The KY in ‘Tokyo’ Stands for Bourbon

I spent last week in Tokyo and Seoul. It was my second trip to Tokyo, and what most surprised me was how much of a whiskey city it was… I hadn’t noticed during my last trip, which was a lot more frantic. I had more time in the city this trip, and was with some fellow whiskey lovers from work, so we quickly identified some incredible spots – with our last stop in Tokyo being one of the most fun bourbon experiences I’ve ever had.

Cask Strength, a bar in the Roppongi district, was our after dinner drink spot the day we got in. The timing was unfortunate since exhaustion was kicking too hard to stay for more than one drink. The selection was incredible – we had an Elijah Craig 18 and 21 SiB opened for us, and I got the chance to immediately taste the Four Roses Platinum, one of the Four Roses bottling they do only in Japan.  The Platinum was good, aged an average of 8 yrs (I think, but it was all in Japanese…) – but definitely different than the US FR bottlings- much lighter on the front. While I enjoyed the complexity it achieved in a very floral palate (light citrus with a nice char contrast, and layers of the sweeter spices), I missed the rye and deep spice that I so love in Four Roses. There were a lot of interesting versions of our traditional bourbons as you can see from the photo (apologies for poor phone camera shot).

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On another night, we visited a bar called Woodz, in the Kagurazaka part of Toyko – another great whiskey find. While I wasn’t able to get a shot of their selection, they had a lot of interesting bottles as well. My colleague tried an Old St Nick (a Heaven Hill Japan only product), which he seemed to really enjoy. I spotted an interested bottle of Henry McKenna Single Barrel, unopened and looking a big aged. After asking to look at it, it turns out it was a 1994 barreling; so barreled the year they launched the product (although obviously not to appear until the product was 10 years old). Since I’m a huge fan of Elijah Craig and I’ve enjoyed the more modern HMKs I’ve tried, I went with it and enjoyed. It’s not a fancy bourbon, but the normal pepper and char that I remember from HMK were there, along with a heavy corn finish. There was a slight oiliness to it that I don’t remember in either EC or HMK; perhaps that was a result of a long time in the bottle. But overall, I enjoyed it, and enjoyed getting to taste a bottling I would never see again.

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Lastly, but most importantly, was our visit to Liquors Hasegawa, a store located in the Tokyo Metro Station, and my new favorite place on earth. Imagine one of the best selections of all whiskeys – including bourbon – you’ve ever seen. Now imagine that the same place LETS YOU TASTE OPEN BOTTLES OF THESE RARE WHISKEYS…. for a pittance!! There are numerous open bottles through the store, and for a few hundred yen (a few dollars), you can have a 1oz pour. There were four bottles of the FR 2012 SiB, the largest Willett Family Estate collection I’ve ever seen, and a few more items I mention below. And I didn’t even have enough time to explore all shelves (I was on my way to the airport). I tasted a wonderful Willett, aged 17 years, then one of my favorites – 17 yr Vintage Bourbon (of which I brought a bottle home) and most incredibly, finished the last pour of the Parker Heritage 27 Year Old release from 2008. They had two bottles of that left – for $300 each- and I just couldn’t spring for it. Nor, quite honestly, did I think it deserved a $300 price tag, although I really enjoyed it (and the $4 tasting price tag was just unbelievable).

Since I’m a huge KBD fan, I started with Vintage, which I’ve always loved, but never run into a bottle of. It was wonderfully smooth, with the sugar and fruit I remember, but with enough heat to keep it from overcoming. The finish has a pleasant smoke to it.

Given their incredible collection, I had to taste a Willett and the 17 caught our eye. It was a powerful 128 proof, but sipped beautifully – full bodied, but with heat that skipped the throat after the tongue and landed in the chest. Much deeper burn than the Vintage, but a nice follow-up to the sweetness there.

The PH 27 was so much fun to try – the nose was inspiring in its depth, with oak that lingered after I lifted my nose. I worried it would be too much wood, but it was balanced nicely by an early sweetness -smooth caramel and vanilla – and a spicy finish that smoothed into a last bit of vanilla oak at the end.

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It was an awesome work trip that, quite luckily, included some incredible whiskey tasting in some unexpected places.

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Brian, My Cousin

My cousin Brian McGuire passed away last night, after he and his fiancee were struck by a car (article).

My father has 12 brothers and sisters, and as we lived far from most of them growing up, I didn’t get to know all of my cousins that well – there are a lot of them. I saw Brian only a handful of times in my life, and growing up I didn’t know him well, despite our only being a year apart.

But across the last year, I was lucky to reconnect with him…on Facebook, as one does now. He was smart, funny and a kind, kind person. And I looked forward to his daily presence on Facebook because he was always smiling.

