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“Whiskey Women” — a terrific new history by Fred Minnick: Author Q & A

In books, business, culture, food, History, journalism, US, women, work on October 9, 2013 at 1:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I met Fred at a writer’s conference we both attend every year in New York City. A dapper soul, he’s the only man I’ve met who rocks an ascot — and carries it off!

Fred Minnick-1

His writing career began with pigs (!), and he now gets paid to drink. Sweet!

He also faced 50 (!!) rejections when trying to sell this book, so there are some useful lessons in his story for would-be authors.

He’s an interesting mix — military veteran, agricultural writer and, now, author of his third book, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey

Whiskey Women Cover

                    LOVE this cover!

I blurbed the book, and I loved his devotion to women’s history in a fun, lively, detailed look at all the ways women have influenced the production (and prohibition) of spirits, from Ireland and Scotland to the U.S.

As a single-malt fan (Balvenie), I had no idea how involved women have been, for centuries, in the whiskey trade. I love Fred for unearthing and telling these stories! I learned a lot reading his book and recommend it highly.

Here’s my Q and A with Fred:

Tell us a little bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts
of things you typically cover.

I moved to Louisville, Ky., after my tour in Iraq as an Army photojournalist. The reason? To be with the beautiful woman I’m now married to. My writing career started in the Future Farmers of America (FFA.)

National FFA Organization

National FFA Organization (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many rural towns, my hometown—Jones, Oklahoma—had an FFA chapter that showed pigs, sheep, cattle and participated in many other farming activities. I showed pigs.

At 15, my advisor asked me to start writing stories for our local newspaper about pig shows. At the time, we were winning
all these grand champions across the state and receiving little credit. My first story was about a pig show. After I saw my byline on the front page of the Oklahoma County Newspaper, I was hooked.

My beginnings are in agriculture writing, and I’ve always found myself covering aspects of agriculture. Even now in my main beat, whiskey, my agriculture background comes in quite handy.

Where did you get the idea for this book and when?

 When I was 12, my mother went back to school and eventually received her degree, becoming the first woman in our family to earn a college degree. And when I was in Iraq, I observed women soldiers outperform men. So, I have all these moments in my life where I found myself looking up to women for their accomplishments. In 2011, a new organization called “Bourbon Women” was formed.

That’s where the idea for the book came. I essentially studied the history of women in whiskey and was amazed nobody had ever done this book before.

Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?

When you write about whiskey, you find yourself reading the following line a lot: “Fred is great, a terrific writer, but the subject feels too niche to appeal to a broader audience. We’ll pass, but thanks for thinking of us.” My agent at the time, Neil Salkind, who retired after this book, never gave up, because he believed in Whiskey Women and in me. He forwarded more than 50 rejections, but this story needed to be told.

Finally, Potomac Books’ Elizabeth Demers fell in love with the title, and Potomac bought it. That was an incredibly taxing experience, because the book went before a dozen review boards but most came back with “we love Fred, but the genre is too niche.”

Rejection is just a part of the business. Once you realize this, those notes don’t feel so personal.

What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?

Since so much of whiskey’s history relates to commercial brands consumers buy, I found it frustrating that few whiskey brands knew about their female heritage. For them, women represented a small sales percentage that required feminine marketing tactics. When I discovered female owners in brand histories, I went back to these brands and they said, “oh, I didn’t know that.” Now, I hope they will recognize their female histories. To be fair, Maker’s Mark and Johnnie Walker have always promoted their female connections. I honestly think most brands didn’t realize how important women were to their
histories. Hopefully, Whiskey Women will change that.

 

Tell us a bit about your research for the book – where you went, who you spoke to, how you found
sources.

 After picking the brains of every brand manager in the whiskey business, I found myself sitting in archives seeking old whiskey recipes and looking for female names in whiskey-related arrest records. Either online or in person, I searched through archives in Scotland, Ireland, England, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and anywhere else with a
whiskey past. At one point, when looking at a whiskey recipe from the 1600s in the National Library of Ireland, I saw scholars surrounded me. That was a rewarding moment.

 

How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?

A year and a half.

Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?

It was about what I expected, but the University of Nebraska Press acquired Potomac shortly after I filed my manuscript. I didn’t hear anything from my publishers for a couple weeks, and I feared the worst. UNP acquired Potomac for its military titles, not my book. What would they do with me? It turned out to be a great move, because UNP has been fully supportive.

What did you enjoy most about working on the book?

The research. I loved digging through archives, knowing I
was the first whiskey writer to publish a recipe or mention a woman’s name.

