16 March 2015
-- Chris Uhde --
An Interview with My Industry Brother
Back Story of How I Met Chris Uhde:
Golly Gee Whizz! That title sounds really silly. It sounds as if I were trying to create a back story for an anti-hero in a Batman comic strip! ^_^ At any rate, Chris Uhde is super special in my life because he was the first person to hire me in the whisky industry. I chatted with Chris Uhde for the first time at Whisky Live in Los Angeles back in October of 2012 while I was already 4 months into working at a retail-chained liquor store. I met him once at Kilchoman Tasting inside Seven Grand Los Angeles previously, so I remembered him from that event. While approaching him at his tasting table, I meekly said, "Can you sign my book?" and I handed my small, whisky journal that had a picture of Kilchoman's distillery over to Chris.
Chris said, "Wow. I've heard about you. People told me there's some girl traveling all over town with a whisky journal filled with drawings." I told him, "How do I get into the whisky industry?" and he gave me his business card. In fact, he hired me on the spot, and when I turned in my resume a week later, he just wanted to get to know me over a burrito inside his office.
I worked as a sales rep for maybe 6 months, and I was terrible at it because I was so painfully shy. Working as a sales representative is incredibly difficult if you are a sensitive, introverted soul like myself because people can be mean. I'm sure I gave off an aura of being so fearful that people walked all over me. If I came off like an assertive badass, I'm certain people wouldn't have talked to me the way they did. I just remembered bringing a suitcase full of booze, a luggage that my mother brought me from a Hello Kitty store when I was 10, letting people sample my products and all these managers and restaurant owners would give me a bullshit answer, "Oh, yeah I'll buy some next week," but I never head back from them or "Your product sucks." To me, working as a sales rep is like being a potential groupie in a band and you're approaching some major rock star who tells you to kick rocks and fuck off because he's gotten another 100 chicks in line saying, "Do me! Do me!" It was not fun at all. I would cry because I wanted to do well so badly in my first whisky job that I was always nervous around potential clients.
Because of feeling like a complete failure, I started my giant whisky journal and I would spend hours drawing to escape the pain. (I know it's such a hyperbolic reaction!). I met up with Chris in a parking lot at some supermarket shop and was ready to quit. He said, "Look. Focus on this book. I believe in you. The minute you complete this book your career is going to take off. I promise you. Why don't you keep 1 account and focus on your book?" I was so touched by his gesture. I couldn't believe that my boss, now big brother, had so much faith in me. I am very lucky to have him in my life.
I feel that I connect with Chris because we are originally from The South, but we just so happen to be from two different regions. Granted, I wasn't born in South Vietnam, but that is where my family's roots lie. I am reminded of my favorite poet Yusef Komunyakka when I think of Chris Uhde. Komunyakka's poetry has been a big part of my life, especially in a moment where I was still trying to figure out my identity as a Vietnamese person born in the USA. I've never seen myself fully American nor Vietnamese, and lots of times I found myself being frustrated for wanting to embrace my autonomy, while my Vietnamese culture urged me to stay within the lines--to play safe and take care of the family. Komunyakka's writing resonated with me because he indicates in several of his works that he identifies with Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war. He describes the swampy, humid landscape of 'Nam reminded him of his hometown Bogalusa, Louisiana; therefore, he was never afraid of the land--never frightful of the jungle of Vietnam. While he saw white American soldiers mistreating Vietnamese people, he was able to identify himself with them for that reason. As an African-American living in the US at the time, he found a lot of similarities between Vietnamese people and himself. As a result, his writing was therapeutic, and it helped me find my place in America. Where I'm getting at with all of this ramble is that Chris is extremely underrated in the whisky industry, and it is shame. He gets overlooked a lot, and I wonder if it's a reflection of the American culture, where southerners can sometimes be see seen as "rednecks" and, therefore, he doesn't receive as much traction as he should.
Chris is one of the most knowledgable folks in the whisky and I felt compelled to interview him. I wish people will get to know who he is. So, here is my interview with him, and I hope you'll enjoy it.
1. State your job title and what you do in the alcohol industry.
I have several job titles:
Southern Division Manager and American Spirits Portfolio Manager for JVS Wines Imports
Western Division Manager for Impex Beverages
Not a job, but I co-founded the Southern California Whiskey Club
2. How long have you been in the alcohol industry and how has it changed since you started?
I first started working at a dive bar when I was 21. This went on until I was about 26ish. Then I left the industry for a bit and returned in 2007 to sell whisk(e)y for JVS in Los Angeles.
The industry has changed immensely since I first started. First it was the death of Vodka, then it was the rise of whisky (both Scotch and Bourbon), craft beer, craft spirits and the classic/craft cocktail. At the same time, I have seen the movement away from national brands to retailer exclusive brands. Larger retailers like Costco, Total Wines, Trader Joe's, and even smaller ones like K&L Wines have vertically integrated the supply chain and are now moving their clients into purchasing brands they have exclusively.
