I remember a year ago, exactly in May of 2011, I heard Martin Daraz, the Brand Ambassador of Highland Park, speak at Seven Grand, a whisky bar that is located in Down Town Los Angeles. From what I recollected a year ago, he said something along the lines of, “There’s nothing like standing alone in at the distillery –and it’s only you alone with the land,where you’re able to commune with nature. You can smell the sherry casks wavering in the air and feel your whole weight pressed into the soil, even when you’re standing in slippers”. In that instance I said to myself, “Holy crap! I need to see Scotland”.
I instantly imagined myself at that moment standing alone at the distillery and resting my feet at the edge of a cliff, peering down at the landscape where I would completely succumb to nature. The cliff and sky would have various shades of grey spanning between charcoal to soft-grey, and the waves would crash against the rock in 3-second cycles, each wave standing 30 feet tall at the height of its trope. The moisture from my face would then be leeched by the sea-salt air, while the atmosphere would leave remnants of a waxy-like texture on each filament of my hair and skin. There was something romantic about being humbled by nature, feeling all of the 4 elements against the fabric of my skin, that it transpired me to set off to Scotland.
After letting my mind whir, I was back in the present, peering back into the tasting room at Seven Grand and sipping a Highland Park 18-Year. The drink was aggressive, punching my throat and tongue with hot, peppercorn spices; the sides of my tongue started to burn and tingle, which propelled me to salivate as my eyes watered by the heat. I thought, “Holy hell. I’m getting my ass handed by this drink!” At the end of the finish, 3 seconds into that initial swallow, I was awakened and greeted by confectionary notes of caramel and honey, where the viscosity of my saliva mimicked that of honey syrup as it glossed over each taste bud to combat the heat. Not to sound so trite, but it was really the calm after the storm, the kind of resolution that rolled off my tongue in a rubato-like fashion to resist 4-4 time, so it could bring elation to the brain. It was, then, that I knew that I had to go to Scotland, and I had to go to Scotland alone.
December of 2011 hit, and Martin was present for another tasting event at Seven Grand. One by one, each person settled into the leathered seats, while Martin stood alone, standing away from the lit chandelier to dispose himself from the light as he picked potato chips from a snack-size bag with a tripod grasp. I looked at him snacking away in solitude, intrigued by his quiet presence. He’s the kind of man who gives off a warm aura of honesty, a genuine demeanor that brings solemnity to an anxious person like myself who, for the most part, loathe social gatherings. Perhaps it was his attire–the Brooks Brother-like attire–the cashmere sweater that guards his flannel collared shirt and casual jeans that brings a mixture of both the favorite-uncle-like figure and the down-to-earth-person that makes me such a huge fan of Martin!
At the end of the tasting event, I approached Martin and told him that I was so inspired by his speech back in May that I was planning to go to Scotland. He said, “Let me know when you go, so I can set you up with a VIP Tour”. VIP Tour? Being Vietnamese and all, the idea of getting hooked up with a free event sounded awesome and even more exciting because I’ve never had a VIP experience.
So, 6 weeks before my actual departure, I booked my flight to Scotland: 16 May 2012-02 June 2012. Then, I decided to research Scotland. (Yeah, I pretty much did everything backwards). While I was researching Scotland, I had the impression that the Highland Park Distillery was on the mainland of Scotland. Little did I know, after googling the plant, I learned that it was located in a remote island called Orkney, which was northeast of Scotland. I smacked my palms against my forehead and said to myself, “WHAT THE HELL????” because I was surprised that it was waaaay up north on an island. Then, I looked at Highland Park’s website and saw images of Orkney displayed on the site. The landscape looked ominous with various shades of grey and black; the place looked remote and the waves looked violent as it crashed against the rock, forcing me to surrender to naturalism. To be honest, I felt rather intimidated by the landscape, but, because it seemed so remote, I felt the greater desire to tackle Orkney.
