Many writers have found inspiration in a bottle of good whisky: Mark Twain, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, and numerous others. Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, wrote dozens of works that mention or focus on whisky, including “Scotch Drink” and the humorously metaphorical “John Barleycorn.”
Joining the literary greats in using the water of life as a muse, Sara Robinson of Charlottesville, Virginia has been writing poetry about whisky for nearly a decade, though she came late to the craft after a career in the chemical and mineral processing industry. “I was writing articles in technical journals,” she says. “You can imagine how ‘dry’ that writing was…[During those years] I got introduced to really good scotches [and] I discovered a fascination [similar to that of] wine drinkers for developing a sophisticated palate. It became really intriguing and interesting to me that there was a real spirit behind the spirit. All of these things I discovered before I even thought about writing poetry.”
Now retired, Robinson can devote her time to the creative pursuit of both enjoying whisky and creating poetry inspired by that experience. “I really appreciate the nuanced appeal of whisky drinking, to where it’s now about discovery and appreciation,” she says. “It’s about having conversations with individuals about the specialness and the differences and so forth.” Robinson has published four books of poetry and a memoir, teaches and leads workshops at several institutions, serves as the poetry editor for the Virginia Literary Journal, and writes the “Poetry Matters” column for Southern Writers Magazine.
“It’s very easy for me to write about whisky because it’s an enjoyable pastime,” she says. “Nobody is writing about how fun it is to get drunk on all these whiskies—that’s not the goal. The goal is the pleasure of the palate and enjoying how whiskey impacts you in a pleasant way, because it arouses some part of your consciousness around the senses—visual, tasting, smelling senses. That’s the whole idea.”
MY WHISKY OBSESSION: SARA ROBINSON
Location: Charlottesville, Virginia
Obsession: Writing poetry inspired by whisky
Time spent on it per month: 4-6 hours writing whisky-inspired poetry (and more time drinking the whisky!)
Amount of money spent on it per month: $200
Number of whiskies owned: Currently six bottles
Number of whisky-inspired poems written: About 50, “almost enough for a manuscript devoted totally to that topic. Someday!”
Favorite whiskies: Writer’s Tears (of course), Balvenie DoubleWood 17 year old, Bunnahabhain, Elijah Craig Small Batch, Willett, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit Rye
Writers she would love share a dram with: Writer’s Tears with Billy Collins; Dalwhinnie 12 year old with Ellen Bass
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read three of Robinson’s poems, including one written specifically for Whisky Advocate, below.
Whisky Advocate: How did you become a poet who writes about whisky?
Sara Robinson: When I think about the complexities of my life and my travels and my evolution into a poet, it is really only about 10 years old. [In my career] I wrote technically. The first book I published was a memoir about my parents. Then I started writing short fiction and that led to poetry. I just thought, what is it about drinking and poetry that causes one to lead to another? I think about the association of thirst with whisky and the association of thirst with water and the overall big picture people have about thirsting for something special in life. How does that equate with just looking at big pictures?
It’s a deep-seated feeling. To me, drinking and writing about it are really, really deeply philosophical, not trivial. I’m not going to write it like lyrics for a bar song. That’s not the purpose for me.
WA: When do you get the creative urge—while you’re drinking whisky, after, before?
Robinson: It can be random….It can just come. I keep a journal. At that time I might not be in a composition mode, but it might be important to take notes about what I’m experiencing so that later when I do want to compose something, I can come back and look at that. It can trigger the memory and I can write about it.
WA: Do you write tasting notes for the whiskies you drink? Is that part of your process?
Robinson: Sometimes I do, especially if something really strikes me. For instance, I’m really intrigued with Writer’s Tears Irish whiskey. Before the other day, I had never heard of it. I had never seen it. Yet, I took a picture of the label. I’m going to save the label off of this one because there’s a poem on the front. I thought oh, wow, this is great. I’ve noticed the color is very much amber-like. The aroma is very pleasing. It’s got all the notes they say; a little vanilla and maybe some honey and what have you. I know that I’m going to write something about it. It’s incubating. I’m going to capture it in some way. I don’t know exactly how, but I know that I will.
