This week we’re diving back into our ‘A Dram With’ series with the wonder that is Pedro Shanahan. This is a man who wears many hats in his working life, or perhaps more appropriately considering his signature look, many headbands.
An artist, actor, yoga teacher, The Spirit Guide Society host, ‘spirit guide’ for Seven Grand in LA and all-round positive power house, it was a pleasure to catch up with him to find out a little more about his life in the world of whiskey.
Grab a dram and settle in for a good one!
First up, where did it all begin for you with whiskey and what was it that captured your imagination?
When I was young (read as illegal) I would drink Irish Whiskey, Tullamore D.E.W. and Bushmills, and Jim Beam Green Label Bourbon. It was cheap and good and we were in High School, after all. I loved it, but had not yet tried to learn much about the spirit.
When we opened Seven Grand in Downtown LA (over 13 years ago now!) I was charged with helping to figure out what we needed to order, as we expanded our whiskey wall from 250 to 800 whiskies. I would do tastings with the different brand reps and sales people coming in, comparing bottles side by side and learning as I went; every shift I would taste three to four samples. I took deliveries as the orders arrived and would read the backs of the boxes that the whiskies came in, the pamphlets that came in the boxes, and the backs of the bottles themselves. That’s what sparked my imagination; all the stories of these places and the generations of people who have made these spirits.
Leading on from that, what was the first whiskey you tried and what did you think of it at the time?
My first favorites in the early learning days were rye: Jim Beam Rye, Rittenhouse 100, Wild Turkey Rye 101. Big, robust flavor profiles that were hot and would stand up in cocktails. I think we were one of the only bars in America with two bottles of rye in the well at the time, it was cheap and we all loved it.
I loved Redbreast 12 Cask Strength, Bushmill’s 16 as I learned about Irish. It was Glenfarclas 12, Glenfiddich 15, Glenlivet Nadurra, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Ardbeg, Ardmore as I dove into Scotch. Then Nikka, Yamazaki and Hakushu out of Japan. It was an exciting time.
What did you most admire about the industry when you were starting out? And did/do you have any idols in the world of whiskey?
There is an amazing camaraderie in the whiskey business, a pantheon of storytellers and educators that are friends. On my first trip to Scotland, Johnnie “The Scot” Mundell took us to stay at his family farm in Ayershire outside of Glasgow, and we got to meet Rachel Barry in her tasting lab: that was incredible. So many legends have visited Seven Grand, including Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, Jim Rutledge, Chris Morris, the late, great Parker Beam. Jim McEwan before he retired from Bruichladdich, Stephen Beal, F. Paul Pacult, Martin Daraz, Simon Brooking, Rick Edwards, Travis Tidwell, Dave Pudlo, Bernie Lubbers, I wish there were more women in that list. That is something the industry has to get better at.
How and when did you begin working with Seven Grand?
We opened Seven Grand in 2006 I was the first hire, a barback. I came with Aidan Demarest, our first general manager, and helped him decide what to order for that initial buy. I was there as we finished construction, and helped set-up the back bar and the whiskey wall, the fresh squeezed juice for our classic cocktail program. At that time, downtown LA was a ghost town. We were the only business open after 6pm on our block, now they call it the “7th St. Corridor!”. Seven Grand and the Golden Gopher around the corner, we were anchor businesses that encouraged others to come in. And now downtown is new again.
I remember you mentioning that you curate collections for those coming into the bar. Where do you even begin and could you explain the details of this?
I help to curate both the whiskey wall in the front bar, and the wall in the Bar Jackalope, our sipping library in the back of Seven Grand. We do it as a group: the front bar wall is pretty maxed out in terms of space, but it’s a fluid world we deal in, some whiskies become unavailable and go away, and others come in to take their place. In the Bar Jackalope, the staff challenge the wall every month. If someone thinks they have found something that is a better bang for the buck in any given category, we taste them blind, side by side, then vote on it. That way there is no brand bias, just price versus flavor.
You’ve become accustomed to hosting more than 150 tasting events per year… how on earth do you do it? Is it all in the planning or do you go with the flow?