What was the least fun part?

 Citing sources. This is the first book I’ve written with endnotes and a bibliography. My first book, Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq, was a first-person memoir, and my second, The Brand That Changed Beef, attributed sources with “according to” and quotations. Trained in journalism, not in history, I was so nervous about not properly citing that I probably over-cited sources.

Who do you see as readers for this book?

Women.

I really tried to make Whiskey Women a book about women, who happened to be the foundation of the whiskey business. I hope women from any walk of life can read it and relate to these women in a male-dominated industry. I tried to give women credit they’ve ever received.

If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?

This is a true narrative history book. My previous books flowed with a conversational style; Whiskey Women packs the facts. But, I certainly stick to my easy-to-read style with quirky anecdotes.

What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?

Once upon a time, I hated the proposal stage. After writing my share of winning and losing proposals, I now view this stage as the map to the eventual book.

The more thought out and research-laden your proposal is the better your book will be. I
did my homework for this proposal, and it helped set the stage for what I hope is considered a great book.

 

“Her Best-Kept Secret”: American women and alcohol: Q & A with author Gabrielle Glaser

In aging, behavior, books, culture, domestic life, Health, History, journalism, life, Medicine, news, US, women on July 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the pleasures of being a non-fiction writer is knowing others who write well-written, well-reviewed serious non-fiction.

Glaser jacket

I met Gabrielle a few months ago at a social event and immediately loved her energy and sense of humor.

Her new book, her third, examines a key change in how American women are relating to alcohol use. Says Kirkus Reviews, famously stingy with praise: “an important addition to feminist literature.”

It is — but it’s also a lively read as well. As someone with female alcoholism in my own family, I read this one with specific interest.

Here’s an excerpt that ran in The Wall Street Journal and a WSJ video interview with her.

download

Here’s my Q and A with Gabrielle:

Tell us a bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.

 I’ve been a journalist for 26 years, ever since graduating from college. I had hoped to get a Ph.D. in Brazilian history, but a friend who worked as the assistant to the late, great New York Times writer Johnny Apple invited me to a dinner party at Apple’s house. My friend was going to law school, and Apple needed a new assistant. I didn’t  even know who he was — I’m from the West Coast and just happened to be in Washington for a brief stay. But we started talking, and he offered me the job. He told me my nice Oregon parents would be happier if I took a “real job” instead of worrying about me living on ramen for the next four years. (He definitely had a point!)

I loved the newsroom, the energy there, and just didn’t look back.

 Since then I’ve covered a lot of things – crime in Baltimore in the late 1980s; the shift from communism to capitalism in Poland in the early 1990s; and basically since then, how health and health trends intersect with our particular culture. I’ve written two other books, including one that examines how our noses and scent affect our lives.

 Where did you get the idea for this book and when?

 I moved back to the East Coast from a six-year stay in Oregon in late 2008, just as the economy was tanking. Newspapers and magazines were laying people off, and it was really hard to find work. I had lunch with an acquaintance who is an editor at Simon & Schuster and all around us, women were drinking.

 I drink, too, but drinking at lunch puts me out for the day. We started talking about women’s drinking habits, (and our own), and the cultural shift we’d seen around us.  She suggested I look into it. The proposal hit her desk the same day as the news of a terrible accident in which a suburban mom killed herself and seven others when she had the equivalent of 10 shots of vodka in her system.

Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?

 No, because I was lucky to have already had her interest. I had written other books so already had an agent.

 What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?

 At first I thought the book would be a straightforward trend book, about women drinking more than in previous generations, and why. But then I started researching how they got better if they got into trouble, and I found some really interesting new options. I hadn’t had exposure to harmful drinking in my life, and I assumed that the traditional 12-step methods we rely on in this country were effective. I was stunned to learn that they had a very low success rate and were designed by men, for men at a time when the knowledge of brain chemistry was at its infancy – and that it was used by the courts, employee assistance programs, and the medical establishment as a gold standard.

 So digging into that was challenging – but fun. It’s always exciting to shift your thinking about something you’ve accepted, or taken for granted -– sort of like you did with “Malled.”

 How did you research the book? Tell us where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.

 At first I started looking into statistics, which as a reporter is the easiest starting place. Drunk driving among women was up; hospitalizations for alcohol overdosing were up among women; the number of older women who checked into rehab had spiked. The number of women who said they were regular drinkers was up.

