An Interview with Linh Do

Our aim in starting Hip Cask, through this website, our Facebook group and the Instagram account is to celebrate our love of whiskey but also to celebrate the different women within the world of whiskey. We want to hear what they have to say and spotlight those voices and share it with whoever wants to read and listen.

Recently we kicked off that process by way of a virtual sit down with the wonderful Linh Do. Linh runs the instagram account Cookie Đỗ and her website can be found here, where she regularly shares tasting notes of a wide variety of whisky as well as cocktail recipes and insights into her (largely whisky-inspired) artwork which can also be found on Etsy. Linh’s previous account was Whisky Anorach, famed for being one of the top ten whisky Instagram accounts to follow for whisky insights. 

Through our sit down we spoke about how Linh got involved in whisky, the strong connection she has to Scotland, the perception felt of women who drink whisky (especially in the US) and the influence her Vietnamese heritage has had on her artwork.

The Fukano 6000 label to the left was wonderfully designed by Linh!

M: Linh, to ask the most obvious question first why whisky?

It’s kind of random, when I was in college, I just fell in love with 20th Century American English literature and my professors would say that the common theme is exploring binary dispositions and I started to look at life as if it were a graph. You have an X and Y axis, perhaps it’s human nature to be on a solid line of an X point and then crossover to the Y axis and do the complete opposite to try to find our own voice. It’s a little bit existential because you’re still on that line and you haven’t worked out through these kind of internal fields and challenges and I thought, well what happens if I bounce around between quadrant 1, 2, 3 or 4 and it would just be something that was non sequitur and that is the way of obtaining happiness? So I just remember waking up one morning and my first thought that came to my mind was that I should use whisky as a muse to write poetry.  I’d never had whisky before and it was just such a random thought I just went for it. I went to a bar and I told this bartender about this project and then he started to talk about the different regions of Scotch and it interested me. It reminded me of literature. Also I almost feel like you have to tap into your childhood enthusiasm to reference to things like crème brûlée or these notes. And so, I just instantly fell in love with it and then I quit social work a year later and I backpacked in Scotland by myself for nineteen days!

M: So was this because of whisky? You tasted whisky and went, “ I have to know more!”

Yeah! There was never a poem written, and that was ten years ago. Six months into studying whisky, I came across Highland Park, and their brand ambassador, Martin Daraz. He said there’s nothing like standing alone in the warehouse and being by the sea and smelling the alcohol just wafting in your air. You can just feel the whole earth pressed against your feet even when you’re in sandals. I thought, oh well, I definitely need to go to Scotland. There was this magnetic pull to just go by myself. I remember trying a Highland Park 18 year old whisky. I had this beautiful moment where I was confronted with all these peppercorn spices and on the finish it had these honey notes and it just kind of glossed over each taste bud to combat the heat and it made me think, ‘well maybe this is a metaphor for life’; that it’s going to be challenging but if I pursue something that is authentic and genuine, then maybe I could be rewarded with those sweet honey tones so that’s how it came about.

M: Are there any other spirits that inspire you or is whisky kind of it?

Whisky is mainly it. Gertrude Stein who is this, a little bit of an avant garde writer, she wrote this prose called Tender Buttons. This is about, cutting through all of the superfluous adjectives and getting it down to the pure essence of things. We can explain how much we love something, but down to it’s pure essence we just do, and I just naturally have this obsession with whisky. And I’ve dabbled into other spirits and I like it but nothing compares to whisky. It is something that is just very visceral and it just means a lot.

M: You never come to the end of your lesson with whisky; there’s always something new, always something dynamic, always something outside the box. Did you find that Scotland gave you that vibe when you were there too – that the spirits meshed with the landscape? There’s definitely a terroir going on.

Yeah, there is just a very spiritual awakening when I go there each time. I jokingly tell people that Scotland is the bad boyfriend, that I can’t quit. Like I go there and I spend all this money and I come back defeated cause I’m like, I’m poor, F- You Scotland, I’m going to go to a different country… it’s like the Colin Farrell of countries in some aspects!

Going there just has this visceral kind of feeling, where like I’ve been there before and when I had to compare life to a graph. The third time when I was in Scotland, I just remember, driving at night and seeing just the blur of dawn and dusk and it just made me realise; life moves like a celtic artwork. When I was driving alone up in the Highlands, I could see the clouds just hovering over the mountains and everything is blended and melded together and that’s what whisky has taught me – everything is just intertwined and connected and so in life I have to be mindful when I create things and think about people.

M: Can you expand on that a little bit more, how whisky influences your art that way? 

