Interview: Linh Do from Hi-Time Wines – Part I

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. The following is part one of a Q&A with Linh Do.

Why did you decide to get into the spirits industry?
Linh: This is going to be a long story. I will start off with my review of Highland Park 18 Year:

Linh DoThere’s a French expression called, “coup de foudre,” that means love at first sight, and it hits you at first whim like a bolt of lightening, the kind of instantaneous punch to the chest that makes one short of breath, and all one can think of is, “I want more.” To me, Highland Park 18 Year is my “coupe de foudre.” It moves like Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paginni,” in which its “vivace” stance quickly hits me in the mouth with a giant crescendo of peppercorn spices, causing my eyes to water from its assertive punch. I become humbled by its bold statement—how the oak, heat and spice can propel my jaw to clamp down, but after the flavors subside there’s a wonderful resolution on the tongue, where my saliva mimics that of honey syrup as it glosses over each taste bud to combat the heat. Just like Rachmaninoff’s work, each note traverses through a measure with deliverance and certitude in order to hit that denouement. And there, in that moment, everything slows down into a lulling, melodic state, and it begins to temper my heart like a lake resting its body against wet dirt as it brings elation to my brain.

Not to sound so trite, but the movement of Highland Park’s body was “the calm after the storm” and, in many ways, it became a metaphor for my life – that no matter what dreams and goals I had, no matter how crazy of an idea I had – life somehow would end on a sweet note, just like this Highland Park 18 Year. In that instance I knew, then and there, that it wasn’t so much of a desire but more of a necessity that I needed to go to Scotland and that I needed to go alone.

As the months rolled and winter fell into spring my life was thwarted into a numbing dystopia, where social work leached hope from the inner webs of my fingers or as T.S. Eliot puts it, “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table[.]” My heart was heavy and my throat, dry. People around me told me I was too shy, too sensitive, too dumb and naive to travel alone, but I knew that Scotland had all of me before I even pressed my palms into its peat bogs. And so I quit my job and partook in a 19-day adventure to Scotland.

Once I landed, I spent the next ten days scrimping for food, rationing out a sandwich and a curry chicken box over two days. I learned quickly that if I chugged a carton of juice, I could feel full for an extra two hours. That meant, rather than eating four meals a day, I could eat twice a day to save some money. On this diminished diet I lost 10 lbs in two weeks.

Whisky Lineup

As luck would have it, two weeks into my trip, I had a rare opportunity to partake in a tour of Highland Park with Brand Ambassador Martin Daraz. He essentially took me under his wing and was basically my father in Scotland. Martin invited me to have dinner with him, and I remember distinctively when my plate arrived with chicken covered by a warm blanket of gravy that began to cry as a result of being overwhelmed by his kind gesture. Prior to my trip, I had only met Martin twice in the US (five minutes at most each meeting) before seeing him in Orkney. And there he was two feet away from me, offering me food and fine scotches. I absolutely had nothing to offer to this man and there was no reason for him to help me, but he decided to do so anyway. We talked for over six hours during dinner time, and he encouraged me to join the spirits industry.

When I returned to the US I started working at a chain liquor store, cleaning toilets and stocking alcohol for $9 an hour to get my foot in the door. It was hard to walk away from a salary with health benefits, but I had to take baby steps to build some confidence. A year has passed, and now I get to be a liquor specialist at Hi-Time Wine Cellars and am an apprentice at Bar Jackalope that’s located inside Seven Grand.

I hope I don’t sound egocentric about sharing my story with you, but whisky is a synecdoche for my life – it’s something that’s much bigger than myself. To me, this innocuous, golden liquid represents all the people I’ve crossed paths that have touched me in more ways I can describe. And it has taught me that, no matter what ethnic background and gender one is, it can bring one close to another, whether it be fleeting or perennial. Alcohol is often misconstrued and associated with different forms of debauchery and classicism, but in my case I have been exposed to the best kinds of people: down-to-earth people who want to connect with like-minded folks. And I cannot thank you, Martin Daraz, enough for teaching me courage, hope and self-love.

Linh Do 2How did you transition from social work?
L: Transitioning was easy in the sense that I think I have a pretty good grasp and natural desire to want to help people. The skills required for customer service in the booze industry are similar to the skills I practiced as a social worker. At first it was kind of scary to quit my job, but I wasn’t happy and the job wasn’t fulfilling. Plain and simple. There’s no reason for me to extrapolate here, but if you’re unhappy you have to change it. When I quit my job it was a big risk. I had already bought a plane ticket to Scotland, there was a recession, and I didn’t have a new job in line. Luckily, things fell into place and I ended up getting hired at a chain liquor store to get some experience.

The difficult part about transitioning to the alcohol industry was working on my confidence and learning how to talk to men about alcohol. Luckily, I’m getting better and better each day about it and I feel more confident than I did two years ago. I found that in the past that when I felt self conscious about being both female and asian in the alcohol industry customers could pick that up right away and they didn’t want my help. I sort of had a chip on my shoulder where i wanted to study hard and prove to people that I was really into whisky. I suppose that’s part of the reason why I am motivated to learn about the technical side of whisky like learning the yeast strain and types of casks people use because it shows people that I take the time to learn the products.

It took me 1.5 years to get over the stigma of being labeled “an Asian female whisky drinker.” If people don’t want my help initially, who cares, right? It feels great to feel that way. I feel really thankful because now I have people who drive from Los Angeles to see me in Costa Mesa at the liquor store and I have people from Orange County who drive up to Los Angeles to see me at the whisky bar. I feel so happy and thankful that people take me seriously and I definitely would not be where I am without the people who I have given me that sort of encouragement.

What is your role at Hi-Time and what’s a typical day like for you?
L: I take phone orders and stock the shelves. I help customers find a bottle that may fit their palate. About once a month I get to taste some sample bottles and choose single barrel expressions that will be bottled exclusively for Hi Time Wine Cellars. There’s a group of us that gets to vote for the single barrel expressions. Once a month I write reviews for single malts and other spirits that I find exciting for the Hi Time Newsletter.

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