I have a lot of help with this as Stephanie Aguilar, Bar Jackalope manager, co-curates the Whiskey Society with me and schedules in all of the events; Erbin Garcia, general manager at Caña Rum Bar co-curates Rum Society with me there; lastly Luis Rodriquez, area general manager at Las Perlas co-curates the Mezcal Collective.
We consistently offer three tastings per week, but sometimes there are many more. It can become a bit of a blur at times, but hosting live events trains you to stay very present, to listen and be in the moment. Luckily, we have the Spirit Guide Society Podcast, so I can listen to them later on and find out what was said! (That’s a joke.) But seriously, it takes a lot of support and a lot of work by a lot of people. We believe in the societies as a way to bring folks together to enjoy an education, to share stories and experiences in a public forum, and in the podcast as a way to preserve that education for enthusiasts and members of the bar community.
What has been your most memorable whiskey experience?
Seven Grand is a great place to throw a party. We’ve opened four now, and each time the run-up to opening is a joyful challenge. Then there’s meeting and hiring new people, training together, teaching them to ask questions, turning folks on to their own ability to smell and taste, helping them to deepen their awareness of their own senses to find their way in the bar business, cultivating rewarding careers and long-term friendships. I love throwing a big opening or anniversary party and holding a whiskey emporium where tons of brands come in and folks can wander and taste a wide array of spirits and perhaps find a new friend. To help create a community hub, and to be able to do it with friends and family is a dream come true, and makes for many a memorable night.
You head up the wellness and education programs for the company, how important do you think these factors are in this industry to encourage balance?
People go to bars for the booze, but they’ll keep coming back if they love the bartenders. It’s in the best interest of a bar owner to keep their staff as healthy and happy as possible, to look out for them if they are going astray. Working hard in a party environment, staying up all night, eating take-out, marathon drinking, and all the extra-curricular opportunities surrounding can lead to a pretty high-risk lifestyle. Too many greats have gone down too young, that is why we need to put extra emphasis on wellness in the bar industry. Depression and addiction are very common, we need to be there for each other in this business.
I lead power yoga classes twice weekly that are free for members of our company, we also have a free mediation class led by one of our bartenders on Mondays. Tuesdays we have a cycling club that goes on rides together, we have a monthly tennis club and a French club, encouraging folks to do things together outside of the bars that don’t involve drinking.
We also offer monthly workshops that cover such topics as Taxes for Bartenders, How to Save to Buy A Home, Sobriety in the Bar Business, etc. It’s my job to find speakers and teachers to come in and make sure we’re giving our crews the tools to have a better life, to be better people.
During this difficult time, I hate to mention the C word, I’ve noticed you’re running live yoga classes on your Instagram which is fantastic. What came first, whiskey/spirits or yoga? How have you found the two have intertwined?
My title “Spirit Guide” was given to me by David Fleischer, one of our early GM’s. It is firmly tongue-in-cheek, he thought it was funny that I taught yoga in the morning and taught people about whiskey at night. We like to say, “I can heal you from the whiskey with the yoga, or I can heal you from the yoga with the whiskey, whatever you need today.” I was teaching yoga before we opened Seven Grand, but I find it helps me to abide to a healthier rhythm in my own life, in the process of helping others be healthier too. There’s nothing like a sweaty 90 minutes yoga to cure a hangover!
Things look pretty different now to the way we started 2020, but how do you see the next decade playing out for whiskey?
Specifically, in terms of American Whiskey, there will be some great new craft distillates coming to market. Alternative mash bills, longer fermentation times, daring experimentation in maturation, blending and filtration; there is a lot to look forward to. And eventually Japanese whisky production will catch up to demand, which will mean a lot of happy whiskey drinkers out there. (Hopefully it will be affordable) New brands coming from places from which you’ve never tasted whiskey before. That is exciting.
Lastly, I’d like to finish up with your dram of choice right now. Why does it fit this moment for you?
Honestly, thanks to lockdown I’m deep into my reserves. Right now I’m sipping on some Maker’s 46 because I still have some left. And Maker’s has put millions into the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which is supplying thousands of meals every day across the country to folks who are underemployed because of COVID-19. So cheers to those who are doing what they can to help others, that is how we are going to get through this together. Thank you for this opportunity, American Whiskey Magazine!
Thank you so much for your time Pedro – cheers!