Today is International Whisky Day. More importantly, to some of us, even those of us intimately entwined with whisky, it is Michael Jackson’s birthday. Michael died seven years ago, but we celebrate his birth, his life, rather than mourn his death.
Despite what you may be told, Michael was not the first person to write about whisky or beer, not even the first person to write about them as a consumer, for consumers, and take them seriously. What he did was write about the whole of whisky and beer, the way all the history and current practice fit together, and give the long view, right up to the much-diminished days when he started writing. The fact that those much-diminished days are only a memory, that whisky is booming and beer is blossoming in a rich panoply of revival and invention, owes much to the way his writing reached people.
John and I were deeply influenced by Michael. He encouraged both of us to always travel to where beer and whisky was made; he insisted on it. It only took a few such trips filling our notebooks and sense memories to realize that he was right. You can learn a lot from a bottle, but to understand what’s in that bottle, to really meet it, know it, encompass it, and yes, judge it, you must see where it is made. You have to breathe the air, meet the people, see the machinery and the building, walk the ground…you must touch things.
That was one lesson we learned. Another was about the writing itself. Michael would write about the unique food in a town (and the customs and cant around it), the vagaries of the weather, the swiftness of the river or the lowering influence of the mountains, the crops and the industries and the people who worked them. Beer and whisky were, for him, not metaphors for life, for people, but mirrors of history and civilization.
I had the honor of editing Michael’s column when he wrote for us, a column that we called “Cask Strength,” to signify that it was pure Michael Jackson, uncut and unfiltered. It was a title he was never really comfortable with; I believe because he would rather it had been a title that reflected whisky less directly, and life more so. I edited him with a gentle hand—I was learning my trade at the time, so that seemed best—and let him run. Oh, where he took us! To an ancient stone bridge in France that he deemed significant in the history of Chartreuse; to a breakfast with honeymooners in Scotland; to a dark night of the soul in a hotel in Germany; to trains, airplanes, and sidewalks where he had a journalist’s knack for striking up a conversation that would yield insight.
John and I were among the first to learn of his disease, the Parkinson’s that would kill him. His last column was about it, and the memoir he had started to write (which he planned to title I’m Not Drunk, Really, in reference to the effects of the disease and the assumptions it led to). He continued to work, hard, almost as if he had so much to say, and was trying to get it all out while he still had breath.
The picture you see here is the last one I took of him, the last day I saw him, about four months before he died. He was doing a beer dinner at Monk’s Café in Philadelphia. I had run into him and fellow writer Carolyn Smagalski about a block away at Spruce Street Market, admiring their sidewalk floral display. Michael was cheerful, and seemed more energetic and lucid than he had the previous year. We walked on to Monk’s together, and he gave a strong performance at the dinner.
Afterward he kept going, and invited anyone who was interested to the back barroom and took questions for another hour. We nodded, we clapped, we laughed. It was as if Eric Clapton had left the stage, then walked to a pub next door and grabbed a guitar off the wall and kept playing…because he just couldn’t stop, not so long as there was still music to play, and the strength to play it.
I suppose it’s inevitable that given the enormous tributes paid to him—awards named for him, endless encomiums praising his influence, the signal honor of the timing of today’s International Whisky Day—that revisionism has begun. Did Michael Jackson really influence things that much? Was he impartial, or did he favor companies and individuals who helped him? Wouldn’t this all have happened without him?
Speaking for myself, what I do, every day I write or edit or review or speak to an eager group of whisky lovers, is because of Michael Jackson. If he hadn’t been there to fire my interest, to show me a path that could be taken, I’d most likely still be a librarian. I might well be happy with that, but I wouldn’t have had the fun, the late nights with great people, the indescribable satisfaction of holding the first copy of a book I wrote, or the pleasure of opening someone’s eyes to a great drink, if not for Michael Jackson. I know other writers feel the same way; I know brewers who feel that way; I know distillers who feel that way.
Michael is the man who put non-wine drinks writing in front of the world. How much did that influence things? Hard to say. I embrace the questioning of the revisionists, and yes, maybe his influence is overestimated. But I do not believe we can honor him too much.
In that sense, then, we suggest that if you can, join whisky drinkers all over the world today in toast to Michael Jackson’s memory. Then join whisky drinkers all over the world in donating to Parkinson’s UK for medical research at the JustGiving page that’s been set up for today. And thank Michael for whatever he may have done to help put that glass in your hand.