We take these relationships for granted, but the knowledge and insight we have about so many people from all parts and times of our life is a new phenomenon. We didn’t have this insight even 2o years ago. In that world, I wouldn’t have gotten to know Brian as he found happiness with his fiancee. I wouldn’t have gotten to know his sense of humor and to look forward to the wry posts he made on a daily basis, and the glee with which he posted funny photos and memes. I wouldn’t have seen his clear and strong stands on social issues he believed so much in. I would have missed out watching a member of my family grow into the incredible person he was.

While these online interactions will never replace the true joy of knowing and seeing someone in person, our social relationships fulfill an important role as average human mobility continues to evolve.  We go away to school, maybe grad school, then somewhere for a few years for a job, then move on.  After kids go to college, you retire somewhere else. We don’t stay within 100 miles of home anymore, and staying in-person in-touch is no longer an option.

Social interactions provide us at least some small way of staying connected with those we love, respect and learn from.

My sorrow can in no way approach the enormous grief that Brian’s family feels tonight. But I can mourn losing a new friend and a cousin – I can mourn him because I was lucky enough to get to know him this past year. It may be a small remembrance, but I will miss him every time I open my News Feed and expect to see him there. In even the small glimpses that a social network provides, Brian shone brightly. I can only imagine the joy of having been part of his daily life in-person.

Tired is Stupid

I’m writing this on my phone, from LGA, after a very tiring week- personally, professionally, physically.

And what this week has drummed home more than ever before is that, for me, Tired is Stupid.

I don’t need a ton of sleep to function, but when you reach certain levels of tired, no matter how used to little rest you are, you’re not going to be as sharp. Your brain literally doesn’t work as well- I don’t care how cool you are and how much coffee you drink- your brain stopped working already.

This is when it’s hardest to put the phone/computer down, because it’s probably when you’re busiest- that’s why you’re exhausted! But this is also when you’re probably going to think things through the least, present things most poorly, come off badly or make a critical mistake.

I spent 5 minutes asking myself after just sending an email… “Wait, did I sound like an ass? Because I totally didn’t mean to! I’m totally not in a bad mood or upset! I’m just tired!”

When you get to the point where you don’t even understand your own email tone, it’s time to put work down and pick up a book or watch a movie. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Do I Ask Too Many Questions?

I work with a lot of smart, committed, enthusiastic people. That simple fact makes it hard NOT to solicit feedback wherever possible.

(As a side note, they’re also fun, funny and charming people, which means I definitely talk too much in general because I enjoy my conversations with them. But that’s a separate post about how I need to start looking to see if people are wearing earbuds before talking to them…).

In regards to ‘questions’ however, it’s more difficult, because we all sit together, everyone is willing to help most times and they have incredibly valuable thoughts to contribute to any decision. But there’s a point of diminishing return that is challenging to measure, because efficiency requires decisions to be made – and sometimes made solo, quickly.

As things now stand, I solicit a lot of discussion and feedback. Which helps me a great deal, but potentially helps my colleagues less. I’m looking for approaches to help walk that line if anyone has some. For now, I think I’m going to only ask one question of a person a day. Basically, force prioritization on myself.

If I can only have someone’s full attention for one minute, what would I need to have answered?

I’m a One Year Old.

A little over a year ago I finished up my MBA at UVA, loaded up the few possessions we still had in Charlottesville and drove out to Boulder, CO to join my pregnant wife who had moved a month earlier. I arrived on a Sunday and started work at Gnip two days later.

One year ago last Friday, my daughter was born.

With a new baby, a new job, a new city and a new house, there hasn’t been much time for introspection. There still isn’t, so I’m just going with what I’ve got- what I’ve realized a year out from Darden:

    • I’m really glad went back to school. Not everyone needs an MBA; I did. As a forcing function for specific skills, it was right on. After college, a lot of our education is the ‘unschooling’ approach. We learn what we like, what interests us, what our job or situation demands. And that’s great, but it can be just as limiting as formal education. While there are downsides to set curriculum, it can be valuable to have  the time and expectation you’ll use that time to learn and pass a test on something like accounting (which I hated) and financial modeling (which I grew to love). Learning those skills led me to realize #2 –
    • Being a know-it-all sucks and I’m wrong a lot: This lesson is a continuing one 😉 – but one of the things I re-learned at school was that I’m not the smartest guy in the room, nor do I need to be. Far more valuable than being the smartest is being one who can: ask the right questions, admit being wrong, align different personalities, arrive at a clear decision and accept responsibility for the outcome. I don’t always get this right; it takes practice and it takes a culture that lets you practice. I’m lucky to be in a place that forgives occasional lapses.
    • No decision exists in a vacuum – and you never know all the inputs: One of the powerful things about school was a constant reiteration of the need to take a step back and consider a problem from various angles, to dive in and challenge assumptions, incorporate inputs from others, to make a decision and honestly asses that decision based on results, and then modify as necessary. For many people (me!) that model of thinking takes practice – practice that was evident in finance/stat courses, in ethics and leadership courses and in strategy and development courses. No course existed in a vacuum, because no decision does. And you never know all the inputs.
    • Engagement is good: I remember the first meeting at Gnip I was in – one week after I left school (and my first day at work). I made a point and immediately Rob Johnson asked “Why? Why do you think that? What data points prove it?” That type of engagement and challenge is powerful but it can be shocking to a system unused to it. School (in the case method) prepped me for defending my view and correcting it where wrong. But it requires practice to keep moving forward. And I can feel it when I’ve been solo on the road for a week and return to a meeting. After a week solo, I’m not used to input. But I’m always better off for receiving it.
    • Lastly, practice is an essential part of progress. Models always need refining. There are always flaws or poor assumptions; external factors are constantly changing; more valuable inputs are always available; more experience is always valuable. Whether you’re talking about an ethical framework you’ve developed and exercised, an actual financial model you’re testing, a marketing plan you’re building or a strategy you’re developing… challenging each model is practice that refines it and moves it forward.