 Once I had those figures, I could sort of move backwards – contacting the researchers and interviewing them. Researchers typically know the others in their areas of expertise, and a lot of them are really generous. One man told me, “Oh, I’m nothing in this field – you should talk to so-and-so and so-and-so.”  Those so-and-sos turned out to be amazing sources who were patient and funny and helpful, and pointed out where I had holes.

I also did a lot of searching online for women who would be willing to talk to me about their issues. It is a dicey thing to ask people to discuss a topic that is shameful or embarrassing to them, but I’m a good listener and sometimes that’s what people need. Talking helps a lot of us process our “stuff.”

 How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?

 Three years.

 Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?

 Much slower. I thought it would take me a year! That’s crazy.

 What did you enjoy most about working on the book?

I loved learning about our history with alcohol, and how our habits have shifted so dramatically over the years. I loved meeting people, and making new friends, but I also loved diving into the history of why we treat alcohol so oddly in this country. We went from Martha Washington, whose collection of 500 recipes included 50 for boozy drinks, (plus some hangover cures), to wild-eyed prohibitionists to Girls Gone Wild.

 What was the least fun part?

Some chapters were torture. Reducing the history was particularly hard for me, because I found it so fascinating. At one point, I had about six pages on how the women who crossed the Oregon Trail drank whiskey and wrote about how it helped calm their nerves and sadness in their diaries. My editor, God love her, wrote, “I know this is fascinating, but I think we could carve this down to a sentence or two.” What? All those diaries I read to a sentence? Sometimes you need cold water on your face to knock you to your senses.

Who do you see as readers for this book?

 I think any woman who has ever thought twice about their drinking would be interested in this book, and anyone who has ever thought twice about the drinking of a woman they love would be interested in this book. I tried to bust a lot of myths. I also think it would be a good read for anyone interested in women’s history and women’s studies. It traces the arc of female power through our relationship to alcohol in ways that are quite surprising.

 If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?

This was much better conceived and executed than my other books, because it had a tighter focus. I used history as a guide, and medical research as a foundation, whereas my nose book was a sort of kooky history – cool stuff you didn’t know about your sense of smell, the history of Kleenex, nose jobs. My first book was a starter book, on interfaith marriage. It was too long and not focused enough.

What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?

 Develop a good working relationship with your editor. That is absolutely key. If you don’t see eye-to-eye from the beginning, you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye at the end. I’ve had a great experience this time with a patient, wise, and incredibly generous editor who helped reel me back in when I needed to be. I haven’t always had that experience. Chemistry matters. My best working relationships have always been with editors I really admire and love. In other words, don’t try to force something that isn’t there. And also: don’t be afraid to lose your good material in order to save your great material. Nobody wants to read six pages about something only you find amazing.

 

Absinthe From The Catskills, Thanks To A Self-Taught Woman Distiller

In business, women on December 29, 2009 at 11:03 am
ALAMEDA, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Bottles of St. Geo...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I loved this profile of Cheryl Lins, 56, the first distiller of absinthe in New York. Inspired by a New Yorker article about the spirit, she decided to make it herself.

She happily admits to being obsessed, and her passion has won her devoted clients.

Customers like Astor Wines & Spirits and the bar Louis 649 seem to find her lack of self-promotion sometimes amusing and mostly refreshing. Justin Chearno, manager of the wine store Uva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said: “When she walked into the store, I saw she had that thing natural winemakers have — an authentic, obsessive thing. When she said she was selling absinthe, not wine, I was, like, ‘You’re kidding!’ Then I tasted. Her flavors and tastes were just as alive.”

Five years ago, Ms. Lins was living in a yurt in New Mexico. To escape the heat, she came to this small town in Delaware County, chosen for no apparent reason other than instinct. A computer programmer and watercolorist, she tended the fish counter at the health food store in nearby Delhi. Then one March morning in 2006, The New Yorker arrived in the mail. Inside was an article on absinthe.

Though nearly a teetotaler at the time, Ms. Lins became so possessed by the history of the green fairy that she ordered bottles (perfectly legal) from Europe. After several $100 deliveries, frugality took over. She ordered a copper-pot still from Portugal that arrived with “decorative garden ornament” written on the shipping label. Pierre Duplais’s bible of 19th-century distillation techniques became her best friend. She headed to her basement to concoct. Soon, the police were on constant patrol. “They probably thought I was running a meth lab,” she said.

“My first effort was vile,” she recalled. “I burned the herbs.” Eventually her varieties grew in sophistication, absinthe was legalized and friends encouraged her to be a professional distiller. Working as a fishmonger wasn’t a labor of love; distilling became one. “Tactile and sensory, it’s like painting,” she said.

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