Not every day you interview someone from across the world, but when it’s worth our time and worth the interview for you as readers, we make it happen. Today’s interview is with a well known International instagramer Aaron K aka instagrams @alligator_char. What a unique username you might say to yourself. Well do not worry; we’ve covered everything you’ll need to know about Aaron. Let’s get going.
Hey Aaron, let’s kick things off the usual way. Give TTD a little rundown on your background and what you do for a living.
AK: I’m a User Experience designer that has worked in both the Travel and Recruitment industries over the past 15 years. Originally from Michigan, I spent 12 years in Boston before packing up and moving to Tokyo. Having never visited Tokyo before, there was a bit of a culture shock, but somehow I’ve been able to manage without knowing much Japanese.
You run the Instagram account @alligator_char. Does it have some type of meaning? How did you come up with this name?
AK: An alligator char is an industry term relating to charring the inside of a barrel long enough so that it cracks and burns into what appears like rough alligator skin. This deep char will give the whisky a subtle smoky flavor and a darker richer color. Unsurprisingly, since my first purchase was Ardbeg Alligator, a whisky using an alligator char for the barrels, it was a natural choice for a name.
Take us from the beginning to now, how/why @alligator_char was started, and how it evolved into what it is today.
AK: Alligator Char started with an appreciation for whisky and a hunger to know more which evolved into tasting events and classes with friends and colleagues. This naturally lead into a massive collection and monthly pop-up tastings in Tokyo.
Aaron, you are one of those legit collectors of International spirits. How did you first get involved with whisky? Were you hooked at first sip?
AK: My passion for whisky started in 2011 when a friend introduced me to Ardbeg 10 at a dinner party. Typically peated whisky is not a great intro to whisky, but having previously only having your run of the mill college “whisky” shots I had no idea there was the possibility for so much complexity and flavor. It was also the first time I did not feel the alcohol burn typically associated with my previous experiences. The next day, I went to a local store in Boston near my workplace and they just so happened to be having Ardbeg day festivities. There I tried Ardbeg Alligator, which immediately became the first bottle in my collection.
From there I attended massive whisky events that offered hundreds of bottles from dozens of producers and distributors. My goal was to try and experience as much whisky as possible to build up my palate and discover what I liked most about international whisky. During one such weekend of events I tried around 200 whiskies from all over the world.
How have you personally if at all benefited from running @alligator_char on Instagram?
AK: The relationships and events I’ve attended while running Alligator Char on Instagram have been insurmountable experiences. Personally, I’ve benefited from developing a rich social network of whisky aficionados that are passionate it sharing both their knowledge and their whisky.
You currently run a pop up bar and sample cask club. Can you give us a picture of what it all entails?
AK: The sample cask club actually started in Boston. On Facebook there were many such groups that were swapping and trading whiskies. It was a great opportunity to try whiskies of various ages and origins without committing to a whole bottle. Specifically, you could buy samples from closed distilleries, or try bourbons from over 100 years ago at reasonable prices. Of course, there was a great deal of trust involved. With that idea in mind, I decided to take on a similar aspect for Alligator Char, but am using the Instagram account as a way of building trust, honesty, and transparency into how the whisky was acquired and divided into samples.
For the pop-up bar, I’ll run tasting events that are based on either a single distillery (but a range of ages), various distilleries (but across a common theme like ‘Sherried’ or ‘Canadian Whisky’), or “Whisky 101” educational classes. They’re always meant to be fun and educational, and a great introduction to whisky appreciation. The tasting generally start out with an intro on how whisky is made, followed by a discussion on how to taste the whisky. Then it gets interesting once we taste the first whisky and started diving into how it is produced, aged, and bottled.
You have quite a whisky collection. Do you consider yourself a hunter or more of a aficionado/appreciator of the finer whisky in life? If you hunt, how do you go about finding the best deals?
AK: There are two modes for me! The first mode is hunting in which I’m looking for whisky released over 30 years ago that is still at reasonable below auction prices. This allows me to acquire whisky from the 60’s 70’s and early 80’s at a reasonable price that was potentially distilled in the 40’s through 60’s. Being able to reach back in time and acquire these bottles is a remarkable experience, especially since finding them in the states is next to impossible, and trying to purchase them online is an expensive endeavor.
My second mode is just collection new releases during over the counter purchases (yes, I go straight to the fancy glass cases with the rare bottles first), I focus on whiskies that appeal to my flavor profiles and passion.