For superficial reasons, I booked my flight in May because I assumed that for the months of June and July there would be a huge crowd of tourists during the summer. In addition, I chose Glasgow as my landing point because it was cheaper than landing into Edinburgh. That was it. That was all I knew of Scotland. Then, I purchased a travel book about Scotland and noticed a re-occuring pattern. Everything that I never wanted to do was there in Scotland with the exception of sipping whisky: bird watching, hiking and golf. Now, I don’t have anything against these activities. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy hiking and looking at critters, but the idea of trekking through the forest alone sounded dangerous. Thus, these activities did not intrigue me. As for golf, well, I don’t play golf. So there goes that!!! Ha!
Two weeks before going to Scotland, the duty of being a social worker wore me down. I was tired. Done. I didn’t want to be there anymore and had lost my faith in people (in a non-religious sense). I gave my 2 weeks notice to my supervisor and when I walked out of the office I was elated. The next day, it hit me. I knew I didn’t have a job in line and I was going to Scotland for 18 days. The sense of alarm pelted deep into my stomach and I felt sick. I felt that I had disappointed my parents, and I wish I could’ve made them proud in the sense that I should’ve stuck to my secured job. I wanted so deeply to make good money, so I could take care of them one day. And here I was, walking away from a low-paying job, but on the positive note, it was secure and it had good, health benefits.
I then drove to a wine and spirit store and parked my car in the lot, wiping the tears from my eyes and told myself, “Get it together. You need to pursue your passion and you really need to get a job. JP Morgan AND Toyota have you by the testicles, so you better find a job RIGHT NOW!” I walked into the store and with a big smile on my face, I told one of the managers that I didn’t know anything about wine, but I’d study on the side. I said, “You won’t even have to tell me to study. I’ll do what it takes to be in the field and be great at it”. I then showed him my little book, the Moleskin that had all of my tasting notes and doodles. He smiled and asked me, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I replied, “I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d like to be a brand ambassador for a whisky one day”. Deep down inside, I also wanted to say, “I’d like to be the chick-version of Jim Murray one day and write a book, too!”
The night before my flight, I packed my clothes. I was nervous and couldn’t sleep until 3am. I woke up at 6am, thinking that this whole trip was a bad idea. I finally got to LAX around 12:00 PM. I checked my bags and waited for 2 hours. I started to tear up a bit because I felt so nervous, thinking that it was the wrong decision to make, but I was hoping that once I landed into Glasgow I’d be in better spirits. The night before, my plane ticket stated that I was supposed to be at Gate 47B. When I checked in line to get on my plane, the speaker announced that the plane was going to Texas. I asked a woman at American Airlines for clarification about my Board Pass, and she told me that I was at the wrong gate. In addition, gates change daily, if not by the hour. I was supposed to look at my gate number on my Boarding Pass instead. I ran to the gate and another woman from American Airlines stated that I was 10 minutes too late. They couldn’t let me get onto the plane, but she took me to the Customer Service department to help me look for another flight. Luckily, American Airlines set me up with British Airways. Instead of taking a pit stop to New York, I was going straight to Heathrow and then to Glasgow. Crap. I already messed up and I haven’t even landed on UK soil yet! This was terrible. I sat and waited some more. 4:00 PM was my departure to Glasgow.
I got in line to board and I noticed an actress just walked pass me, going to the First Class session of the line. She just sauntered through the room with her butt cheeks peaking from underneath her white shorts. I thought to myself, “I waited another hours for THAT??? Where’s Malcolm Gladwell or all the whisky folks? Now, THAT would be worth the wait!” I jokingly texted my former co-workers, telling them that I saw this particular actress and that I should’ve taken her picture so I could make some money to break even for my trip. Yeah, I though her butt cheeks would be equivalent to the value of my whole trip! We finally got on board, and I ended up sitting in the back with my knees locked into the other person’s seat. It was a tight squeeze! I thought to myself, “One day, I’ll be able to sit in First Class and have leg room space, DAMNATION!!!” Then it was TAKE OFF!!!