I think, every topic that I choose I have to be interested in and each thing that I create has a specific journey, so for example when I made a dress that was inspired by Talisker, I weaved in Alexander Lee McQueen because he is one of the few artists that when I look at his clothing, it’s just so intense, and I remember he created a line, it was called the Highland Rape and it was really controversial and there was tartan fabric and I can’t remember who it was, I think it was his mother who said, you should explore your roots. Because he grew up in London but he found out that his family is from Isle of Skye. It was about this idea of origin and our roots and what is the definition of our roots because I’m somebody who is Vietnamese, I was born in the US, lived in California my whole life, never felt really Californian or American but there’s something about Scotland, that just draws me back to that place so much and I don’t think it’s this xenophobic feeling about myself, it’s not, it’s just that natural pull, and, so when I started to explore Talisker and the idea of origin and our interpretation of origin.  I don’t know if I answered your question? This one [showing a white and pink pleated jumpsuit] is about my interpretation of Hibiki [whisky], with pleats, because the ridges of the bottle have those kind of ridges, but also I deal with Origami, so that’s the project I’m working on right now.

M: You mentioned living in California – LA is also incredibly competitive but how has that helped and hindered you?

 It’s very challenging. I think I’m somebody who operates on extremes where I’m either very, very passive or I think I’m being direct and honest but it comes off too aggressive, so learning the dialogue of communicating with people in Los Angeles and Orange County was very frustrating. They just want to tippy toe around things and it was really challenging but I remember somebody said – at the end of the day, people want to be loved and understood. And so I force myself to sit and interact with people who I dislike. What I learned was that when I forced myself to approach them with a sense of curiosity I would pick up things that I respected about them, and that changed the dynamics of my relationships with the other person and that was very effective. I think I’m still learning to be honest because I know that for myself, by nature I’m, I feel painfully shy, I’m a huge introvert and I had to muscle through that and practice learning how to talk to different types of people and personalities, and it’s still challenging, I think I just need a little bit more maturity to be more diplomatic when that’s not my strong suit. Because there are dudes out there who are… I just want to tear them a new one! And it’s hard, it’s hard to be surrounded by that sort of thing where they put you down. But you have to have a winning attitude, a positive attitude and I think I’m still working on that to be honest

M: One of the things I have told Sinéad and Avril, because they are both Irish, born and raised in Ireland, telling them that in America, if you are a woman who drinks whisky, it’s automatically a threat and you run across a lot of guys, a lot of dudes who are mean to you and in Ireland, you don’t get that, at all it’s really super refreshing. 

S: Did you find that in Scotland people spoke down to you because you were a woman in whisky or was it different there?

No, it was totally different, we had just a mutual understanding. The confidence of American culture can come across as being too arrogant in other countries.  So some Americans they go over to Scotland and they think, “Oh I come from this place, you should give me everything for free, you should let me stay at your cottage blah, blah, blah“, and the people I met in Scotland, they don’t care about that sort of thing. I never told them I worked at this bar or I worked at this particular liquor store where they sell a lot of their booze and I should get something. I bonded very well with the people who work in the distilleries because it was just all about trying to understand where they’re coming from and it wasn’t having that expectation that somebody should give me something, that entitled feeling. So, that was good, I was very lucky, I had no idea that I was getting hooked up with sampling awesome whiskies and they’re like; “How did you get that?” 

M: I really appreciated, especially coming from LA, which can be hierarchical and monetary, the fact that you do have a very egalitarian viewpoint. How does that influence your art because being an artist means you have to have patrons.

Yeah. I think it was Ben Eine, a London letter artist, he was in this documentary called ‘Saving Banksy’ and he said that, the challenge with artists is that we create things that come from our soul and birth it, it’s this idea of like, F the money, this is our baby, but, it moves like a Mobius strip. The people who buy art are the ones who have a lot of money and so there’s this very challenging dynamic of finding that balance. A great thing that happened for me was that I was very fortunate to live at Glenfiddich for three months, back in 2019 so I got the artist in residency program where they paid me to live at the distillery and I was just allowed to create whatever I wanted. I’ve done art where I’ve focused so much on what I feel, it’s now boring for me so I want to challenge myself in how do I interact with other people through my art and it becomes more of an interesting conversation because it’s about people and it’s about trying to understand where they’re coming from, what their wants are, and translating that through art is key. So, I’m still working on it, it’s not my strong suit but being able to talk to other people who are a little bit more business minded, that helps to work that out.

