Monday, March 12, 2012

COLUMN: Whiskey

Sometimes I find myself in the oddest of situations -- and it's usually due to this very column.

On most weeks, I try to be a good little faux-journalist and have my whole column loosely outlined in my head before I sit down to write it. But then there are those dreaded weeks when I sit in front of a blank laptop screen cursing the fact that nothing interesting and/or funny ever happens in my life. That's when I usually e-mail my friend Linn.

There are days when my biggest accomplishment is shifting my weight from one cheek to the other. My friend Linn, on the other hand, usually has eight or ten things crossed off her daily to-do list before I've even woken up. She's also the founder of the Quad Cities convivium of Slow Food USA, a grassroots movement that promotes healthy food, local produce, and environmental conservation.

In other words, she puts me to shame. On many nights, I'll call her up with a simple, "Hey, whatcha doin' tonight?" and be greeted by something along the lines of "Oh, not much. Picking up some produce from my farming co-op, then teaching a class on how to can your own eco-friendly salsa while saving dolphins from Japanese poachers and conserving our nation's wetlands. How 'bout you?" And that's when I'll try desperately to come up with a story that DOESN'T involve eating ice cream while watching "Two and a Half Men" reruns on cable.

But that's also why I rely on her for column ideas during doldrum weeks. Hence, the e-mail I sent her earlier today:

"Hey, no clue what to write about this week. Make something funny happen to me."

Two minutes later, I got her reply:

"Well, later tonight I volunteered to help bottle some whiskey. Want to help?"

Just like that, my column writes itself. HECK YES, I want to bottle some whiskey. Wherever one does that at. Come to think of it, is that even LEGAL? Is Linn leading me into some illicit Slow Food bootlegging operation, where some overall-ed Uncle Jesse type guards his still with a shotgun while we carefully try and pour homemade rotgut into cartoon jugs that say "XXX" on the side?

No such luck... but I DID just spend an educational and entertaining evening with the folks at the Mississippi River Distilling Company up in Le Claire. This small family operation has been turning heads of late with their quality liquors, made slowly and to perfection in their small distillery. And when a batch is ready to be bottled, they gladly accept volunteer help in getting the job done.

This is an extra super scary task for me, since I'm not exactly what you'd call well-versed in the world of adult beverages. In fact, here's everything I know about whiskey: (1) It's brown, and (2) it smells almost as bad as it tastes. No offense to you whiskey aficionados out there, but it's just not for me. Still, that's not to say I'm not capable of bottling the stuff.

The Mississippi River Distilling Company is one heck of an outfit. Yet another new piece to the puzzle of awesomeness that is Le Claire, the folks at MRD are winning accolades and kudos nationwide for their home-cooked creations. The interior workings of the place look like something straight out of Willy Wonka, but THIS candy is for adults only. Vodka, gin, bourbon... and tonight's seasonal specialty: rye whiskey, stone-ground the old-fashioned way at De Immigrant windmill in Fulton and aged to perfection over new charred oak right there at MRDC.

Suddenly, though, the realization hit that I wasn't just there to marvel at the process - I was there to complete it. Within minutes, we were set up in an assembly line fashion. The whiskey gets poured into bottles, corks get hammered in, then the bottles get numbered and sealed (Linn's job,) and then it came to me. MY job was simple enough: put the bottles in boxes, stamp each box with a sequential number, tape each box shut, and carry it over to a pallet without dropping it and causing Whiskey-geddon.

I got handed two devices that everyone knows how to use: a number stamper and a tape gun. Everyone's had experience with these, right? Everyone... except Little Lord Shaneleroy, who apparantly has lived his entire life in a cocoon of zero life experience. But I didn't want to be the stupid guy in the room who didn't know how to use simple office equipment, so I nodded at the appropriate points and tried to make any affirming gesture that DIDN'T outright say, "Dude, you are leaving the success of your company in the hands of someone who has never held a tape gun and is almost wholly devoid of common sense."

I had no clue what I was doing. But I started packing bottles, stamping boxes, and taping flaps shut like a true pro. Well, maybe what a true pro might look like AFTER imbibing a few bottles of this stuff. Truth is, within five minutes, I'd managed to coat my hands in stamping ink while using the tape gun to rip off what I'd estimate, based on the pain, to be a fairly important portion of my arm hair. Everyone else in the line was smiling and joking and having a grand old time. Me? I was breaking a sweat simply by trying my best NOT to look like an absolute ninny.

Eventually, bottles start backing up at my station. Others occasionally jumped down to lend me a hand. All I could do was make jokes about how the tape gun hates me. Truth is, I HATE THE TAPE GUN. I mean, we're living in the 21st century now, and you're telling me that we can't invent self-sealing boxes in this day and age? Instead, I'm fighting tooth and nail with a tape dispenser that seems hellbent on doing everything it can EXCEPT dispense tape, and when it finally DOES, it protests by making a noise like "SQUOOOOOOONK" while it begrudgingly seals each box shut.

Eventually, though, I sorta got the hang of it. I filled, stamped, squoooonked, and palleted around fifty boxes -- no whiskey was spilled, no lives were lost, and the guys called for a pizza break at the PERFECT time for me offer excuses about deadlines and leave to come write this.

So what did I learn on this week's odd adventure? (a) I am NOT cut out for assembly line work, (b) tape guns are clearly a tool of the devil, and (c) the folks at MRDC are really nice and I appreciate the experience. And just remember, Quad Cities:  The next time you're sipping a smooth glass of Windmill Rye Seasonal #3 and you think to yourself, "My God, this tastes as though it was counted, sealed, and boxed with fiery yet careful passion and concern" -- you're welcome.

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