who you are because it will help you brand yourself and identity in the alcohol industry.
Also, I think another key ingredient, which may sound like I’m contradicting myself here, is to surround yourself with people who inspire you. Those kinds of people will help you break “bad habits” and encourage you to think differently and help you grow.
Finally, stay focused, be open to change and adapt. The alcohol industry, just like everything in life, comes in waves of popularity. Right now we are in a whisky boom, but I imagine in a few years another spirit will take off.
What’s your favorite single malt whisky at the moment?
L: Great question. I’m really digging that Benriach 19 Year Peated/Pedro Ximinez Cask. It’s so playful. I think the PX cask adds some creamy texture to the powerful smoke bomb that gives this whisky a ying/yang sensation. It really toys with the binary opposition and some ways epitomizes the movement of 20th century literature for me. I think of my favorite poet Yusef Komunyakaa, where he explores such juxtapositions and is quite masterful in finding beauty through the chaos of war.