My, Not “My,” Bourbon Journey

by Colonel Steve Akley

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Welcome to the second post and the first contradiction in everything lined out in post #1. Hey, this is going to happen on a journey my friends: there are ups and downs. I promise this is going to be bourbon focused starting with post #3, but for right now, humor me with a bit of self-indulgence.

So, when I first started getting serious about doing a blog for the ABV Network website, I told you it was going to be, “My Bourbon Journey,” rather than “Our Bourbon Journey.” This got me to thinking back about where all of this began. Why I want to share this one personal story on this blog comes from the fact that I seriously believe that everything I’m am doing now can be traced back to one short moment in time.

When I was in third grade… yes, my bourbon journey goes back to when I was 9-years-old (not the drinking mind you, just forging the path). So, like I was saying, when I was in the third grade we got a creative writing assignment: write a one-page adventure story.

Now, I was born in 1968. A “writing” assignment literally meant that. A pencil and lined-paper and you wrote it out by hand. Imagine that… so primitive!

For some reason, this assignment really captured my imagination. Looking back, it was just the subject for me. I struggled in math… and science, which was fun, until it become mostly just more math. Social studies seemed like just memorization to me. English, though, there was something different there: creativity.

Foreshadowing everything going on today, I loved the creative side of English. You formulate a story and execute it… if you do it well, it’s great… if not, it’s terrible… so this even fed the competitive side of me.

Back to third grade…

I get this assignment of a one-page story dedicated to an adventure. I planned this whole thing out including an outline to make sure I didn’t miss any details. Then, I got to work with my old trusty #2 pencil and started writing. These two boys, just a little older than me, set out to explore this mysterious place near their home called, “Bear Island.” Rumor had it this large bear was their protecting the island and would kill anyone who touched its coast.

In the first couple of paragraphs, I set up the story as to why Bear Island was so intriguing to visit. I worked out the plan for the main characters, Frank and Dirk to head there. I wanted to make it a very difficult trip featuring an unstable crew, waves crashing, storm brewing and a crash landing that knocked the boys out. With this in mind, I had Dirk and Frank paddling for their lives as their canoe teetered on capsizing at any moment sending them to a sure death into the Pacific Ocean. As darkness fell, one giant wave carried the boat high above sea level and brought it crashing around on a rocky coast. As the boys regained consciousness, Dirk leaned over and stated, “Frank, I think we are on Bear Island.”

That was the last line on the page. My one page story was over. I didn’t get to the adventure. I didn’t get to the big showdown with the bear. There was no triumph with the happy ending I had planned.

As any third-grader would do… I handled it well. I just started crying. My Mom came in and wanted to know what’s wrong. I’m bawling my eyes out talking about how I just wanted to write this great story and I didn’t know how to make it work in a one-page document (see the volume of this simple blog post to know writing comes naturally to me).

She had me read her what I had written. I finished it out, crestfallen, with the last line on the page, “Frank, I think we are on Bear Island.”

My Mom smiled and told me, “Colonel Steve, that’s so good.” (Okay, it was just Steve but wouldn’t that have been cool?)

I protested.

I didn’t need Mom logic then. I didn’t need to be told even though it was terrible, I’m the best because I’m her son. Even at 9, I knew that was B.S.

She turned me, though, when she explained story telling. You don’t always have to do the details. Let the audience work some of the details in their mind. “You have a story in what you wrote,” she said. She went on to tell me how I didn’t need the boys exploring the island and getting into a showdown. I set all of that up in the first couple of paragraphs and then I got them to Bear Island. The reader then decides what happens to Frank and Dirk.

I still wasn’t sure about this when it came time to read our adventures out loud to the class… still, I thought if I put some drama into how I told the story, maybe I could make up for bad writing.

As I’m running through The Legend of Bear Island to my teacher and classmates it felt like I had their attention. As we got to the waves crashing, leading to the crescendo of that fine big wave that landed them onto the coast of Bear Island, I paused as the boys laid unconscious on the beach.

Then I delivered the final line, also with another big pause, “Frank…. (long pause as I took a breath in and exhaled), I think we are on Bear Island.”

I didn’t know what the reaction was going to be as I hastily sat back down in my seat (the equivalent of the mic drop), but something strange happened… applause. The teacher started it and the whole class joined in.

At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a writer. I researched it and it sounded even better… you write books and then checks show up in the mail box every month… for every book you write.

It continued to be my passion and what I wanted to do, but I went the conventional route through college and after by just getting a business administration degree. I ended up with a corporate job, one that I didn’t like, but that’s life, right? You build your happiness outside of work.

Fast forward through a wedding, my daughter Cat being born all the way up to 2012. I continued to feel the pull of wanting to be a writer. I often thought about those two characters from my book, Frank and Dirk. What really did happen to them after they landed on that island? In fact, in my mind, that final line came to be a bit of a rallying cry… a personal confidence builder… when I was on some sort of adventure, outside of my comfort zone, maybe making a presentation for my job, there was that little voice at the back of my head that would say, “Frank, I think we are on Bear Island,” which to me meant a little self-affirmation, “It’s okay Steve, you got this.”

Even though I always wanted to pick up my writing again, there was always something in the way. Big projects at work. Lots of activities with the kid. House needs work. You know how it is. It’s called “life,” right?

Then on 12/12/12 my life changed forever in an instant. Something happened that forced me to reevaluate everything about myself. My Dad had come up to take me out to lunch at work. We went out and did the things my Dad and I would do. We talked about the NFL, our fantasy teams, life and my daughter Cat. We literally talked every day. We were always that close.