WA: Are there specific whiskies or qualities about a whisky that you’ve found to be inspirational?
Robinson: I’m driven by color—soft amber color. It reminds me of light at the end of the day. I find that appealing. I also am driven by a softness of taste. I may not have a sophisticated enough palate to taste all of the particular tasting notes that the distillers spend great time and effort to develop. It maybe will come in time; I don’t know. But I can pick out the major ones they talk about.
I love a whiskey that I can just sip, and I can just hold it, like my poem [“Drinking A Secret”] says, until I can’t let go. That’s what I meant with that line, holding my liquor until I can’t let go. It tastes go good, it feels so good. It’s absolutely so marvelous that you don’t want it to leave you, right?
WA: Has writing about whisky changed the way that you drink it and enjoy it?
Robinson: I tend to talk about it in more poetic terms. My language of descriptions has improved dramatically. Why insult a good whiskey by using the old vernacular? …When you discover things that really impress you, don’t they change you in some way? Take writing poetry: I’m a better person because I am doing this now than when I was in corporate America. I’m a kinder, gentler person. I’m a better partner, I’m a better teacher. I’m more patient. I think my overall persona is just better. I like me better.
Has whisky been a part of that? Well, I didn’t like me so well when I drank cheap stuff, but I think it’s like anything else: when your quality of life as you perceive it goes up, the things you introduce in your life become more quality-focused because you’re changing—you’re maturing. And so you’re seeing with more intellectual eyes and you have the whole life experience behind you, and every day is another addition to that. I think you take on a whole different appreciation.
I write about drinking differently. I write about everything better, because of the appreciation of seeing fine things that are out there. Would I write the same way, with the same subtleness, about how drinking is not necessarily about consuming whisky—but drinking may be about how you consume life? It’s me thinking, I don’t go up to a bar at a really nice craft brewery and order a Bud Light. So, why would I take my writing and reduce it to elementary levels to write about things I really like and appreciate? I wouldn’t do that.
Whisky Poetry by Sara Robinson
All poems are copyrighted by Sara M. Robinson, used by permission of the author and Cedar Creek Publishing. Two of these poems have appeared either in journals or collections of Sara M. Robinson poetry.
Composed for Whisky Advocate
To thin gin or not to thin gin
begs the question of what this
poet can write while in the
throes of love with distilled
To swirl whisky or not to
swirl the amber means I must
take that glass and down the
muse where she will push
my fingers into movement.
I am on fire and before I
am consumed I tell you
this: I drink and I know
things. Lots of things.
When I write I drink in
the ether universe that
surrounds me. When
I put down my words
I know this: My adoration
for whisky is complete
when I sit back and
cry at found words I
didn’t know I knew.
Drinking a Secret
I have this secret–
Frank Sinatra and I
holding our liquor
When you ask me
do I want a cocktail
I say, sure it’s that time
My lips pretend to purse
for a kiss but what
I really want is
to lick the verge
of that Scotch lowball
What my fingers long
to stroke is the brow
on the perfect body
of a dry verre á martini
And when I shake
my raw truth
it’s from pure anticipation
of holding my liquor
until I can’t let go
Pardon Me But is That Rye in Your Glass
You know when you are thirsty
There is nothing better than whisky
When you need a tingle for the tongue
There is nothing better than rye
I feel my spirits rise to the soar
When I take that first sip
And I know that within moments
A rapturous clarity will open
My thoughts will be profound
And my deeds will astound
But we know that is the whisky
Talking some sense in my head
I could never dream of creating
The magical heavy line
About why I am here and why
I don’t speak in metaphorical
Wisdom for I am an ordinary
Person reaching for that rim
About to plunge into the amber
Depths seeking an elusive truth