I enjoy collecting closed distillery whiskies from the likes of Port Ellen, Rosebank, Cambus, Dallas Dhu, and others. Even though whisky over 30 years is a bit of a risk when the oak can overpower the underlying spirit, I flirt with this danger zone and prefer to find whiskies distilled in the 70’s or older, finding the influence of sherry on these whiskies to reveal cake spices, chocolate, and dark fruit notes. An elegant ex-bourbon barrel whisky of similar age with the distillery’s core notes still shining through is also appealing to me.
I do have limits to how much I will spend on whisky as I feel there is a diminishing return at some point and you end up just paying for bragging rights.
The way I spot deals is by having an extensive knowledge of whisky prices both old and new, judging the rarity and aftermarket values, and waiting for sales! Better clip your coupons if you want to have cheap whisky these days. There are some retailers in both USA and Japan that offer sales, sometimes 10-30% off, or they offer cash back rebates on your next purchase.
The whisky community is very knowledgeable and pretty generous, do you feel this is the best community to be a part off today?
AK: In one aspect the industry is very supportive, and everyone is genuinely passionate about the trade, collecting, and trying new whiskies. On the other hand with the recent growth in the industry, fraudulent practices, disinformation, and dishonest retailers are on the rise. There are instances of price gouging, fake bottles sold (especially in Japan), and even whisky masquerading as boutique that is actually just a cheap blend painted up in a bespoke label. The community now, more than ever, needs to be able to share knowledge and information in a way that helps everyone understand that it’s not about the expensive bottles and the cool labels or the age statements; it’s about what flavors best fit your palate at a price that is reasonable for your pocket.
It’s definitely a great community to be part of today, but as with any community it’s best to be aware of the fraudulent activities, dishonest producers, and overzealous marketing to understand what information to trust.
Aaron you are a designer by trade. Do you feel this helps when you’re posting photos on Instagram?
AK: Maybe, I have a bit of an eye for photo composition, but sometimes I’m lazy. I’m flattered that they may seem visually interesting, but I’m only using my Google Pixel 2 camera. Nothing fancy. If anything I look up to some of the other instagramers who take their bottles outside into some stunning locations to shoot.
Do you have access to different audience being in Japan, or are you able to connect with the International Whisky audience?
AK: Right now my audience leans mostly international, but being in Japan and visiting Japanese whisky bars allows me to connect with the local scene and share it with the world. I don’t think I’d be following so many Japanese bars and bar owners so closely if I didn’t discover them by visiting their bar. They often aren’t so discoverable on Instagram without first knowing about them.
Do you see yourself as an “influencer” and if so, what does that mean to you?
AK: By no means do I think I am an “influencer” of any type. If i aspire to be anything it would be an ‘educator.’ Whisky is uniquely personal as it hinges on our personal sense of taste and smell that is built off years of experiences. No matter how much someone tells you to like something, with whisky it really depends on your personal preference.
Give us a sneak peak into some rare unicorns you own. Also are there still some unicorns in the wild you are trying to get?
AK: Since my passion for whisky revolves heavily around past experiences, unique events, and interesting people my unicorns are purely nostalgic. There is the 1917-1930 Old Lancaster sample I traded for in Boston – the sample was $50 for an ounce, but historic since at the time it was the oldest whisky I had ever acquired and contained prohibition era distillate.
My oldest Japanese whisky was found at a second hand shop and ended up being from the 1950s, which I didn’t even realize was from that era until a distillery tour where they had photos of the bottle posted by their tasting room.
One of my favorite retailers back in Boston helped me acquire a Glen Grant 1956, Old Pulteney 35, and a Benromach 1976 – all very special to me as I had visited the distilleries in Scotland and fell in love with their rich and flavourful whiskies. Another retailer from years gone by introduced me to Dallas Dhu and sold me two bottles of 30+ year old whisky with misprinted labels on it that the distributor at the time couldn’t sell because of the errors. I could go on with a ton of other examples, but since my collection is growing past 2,500 bottles – it would be quite a long list of examples and memories.
As always, there are a few unicorns out there I am actively hunting, however if I revealed this information I think my ability to acquire them might be hampered a bit!
Anything else you want to share with our readers?
AK: I believe the first and foremost thing both newcomers and experienced whisky drinkers should do is read. Read about your favorite distiller’s history, their process, and their products. Through this you’ll experience their attention to detail, their dedication to their craft, and gain a deeper understanding of what makes your whisky unique, interesting, or special. In today’s whisky market there are too many people that craft opinions based on little more than a whim, a cool label, or a clever piece of marketing. Read books from Stafan Van Eyckan, David Broom, Chuck Cowdery, or Michael Jackson. Watch videos from the likes of Ralfy’s reviews, Liqour Hound, or Horst Luening’s whisky vlog. And of course, follow me on Instagram.