For me what’s important to me is making sure that I conduct business in a fair and honest way, so I think that builds more long-lasting relationships and just, you know I’ve been able to do some commission work here and there and you know, doing a whisky label was really exciting.

M: How did that come about?

So, there’s a guy named Chris Uhde, who owns a distributing company and he’s actually a blender for Fukano and Ohishi, so he mixes the whiskies and he, he’s kind of like my big brother, he had always believed in my work and who I am. He hired me to be a sales rep and I was terrible at it and I said, I can’t do it, I’m quitting and he said, “Don’t, don’t leave”. He’s kept me in the loop over the years, if there’s a project to do, he’ll hire me, which is nice. I showed him this book I’m doing documenting all the distilleries I’ve gone to. I really love medieval books and leather bound books so, I want to complete this in this lifetime and he said, just focus on that. [Linh shows a large book filled with beautiful illustrations and notes on each distillery she has visited]

M: How have your roots, your Vietnamese roots influenced your art, your life? 

 I have to be, I think a little bit open-minded and see the other person’s point of view. Everyone looks at things, or approaches things differently, just because I’m very meticulous doesn’t mean that it translates to how business can be done in an effective manner. My parents worked really hard so I always felt that I needed to work hard and do what I can to follow my passion and for me the idea of my parents – they were just so desperate to leave a country that was controlling them. To uproot themselves and lose everything is just so traumatising. I thought that the idea to follow your dreams or that concept of freedom of speech was important and that I was meant to do that.

I think for me, by nature, I’ve learned that I will never be mainstream in what I create, I can’t be Glenfiddich, I just don’t have it in me to be proper. But that’s ok, and that’s something that was really valuable for me, is that once I went over to Daftmill, and over Springbank, I felt more at ease, like I felt like I could just relax a little bit more. And Frances from Daftmill is just such an awesome human being, he’s very painfully shy but he’s just very meticulous about what he does and he cares about what he does.

Frances is this farmer who sells barley to Macallen and other companies and he started to distil back in, I want to say it was 2005. He was just doing everything by himself and I want to say it was 2018 (I could be wrong) [for the record – she’s not wrong!], he was ready to bottle it and he got various bottlers to bottle his expressions and they said, ‘How much do you want to sell this bottle?’, and he said, ‘Hmm, maybe 60 bucks’, and they said ‘Let’s go for $100’, and in his mind he says, ‘Well that sounds really expensive but ok, whatever’. So, they sell out, I think within 5 minutes and he says, ‘This is just beginner’s luck’. Second release, sells out another for ten minutes or… just insane and his bottle went on the secondary market and people were buying it for $900 a bottle and he had no, zero marketing, it was just through word of mouth, because he genuinely cared about his craft. He’s just very obdurate, wanting to do things his way, the right way, which is awesome.

M: You talk about being able to respect other people and being able to understand other people’s comfort zone but in addition, you need to be able to understand your comfort zone too and respect your boundaries. It sounds like that is because you can admire a distillery like Glenfiddich – it’s very successful, but in your eyes, Daftmill is more successful because, that fits more your model, that is more who you are.

Yeah, I think it’s a, not necessarily more successful, a different kind of success, you know? So I think it just depends on how you want to approach business and coming to be honest with yourself. I couldn’t bear the responsibility of being vanilla.

I think that that’s what it boils down to, you know when I’m sipping whiskey, it goes back to that idea that there’s different approaches and methods, but we have, different interpretations because, even our palettes are built differently, everyone has different palettes and so it goes back to that idea of practicing mindfulness and learning how to listen to people. For me, I’m always so busy in my brain that I wear myself out but when I drink whisky and I analyse it, it’s just very much being in the present and that reminds me that when I talk to people or interact with people, I need to have that level of curiosity and mindfulness too. To not just anticipate what they’re going to say next based on what they said five years ago and how their behaviour is like, but to really remind myself that people are in different stages of their life.

A: Finally, have you visited Ireland?

No! I mean I need to go back to Japan, I’ve been to Japan, gosh, a long time ago, but this was before whisky and I know on your website you have the views of Yamazaki and that was really cool. I’ve been to distilleries in Kentucky and different parts of the US, but Ireland is on my list for sure. That’s important, because people say that whiskey was invented in Ireland [We of course jumped in here with a list of Irish whiskey recommendations!]. 

That brings an end to our first Hip Cask Interview, with huge thanks to the wonderful Linh. We can’t wait to welcome Linh to Ireland to show off our rapidly expanding whiskey industry but in the meantime we will continue to showcase the wonderful world of whiskey and more importantly the women who are making a name for themselves! 

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