“Distilling Rob” is a new book from whisky writer, Twitter personality and man-about-LA Rob Gard. I love whisky writing and I enjoy Rob’s blog, so when I saw the book project pop up on Kickstarter it was an easy sale for me.
A lot of people don’t like or trust Kickstarter, which I can understand after the public implosion of some large and lauded projects, but for me that’s like saying you’ll never shop at Sears again because your new TV didn’t work. It comes down to critically rooting out the best and most-likely-to-succeed projects; Caveat Backor or something like that.
Part autobiography, part travelogue, the book opens with Rob leaving his corporate day job and heading for Islay on the classic voyage of self-discovery. His personal journey is driven by one central question: what does it mean to be a man? Being completely honest, I found it difficult to identify with that. I’m a game developer by trade; I design and build games for the young and young-at-heart, and I make it almost a point of pride to deliberately hold onto a part of myself that has never grown up. While I have neuroses of my own, I’ve never spent too long wondering if I’m doing this whole adult-male thing right. Nevertheless it’s a question that clearly had a strong hold on Rob at this point in his life and his struggles to answer it underline the entire narrative.
If I was unmoved by the personal reason for his journey, I found another connection to the book when in Rob’s emotional struggles with his hometown I saw my own life mirrored. When I was 18, almost as soon as I was able, I moved away from the small seaside village in Northern England that had been my home for my whole life. Much like Rob’s Beloit, I saw the town that I was raised in as a depressing dead-end, a place that stifled rather than nurtured. Now, more than two decades later, I dream about the place almost nightly, and am drawn back year after year by family ties and other, more difficult to explain reasons. The dark, unspoken feeling of simultaneously being helplessly attracted and repelled by one’s roots that I found in the book resonated with me at a level I can’t quite express.
And so we come to the author’s grand escape to Islay, and the book’s connection with whisky. Those parts of the book that discuss his working holiday at Bruichladdich are extremely enjoyable, with some colourful writing connecting whisky to everyday people and some real insights into life at a distillery. I almost feel bad for what I’m about to say, given that it’s the very point of the book, but I wish that more of these chapters had been allowed to remain on Islay instead of almost invariably jumping abruptly to an unfortunate anecdote back in Wisconsin or California.
Not knowing Rob personally, I can’t attest to his true character. But however accurate the portrayal of the author in the book may be, it’s certainly fearless. He’s not afraid to show us episodes that may be among the lowest points in his life, and in sometimes excruciating detail. At times I could almost smell the creosote fumes from the wooden beams of the bridges as they burned, such was the brutal honesty of exchanges or emotions. I hope his family is still speaking to him!
I did find the tone of some of the passages discussing his old life back in LA to be a little disingenuous. Rob’s fond of telling us often how awful it was to meet all these shallow celebrities, to spend nights chasing (and catching) actresses, to live in an apartment full of designer furniture and clothing, and so on and so forth. He does do a good job of pointing out the emptiness of a life based on lies and spent in the pursuit of nightly pleasure… it’s just that he keeps returning to it a little too often to make me believe he really does wish it all behind him for good.
But I really did enjoy “Distilling Rob”. It’s a great account of a journey many of us would like to take (though perhaps for happier reasons). What especially stood out for me was the quality of the prose; Rob’s been writing for his whole career and has a very evocative style. As someone who is striving to improve his own writing skills, I loved his descriptions of Islay, of the people he met there, of his cottage and the storm, and of his hedonistic life in LA. As a whisky enthusiast, I enjoyed the peek behind the curtain into the activity and personalities at an Islay distillery. And as a regular Kickstarter backer, this is one of my favourite success stories from the projects I’ve invested in.
“Distilling Rob” is available online from Amazon; the Kindle edition is a particularly affordable $3.99. If you have any interest in Islay or whisky writing in general, you can’t go wrong by picking it up.