What I’ve actually realized is that, like my daughter, I’m a one year old.

I’ve got some skills, I’ve learned to walk, but it’s messy sometimes. Luckily I have some good people holding my hand and I’m running forward as fast as I can, building step by step on what I previously learned. But there’s a lot of road ahead.

Breaking System Constraints

During a class discussion this week the idea of ‘constraint’ came up- how we’re constrained by elements of our environment and the systems within which we work. I think we’re coming to an interesting point in the cycle of development for those systems. For hundreds of years, we’ve  worked to make processes more efficient and to make life easier. We’ve developed systems to accomplish this. But as these systems have grown, they’ve become so efficient that, in many cases, we’ve placed constraints on our ability for organic innovation. This is especially true in business systems.

What I find extremely interesting is how current technologies are beginning to explore this tension between business systems and innovation- and are trying to use systems to push innovation rather than stifle it. Social media is a great example of this, per my summer experience at NewsGator. NewsGator’s solution echoes informal online interactions that are a part of our personal lives – and transfers that form of communication to a company setting. The goal is to allow firms to leverage the speed and sharing capabilities of online systems like Facebook, thereby driving communication and innovation throughout the company.

So while Facebook turned informal in-person chats into a system of online communication, new technologies are turning that system of personal online communication into a system of business communication. What organizations that adopt NewsGator (like Citi, the US Air Force, etc.) realize are that the typical business systems they use are placing constraints on innovation and that something needs to change. By leveraging communication that allows faster sharing of information, greater informality in brainstorming, additional freedom in visual expression and the ability to create teams, NewsGator (and like companies) provide a system through which companies can replicate the informal interactions that can lead to fertile ideas while managing the process of that creation in a searchable, repeatable way.

This construct (using next-generation technology to take systems to another level of human interaction replication) becomes really interesting what you consider what companies like Oblong are doing (watch the awesome video below):

Once our operating systems begin to visually replicate how our minds and bodies work, we’re breaking a big constraint in a very cool way.

Growing the Soil

My “Corporate Innovation & Design” class is one I’m pretty excited about (taught by Professor Jeanne Liedtka) and in our first week’s reading, a quote jumped out that blew me away. It was from a VP of Innovation at a big pharma company who said:

“It’s not just about the seed, but it’s about the soil…You know, it’s not just about having the idea or the project or the initiative, but it’s also about the conditions in the organization that enable that idea to actually flourish and get to market successfully.”

As I thought through that idea, I realized- that’s why I came to business school! That’s why I like entrepreneurship! That’s why I want to work in technology! Throughout my life and career, and in my first year at Darden, I have never worried about the ‘idea.’ I’ve never sat there and said, I really need to think of something killer- of the right idea. I’m not saying that’s not important (it obviously is)- it’s just that the idea has never been as interesting to me as what you do with it. The jobs I’ve loved, the clubs I’ve had fun in, the friends I have- these are all grown from the enjoyment I have in the soil. I like the growth, I like the development, I like the J-curve.

What is most interesting to me, and most inspiring, is how that idea becomes a thing. How that idea grows and succeeds (or fails!).

Luckily for me, I’ve always been able to find an ‘idea’ that’s interesting enough that I can jump in and try to do what I love more- build something with that idea.

What I need to learn is how to be the best at fertilizing the soil- that’s why I’m here. I couldn’t think of any awesome metaphor, but basically, I need to know finance, decision analysis, marketing, strategy, leadership, ethics, innovation, operations. I need to be even better at the soil; I’ll find a seed to grow somewhere.

UPDATE***It’s not an awesome metaphor, but I did think of a way to express it- it’s the South Park Gnome episode! I’m in school to get better at Phase 2. The underpants I care less about.