Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Now that's SOME whiskey!

A distillery in Scotland is rolling out a 184-proof whiskey. For about $700, you can pre-order a case of 12 bottles (that's around $60 per bottle) of this not-your-mama's-kiddush rocket fuel. Delivery is estimated to take 10 years. I, personally, cannot stand whiskey, but I know some of my readers will be very excited by this announcement (cough, cough, Judah, cough, cough).

Now, you are probably wondering why I care. Well, I care, because this reminds me of one of the best freelance gigs I've ever had, which I may as well share with you.

I do not remember how I got this job at all, but somehow, the marketing company for a major brand of Scotch (famous for their White Label), found me. They were looking for journalists in various parts of the USA to help them find suitable candidates for this Scotch company's print ad campaign. To be chosen to be featured in the ad campaign, one had to fit a very long, very specific list of criteria, and finding people who met all the criteria was proving to be a challenge. They figured that reporters were good at finding out things, and hence Chayyei Sarah was offered an investigative challenge.

At my interview in Connecticut, one of the last questions they asked me was: Do you like Scotch? I sort of waffled and said something like "um, yeah, sure." The marketing lady leaned over to me and said "I know. I can't stand it either. Are you willing to be seen sipping it and smiling?" To that, I could agree. (This reminds me of the interview I had at VH1, where they asked me, offhandedly on my way out, "You like music, right?" and I was like "oh, yeah, definitely." But the thought bubble over my head was saying "if it's by an 18th-century Austrian, that is.")

Anyhow, I had to do a little soul-searching as to whether to take this gig, since I not only do not enjoy drinking, I'm sort of anti-drinking. I don't understand why it's fun to lose control over your faculties, and unfortunately I know people whose lives have been harmed by alcoholism, either their own or their family member's, and so I wasn't sure I wanted to be involved in helping to market a Scotch whiskey. I talked to a lot of people, including Scotch hobbyists and various religious and career mentors, and decided in the end to take the job.

I have to say, once I decided to waive my moral concerns, this was a most excellent gig. First of all, I got a free trip to Las Vegas. There, on a Friday morning, all six of us campaign-ad-candidate hunters were assembled, and schooled in the ways of Scotch. I still have all the materials from our full-day session on how whiskey is made, how it gets different flavors, etc. And, we had a Scotch tasting of all the major brands. This was where the sip-and-smile came in. Of course we all oohed and aahed over the superior quality of our client's product - and the fact is, the White Label was the smoothest and therefore the easiest for me to get down without choking. And, by then, I actually knew what "smoothest" means in reference to whiskey, so I felt so much more cosmopolitan already.

During the meeting, they threw us gambling chips whenever we participated by speaking up or getting a question right. After, the rest of the journalists and the reps from the client company went down to the casinos to have fun, and got a free night in this awesome hotel. I, however, had arranged to stay at a motel a few miles away, because the meeting was on a Friday and I wanted to be near the Young Israel of Las Vegas for Shabbat. The client had been more than happy to put me up at the (much cheaper) motel. So, at about 3 pm, I excused myself from the post-meeting chatter and headed downstairs.

Of course I had to walk through the lobby-level casino to get out. And I had two gambling chips in my pocket. Now, as much as I'm anti-drinking I'm even more anti-gambling. I'm anti most addictive and pointless behaviors. But, you know, you can't be in Las Vegas for the weekend and not gamble. So, to fulfill my chiyyuv (obligation), I went over to a slot machine, put in my two "hard-earned" chips, pulled the lever, and got . . . nothing. Shrugging, I went outside to hail a cab.

As soon as I got outside, I realized that I'd left my garment bag with my Shabbat clothes next to the slot machine. So I ran back in to find it. But you know, they design these casinos in such a way that once you get in, it's hard to get out. There were three wings, each of which looked exactly the same. There are no clocks or windows anywhere, so that people don't realize how much time they've spent gambling. And there are no landmarks or clear signs showing where anything is, to encourage people to get lost and spend more of their time and money in the casino. I had absolutely no way of identifying which bank of slot machines I should be heading toward. It took a security guard, who radioed to his office, to tell me that my bag was at the security station - and he had to walk me there, and then walk me outside again, or I'd have gotten lost for sure.

I now had about 20 minutes before sunset to get to the motel. Suffice to say that I walked in about 2 minutes before Shabbat, and the wonderful clerk, who was used to Orthodox Jews staying over Friday night because the motel is, after all, located next door to an Orthodox synagogue, volunteered: "Oh, you're Sabbath observant? No problem. We'll leave your electronic key here at the desk, and whenever we see you coming in we'll automatically send a non-Jewish employee ahead of you to open your door. I'll tell the maid service not to turn off your light. Don't worry, your room is only one flight up. Have a pleasant stay." I had reached motel nirvana. If only the hotel employees in Eilat were as knowledgable.

I should say here that the Young Israel of Las Vegas is one of the friendliest shules I've ever visited. By the end of services on Friday night, I had invitations for both dinner and lunch, one at the rabbi's house and one at a congregant's. The weather was a bit warm for my taste, but the residential area of town (outside of the casino strip) was very pretty, and the people were exceptionally nice.

Anyhow, my mandate was to find five people or sets of people who displayed, shall we say, a certain go-getter quality. Six journalists finding five candidates each would give the client 30 choices to pick from. I would be paid a certain (very generous, from my starving-writer perspective) amount for each candidate I found. Remember, the list of criteria was very long and specific. It had to be people who had given up a significant measure of material security or physical comfort in order to pursue a passion. This passion had to be unique in some way, and something "relatable" to men between the ages of 25-35. The set of people who had together made sacrifices to follow this passion had to have, ideally, two or three members, though in theory it could be up to five people. They had to have already achieved some sort of notable success, and yet still be on a "journey" toward their goals. The "passion" they were following could have nothing to do with children or with the homeless (duh). If you think about it, it's pretty hard to find people who meet all those requirements!

At first, we six journalists were split up by geographic region, and so I was trying to find candidates in New England. But then, due to the difficulty of our task, we soon were told that we could each cover any area we wanted - just find people! So, I sent an email to my 300 closest friends (ah, Jewish Geography is a wonderful thing!) outlining what I needed. In the next few weeks, I found about 10 potential candidates, of whom five were approved by the marketing company - and so I was set.

But it turned out that some of the other journalists were having trouble filling their quota, and so I got an email saying that if I was able to find up to three more candidates, I would be paid extra for each one. In the end, I found eight approved candidates, and got paid more money than I have seen from any one client, before or since. I was, like, the queen of this print ad campaign.

Sigh. Those were good times . . . .

Oh, and by the way, the client did choose one of my candidates to form a partnership! I don't know if they were included in a print ad, but they did form some kind of marketing collaboration. I was invited to a party (in Boston, it just so happens, where I was staying with my parents) to celebrate at a huge Scotch tasting, but in the end I declined. I hate Scotch, I hate drinking, I didn't know how I'd get home afterward . . . frankly it was easier and more fun for me to stay home watching television.

But still, those were good times!

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