3. You're one of the most knowledgable guys out there in the field. In the past you've noted that you get sort of lost in the shuffle and people don't remember who you are. Why do you suppose that's the case? Is it because the field has been saturated by dudes or is it more of a cultural thing (i.e. redheads from the south don't get as much love maybe in USA perhaps)? Im curious how you see yourself in the industry because you strike me as a dark horse. I feel that lots of people should start paying attention to you because you're super smart!
Dark horse or bitter nerd…. It ain't always easy selling scotch with a southern accent. Ha! Truthfully, I could do a better job of getting myself out there and trying to relate. There are a lot of dudes in the industry, but the blame is solely on me. I am not a fan of Facebook or twitter but I do love instagram (@WhiskyRedHead).
My education in whisky came right at the beginning of the big whisky boom. My teachers were surly old scotch anoraks who were used to getting some of the best whisky on the planet for a fraction of what it is today. Because of this, I was spoiled by having legendary whiskies in bulk as I was learning. This has alienated me a bit because my personal view on expressions can be skewed vs. others in the room. Their opinion about something is just as important as mine, but I find it difficult to get excited about a new release when I know it used to be a beast and now it is just a lamb. If even one person likes a whisky, then it is 100% a good whisky, no matter how much I might think otherwise.
Next time you are over I will pour you some bigger brands that were bottled at different time periods, so you can see what I mean. Maybe you will say I am a loon…..
4. What's the latest whisky you've tried that has excited you?
That is a difficult one. I think the new Arran 10yr is about the best base line distillery release that I have had. It is super fruity and balanced. What James MacTaggart has done with that distillery is incredible. Exclusive Malts recently had a peated Tobermory 17yr and a Littlemill 25yr sherry cask that were also stunning and unlike any other Littlemill that I have had. Finally, Kilchoman Sherry Cask #85 was like an old school killer Islay from the 60's. Yes, they are whiskies that I sell, but I am proud of them and they are awesome.
5. What's your opinion on lots of ryes coming from MPG? Do you think companies like Templeton will continue to source their stuff from MPG or start doing things in-house? I also hear it's incredibly difficult to produce rye whiskies--that it's 4 times the cost to make it than bourbon... part of it being that things can get gummy when you start distilling. Is this the reason why companies just source ryes through MPG or is this more of getting a heads start while they sit on their juices like what High West is doing?
I have no problems with anything coming from a contract distiller. I prefer it when there is transparency about it. Fortunately, the general consumer is a lot more knowledgeable than they were 3 years ago and they are demanding more information. MGP has done great things for this industry and a raising tide carries all ships. Their distillate has opened a lot of doors for craft distillers and that is very cool.
I can't speak for why brands/distilleries use contract whiskey. I imagine that the reason is individual whether it be trying to keep up with demand, cash flow during production expansion or the aging process of their own distillate, or simply the ease of it. Either way, if a whiskey is good, it is good.
6. Since more products are moving towards NAS, do you think companies like Exclusive Malts will start shutting down because the whisky companies can't keep up with the demands and therefore, they may not want to sell their barrels to independent companies?
Supply might be temporarily choked, but Scotland is currently producing a lot of distillate. The craft distilleries are continuously fine tuning their products and more are popping up everyday around the world. People are also moving over to bourbon because of Scotch Whisky price escalation. All of this is going to put pressure on scotch sales and so I think that casks will be made available, but it will never be like it was when I had problems selling 17yr single cask un-chillfiltered single malt for $35 per bottle because it was "too expensive".
What I am more concerned about is the quality of casks that will be coming out of Scotland in a few years. If good used bourbon barrels and sherry casks continuously become more difficult to get and companies like Jim Beam continue with the Devil's Cut program where they basically wash out their barrels and send neutral oak over to Scotland, we will see a serious change in the Scotch Whisky we drink. This will only be compounded with more efficient barley growing techniques and distillation practices. Maybe it will be for the better, who knows, but there will be a change.
7. Tell me about your whisky society. Why have you taken the route of producing more of a "casual eat and drink" kind of environment as opposed to have a presenter or yourself educate whisky fans about the booze?
Southern California Whiskey Club (SCWC) was founded to unite enthusiasts under one roof and give them some of the same experiences that I had when I was first starting out. Most of us can not afford to buy a bottle of Very Very Old Fitzgerald or the entire range of Pappy Van Winkles, but as a team we can try all of them for a fraction of what other folks are charging for the same experience. We can take a look at how a brand changes as it evolves. We can drink whiskies that were bottled before we were born to see if they are so different from what is available today. We can have fun and pretend to learn at the same time. :)
We will occasionally have speakers, but we also want to give the members of the club the opportunity to really nerd out and try things that they might not get to in a normal setting. I want them to truly experience (taste, smell, analyze and remember) the whiskies and one of the best ways to do that is let them members talk about each whisky amongst each other as they are experiencing it. We do provide an educational overview of the reason behind the tasting and information about what we are tasting at the beginning of the meeting. I also float around to answer questions to those who ask. A lot of the members are really knowledgable and they are more than happy to share that knowledge with the newbies as well so hopefully everyone is taken care of.
8. Do you have any exciting direction or path you're partaking in the booze industry--like producing your own blends, etc?
My future's so bright, I have to wear shades.