He dropped me off and I waved goodbye as I saw him head off the parking lot. A few hours later I got a frantic phone call at work. There was something wrong with my Dad. I sped to the hospital. Didn’t care about traffic laws or anything else. I wanted to see my Dad to make sure he was okay. As the doctors worked on him the rest of the family arrived. When the doctor came in, I presumed it was to say, “That was a close one, but he’s okay.” Instead, it was to let us know he passed away. He had a heart attack at home and a second one in the ambulance on the way to the hospital that ultimately killed him.

Twelve hours later, I’m in the basement of a funeral home picking out the casket for my Dad. Bewildered. Crushed. Wishing I had seen some indicator this was going to happen so I would have done something. One last moment to say goodbye.

As bad as that day was, it woke me up a bit. I knew it could all end in an instant. That dream you wanted to pursue but keep pushing off because the time isn’t perfect never gets started because when is the perfect time for anything? I vowed right there, that day, I was going to start writing. I didn’t know about what, but I knew one thing… “Frank, I think we are on Bear Island.” The adventure of waiting for the perfect moment to be a writer was over. I was starting immediately.

If I told you that starting today you are going to be a writer, can you flip that switch? I don’t know that I could. I mean it was easier said than done. I wanted to be a writer, I really hadn’t worked out a game plan because I probably was never going to actually do it. Now that I was convinced that’s what I was going to do, I needed to start on something.

My first project seems weird out of context, but it makes sense if I explain it to you. It was simply a reference book about the 101 best Christmas songs of all-time. Literally 101 songs, with up to 3 alternate versions per song. The idea was to use it as a reference to build the ultimate Christmas playlist.

How can you put that in context to sound normal?

Well, I was not only was I crushed by the loss of my father. You have to imagine the impact it had on my mother as well. They had been married like 48 years. One day, he’s just gone. There is nothing you can do that makes you feel normal in this situation. Go out to eat? “Dad always loved going out to eat.” Forget about things and go to the movies? “Dad sure loved going to the movies.” Immerse yourself in something like my daughter’s high school field hockey games? My Dad wouldn’t miss one of those games if you offered him a million dollars.

Nothing is normal, nor will it ever be what you define as “normal” before his death again. My Mom always loved Christmas music. It’s one of my fondest memories growing up because when she would dig out the albums and start playing them in November, Christmas was around the corner. Who didn’t love the magic of Christmas as a kid?

So, that became our passion for a bit. Sorting through old Christmas albums and playing all of these versions as we debated which were to be recognized as the best and which ones deserved runner-up status. I would then do these terrible drawings to try to capture the essence of the song. It was funny because I can’t draw.

We had fun… we laughed. These were things that really weren’t happening a lot during that time.

Eventually, I got the entire book together. Even though I’m not very computer literate I figured out how to get the book published on my own. I joined social media to promote it and spent way more than I earned trying to make it a success.

It wasn’t meant to be and, as I look back, it’s no best seller. It’s not even good. Still, it helped during a really tough time and I remain proud of it for what it is.

My next book came to me in an instant. My cat Leo was checking out my cup of coffee. In a single weekend, I wrote and published a children’s book about a coffee drinking cat. For my third book, I wrote a biography about my Dad. It was half about his life and the impact his death had on us and half about some funny short stories I had written about him over the years (He was a character). I knew it would never sell, but I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying it is to go onto Amazon and see a book about your Dad available for sale. Just a normal guy and he’s got a book out about him.

After three books in a few months, I decided to go a different route with what I wrote next. I went the short story route and I wrote a great little story called, The Legend of Bear Island. Remember that one?

I finally did the whole story as I had originally imagined it even adding in a whole preface to the story to let the reader know how the legend got started. I was unbelievable to finally write the story of two characters who had been with me for over 30 years.

I really jumped in and even though I set it in the present day, I believe I was successfully in writing for my characters, Frank and Dirk the way I would have had I completed my entire story at age nine. They have funny conversations that reminded me of the stuff I used to talk about at that age. It was an incredibly rewarding experiences and remains one of my favorite things I have ever written. (The Legend of Bear Island on Amazon: https://goo.gl/2aK1x3).

I really got into bourbon writing almost accidentally. I’ve had a passion for bourbon for most of my life but didn’t know what I could write that hadn’t been written already. I first wrote about it in a series of books I did called Small Brand America, which is the stories of small brands competing against much larger competitors. The fifth edition of that series featured all bourbon craft distilleries. In researching that book, I saw that many of the companies I was featuring had bourbon cocktails on their website so I started asking if they had some I could use in a second “companion piece” book called Bourbon Mixology with those recipes.

The cocktail recipe book outsold the book that told the story of the distilleries so I decided to come back with Bourbon Mixology II, a cocktail book featuring the signature bourbon cocktails of 50 iconic bars. It blew up. The book became a best-seller on Amazon. I would be amazed that I would look at the clock and an hour later, I had sold 2 or 3 books. My biography of my Dad only sold 2 copies and my Mom bought both of those!

I decided to focus solely on bourbon in my writing and from there, I expanded into Bourbon Zeppelin and podcasts, all the while making contacts through Instagram and networking.

I felt I was working towards making this my post-corporate job career. On July 21, 2017, “post-corporate” began when I was let go in a corporate restructuring. I’m trying to make a go of now on the ABV Network. Your support as fans of what we are doing has been inspiring. What we are doing isn’t easy, I’ve made tons of new friends and I am excited for what the future holds.

Let’s talk bourbon next time, okay?

Jeremy Schell