Interview Issue 11

A Universal Understanding

Pedro Shanahan on stage

Written by Phoebe Calver

There are some people you will meet in life that immediately put you at ease and Pedro Shanahan is one of them. After meeting officially in February this year at the US Whisky Magazine Awards to celebrate the Seven Grand bar group’s Icons of Whisky award and talk all things whiskey, I knew that Pedro was someone who would always have some calming wisdom to impart. 

This fact about him that is exceptionally useful in his role as a spirit guide at Seven Grand bar group and host of The Spirit Guide Society, while also acting and holding yoga classes. 

Life is obviously a little different for Pedro right now, along with many in the hospitality side of our industry, however, when catching up with him it was great to see that his infectious love for the world of spirits hasn’t been dampened by the madness of this year.

American Whiskey Magazine (AWM): Where did it all begin for you with your love of whiskey? 

Pedro Shanahan (PS): When I was young (read as illegal) I would drink Irish whiskey, Tullamore D.E.W., and Bushmill’s, and if it was Bourbon it would be Jim Beam Green Label. 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 it.

13 years ago when we opened Seven Grand in Downtown LA, I was charged with helping to figure out what we needed to order, as we expanded our whiskey wall from 250 to 800 whiskies. So I would do tastings with the different brand reps and sales people coming in, comparing bottles side-by-side… that’s what sparked my imagination.

AWM: What did you most admire about the industry when you were starting out in it? 

PS: 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 Barrie (who was master blender for Morrison Bowmore at the time) in her tasting lab; that was incredible.

AWM: How and when did you begin working with Seven Grand? 

PS: 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. 

AWM: You’ve become accustomed to hosting more than 150 tasting events per year… please explain this madness!

PS: I have a lot of help with this: Stephanie Aguilar, Bar Jackalope manager, co-curates the Whiskey Society with me and schedules in all of those; Erbin Garcia, general manager at Caña Rum Bar, co-curates Rum Society with me there; and 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. We’ve been doing Virtual Seven Grand Whiskey Society events every week as a way to keep folks connected. It can become a bit of a blur at times, but hosting live events trains you to stay 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, a lot of work by a lot of people. 

AWM: What has been your most memorable experience?

PS: 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. 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. And then 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.

AWM: You head up the wellness and education programs for the company, how important do you personally believe these factors are in this industry to encourage balance? 

PS: 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, so we really 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.

AWM: During this difficult time, you’re running live yoga classes on your Instagram which is fantastic. What came first, whiskey/spirits or yoga? 

PS: My title “Spirit Guide” was given to me by David Fleischer, one of our early GMs. 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 of yoga to cure a hangover.

AWM: How do you see hospitality bouncing back from this year?

PS: This is a very stressful time, especially for folks who live off of tips, and thrive off of taking care of other people. But we’ve set up GoFundMe pages for our bars to try to raise additional money to pad their unemployment checks, and we’re doing live streams on Youtube three times a week (Spirit Guide Society on Youtube), in lieu of being able to do our normal tastings, to drive traffic toward those GFM pages and stay connected to our community through stories and stay-at-home drinking. Combine that with some free online yoga, and smart social-distancing practices, I hope we can minimize the tragedy, and come back with a deeper appreciation of each other. 

AWM: Things look pretty different now to the way we started out 2020, but how do you see the next decade playing out for whiskey?

PS: 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’re never tasted whiskey before – that is exciting.

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