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Whiskey Lessons for Personal Growth

I’ve been to two whiskey tastings this week. One in a backyard by a fire-pit and one online in “virtual” mode. (The meeting was virtual, the whiskey was not.)

But I’m not a whiskey drinker. Nor do I aspire to be.

However, I do like to learn, which I find best done by trying new things. I could read about whiskey all day long without understanding it or why some people are really into it.

Truth be told, these two tastings didn’t get me much closer to understanding. But they did bring home the meta-lesson that learning is a process that takes time and persistence.

What is whiskey anyway?

Let’s start with the basics. Even the experienced and professionals (yes, there are professional whiskey tasters) struggle to make the basics quickly and easily understood.

What is the difference between whiskey, bourbon, and scotch?

Turns out that is a bit of a trick question. And also one that doesn’t matter so much to the experience and enjoyment that comes from the practice of whiskey drinking.

The differences end up being technical, and even codified in law. Whiskey is the broad category. Scotch is a subset and includes the strict geographic constraint that it must be produced in Scotland (not unlike how champaign must be produced in Champaign, France). Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn and— by law—”must be stored in charred oak containers.” Rye “must be distilled from at least 51% rye and aged two years or more.” Yet, when many think of rye they think of Canada but the Canadian product “may not actually include any rye in its production process.”

Some have even ventured to create new categories in recent years, such as “bourye” by blending bourbon and rye.

The bottom line is that knowing the names and following the marketing is not so important. It’s important to know the experience.

The palate wheel

As soon as I was relieved of the worry of memorizing names and definitions, I was overwhelmed with the idea of deconstructing the complexity of the products upon my palate.

My palate, it seems, ain’t so sophisticated—especially when barraged with a wide array of samples in a short amount of time.

The palate wheel attempts to help, breaking down flavors into categories like “winey,” “fruity,” “cereal,” “floral,” “fenty,” “peaty,” and “woody.” This was struggle enough, but they go further into subcategories like “fresh fruit,” “cooked fruit,” “dried fruit,” or “medicinal,” “smokey,” “mossy,” and “kippery.”

I was lost. But I kept on plugging away at my own pace, trying to discern what I could, listening carefully and asking lots of questions. I tried to keep the “beginner’s mind,” trying to soak in what I could with openness and eagerness for learning, which leads me back to the biggest lesson of all. Learning is a process that takes time and effort.

You can’t—and shouldn’t—rush learning

Learning is not about knowing the names of things and memorizing definitions, although those things can help you to become better oriented to a new context. And they can help you communicate with others in that context. Jargon serves a purpose. But it is not learning.

Learning comes from understanding, which comes from experience. To understand the different types of whiskey and which ones I might enjoy will take time. I cannot cram for this exam. And that’s ok.

There is no exam when you are learning for personal growth. The aim of personal growth is to expand your knowledge and experience such that you deepen your understanding and ultimately gain wisdom. That wisdom can help you greatly within the domain you study, but even more impressively it can reach beyond that.

I always find that the best lessons and insights have more universal applicability. Some lesson yielded from years of studying and practicing music ends up applying to an unrelated field like technology. Years of mastering bicycle mechanics helps me fix something in the digital world. Insights gained from internet marketing help me communicate with students in a classroom.

But that magic only comes over time and after substantial effort. Even more surprising, the best effects are impossible to predict. Which is why learning for learning’s sake—going deeply and working persistently over time—is the best path forward.

What will you be learning next?