A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to “sit down” remotely with my colleague Shanna Farrell to talk about her new book A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits, out last month with Island Press. I wanted to ask her about her book in light of her experience and perspectives as an oral historian.
Burnett: Throughout the book, you are careful to situate yourself in terms of race, gender, and nationality, and you identify and explore the racially exploitative history of spirits production. How did you approach race and inclusion as criteria in your interviewing?
Farrell: Race and inequality is a very important aspect of the beverage industry and a topic that isn’t always highlighted in a story. I felt that it was necessary to acknowledge the exploitative history of a few spirits in the book, especially when it comes to the link of slavery and colonialism. The book tells the story of the people who make, or made, each spirit, and this includes enslaved people. The spirits industry wouldn’t exist without them and it is crucial that their contributions be recognized, as well as the systems of power, such as colonialism, that impact their place on the global stage. I also wanted to acknowledge that I’m not always the best person to tell specific aspects of these stories, like the chapter on agave. As an oral historian, I ask people to narrate and make meaning of their own lives, and wanted someone from Mexico to tell the story of mezcal. I’m grateful to those who were willing to share their stories.
Burnett: Could you tell us about influences on this book project, and how you thought about distinguishing your own voice as a writer?
Farrell: Though I write non-fiction, I read a lot of fiction. Narrative, structure, and imagery are all big parts of how I think about literature, my work as an oral historian, and as a writer. Topics related to sustainability can sometimes feel heady or overly scientific, so I wanted to make the book approachable for readers so they could connect to environmental issues. I channeled my favorite fiction and poetry prose when I was writing with the hope that the audience would find it engaging.
Burnett: Trust is such an important factor in oral history work. Tell us about how you built trust among the various communities you worked with for this book. What were some of the challenges to be overcome?
Farrell: Trust is crucial. Like in oral history, my work with the narrators in A Good Drink were built on relationships. I’d been bartending for over a decade when I was making these connections and I relied on the cocktail community to introduce me to narrators. I used a lot of oral history methods when I was getting to know these folks, like being transparent about what I was doing (writing a book), asking for consent to record them, and allowing them to review the section of drafts that they were in. These methods were paramount in gaining trust and I’m still in touch with many of the people in the book.
Burnett: In oral history, we’re used to helping narrators make meaning out of their stories. Can you tell us about how you balanced that approach with your role as sole author?
Farrell: I was interviewing people about their approach to sustainability when making spirits or mixing drinks and we’d often discuss the implications of their various models on the environmental, like carbon footprints and climate change. While my interviews for this book were not so much life histories–wherein narrators are asked to reflect back on their lives and make meaning of them more explicitly–the people featured in my book had the opportunity to see where their work fit into the big picture. From there, I shaped the narrative to illustrate a spectrum of ways that eco-consciousness extends from the farm to the distillery, instead of a “one size fits all” approach.
Burnett: Did your interviewing process change as you moved through the project? Did the interviews become more focused, for example?
Farrell: I used oral history interviewing techniques with most of the interviews I did for the book. In many cases, we started at the beginning of someone’s life or work to understand how they became interested in the environment and when they realized it was possible to incorporate sustainable practice into making spirits. Some of the interviews, especially the ones that I did during the COVID-19 pandemic, were remote, so we took more of a topical approach because of the interview format. I asked both specific and broad questions in each of the interviews, and many follow-up questions. I also did quite a bit of field work, which included distillery and farm visits, so these experiences were blended into the interview process.
Burnett: When you began your project, you had a pretty clear idea of the themes you wanted to explore, such as sustainability. What were some themes that emerged from the interviews themselves, and how did you incorporate them? Did some topics or themes emerge that didn’t quite fit this project that you might want to work on in the future?
Farrell: Sustainability was the organizing theme from the very start of this project. But each category of spirit has a different set of circumstances because the source material–the raw ingredients, like corn, agave, sugarcane, and pears–all grow differently. It’s possible to practice crop rotation for some of these crops (like corn) but not for others (pears), so I learned that there are complex challenges for each corner of the market. We can’t judge all spirits the same way, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Burnett: You write that the project began with your realization that there was an unsung world of distillers who thought about spirits as slow food. What’s great about your interviewing is that you really get inside what slow food, organic, community farming, and farm-to-table practices mean to people who do this work. My impression is that storytelling seems to be inseparable from the products your narrators produce: “Know what you are drinking;” “We’re talking about how a bottle tells a story.” Put another way, part of the value of the product is the story of making it, the cultures that surround it. To the extent that that’s true, did you adapt your interviewing style and your own storytelling to this context?
Farrell: You’re right–the story of how these spirits are made is an integral part of their identity and what gives a distiller a unique voice in a crowded market. I was aware of this going into the interviews, so I didn’t change my style of interviewing very much. Instead, I spent a lot of time talking to people about farming practices and how to capture the essence of the ingredients in a bottle, which isn’t something you hear much about when people talk about spirits. I was less interested in how spirits are aged or what type of wood they rested in–aspects that dominate most of these conversations–and focused on the origin story of each of the products. I found that the people who were really thinking about how their spirits are agricultural products and how they fit into the food system had a lot of say about this, so I knew I was hitting on an important topic.
Burnett: On the producer side, this is a story of small, innovative entrepreneurs lifting up local work and community and environmental values. But on the consumer side, these often involve quite expensive products and practices. Given your last chapter on the prospect of scaling up these small, artisanal practices, are you optimistic about greater accessibility down the road on the consumer side?
Farrell: I’m very optimistic that these products will be more accessible down the line, not just in terms of price but in where they are available. In the book, I focused on one of the spirits in their line, but many of the narrators have many more products that sell for various prices. It’s not cheap to make high quality products so I don’t think a bottle of Jimmy Red will ever cost $15–and it shouldn’t–but they have other products that aren’t as pricey. And while many of these producers are distributed nationally, some aren’t; I’m hopeful that someday soon they’ll be more widely available so we can all try just how delicious a sustainable spirit can be.
A Good Drink is available at your local independent bookstore.