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Distiller’s Notes Vol.5: Becoming A Native

Distiller’s Notes Vol.5: Becoming A Native

“Where are you from?”… the first question we ask when we want to get to know someone…

With a name like McCracken, you might think I was born from a peat bog on the misty shores of Scotland.

And while that would be an amazing tale, some names and roots are more complicated than they seem…

In 1913, my Grandpa Joe was born in the small town of Dipignano, Italy:  a place he wouldn’t stay for long. Due to common political and opportunistic reasons of that time and place, Joe and his mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1922 and settled in a tiny Indiana town eventually nicknamed “Little Italy”:  a place he would call home for the rest of his life.

After immigrating, and as he grew old enough to work (dunno, maybe 10 in those days), Joe found himself with two career options:  working in a coal mine or in an auto body shop. Not being cut out for the dusty underground, my Grandpa picked the oily garage. Over the years, he and his brother Mike, saved their money until they had enough to buy the shop from the owner – starting their own version of the business in 1931 – smack-dab in the middle of the Great freaking Depression. After the literal and figurative dust of the 1930s settled, they would learn a completely different side of the business:  adding on an adjoining dealership in 1944. Eventually, their passion for the work, honest relationships with their customers and support from/of the community would enable them to build one of the most reputable dealerships in the Midwest. All said and done, I’m sure my Grandpa realized he lived out some version of the American Dream…

… but still probably never quite felt like a Native.

Starting from the roots my Grandpa put down, my life started in Indiana:  a place I wouldn’t stay for long…

As I grew older and began to work, people would ask where I was from. After moving more times than I can even remember, my Native status – in any state –  was a questionable claim at best. So, I – like my Grandpa – looked for home in what I did rather than where I did it. Not knowing exactly where I should go or what I should do, I took a generic business degree and dabbled; “consulting” on things I generally knew little about.  Meanwhile, through a simple hobby, I slowly discovered that I, like Joe, enjoyed the solitude of working with my hands.

After his death, Joe left each of his grandkids a small sum of money with no strings attached. With mine, I ended up buying a better homebrew setup because – screw it – that’s what he would have wanted me to do… and my wife was OK with it, too…

Once I realized I might be better at my hobby than I was at my “career” (certainly didn’t take much), I ditched the pleated pants for an internship at a brewpub. Smart? No. Passionate? Yes. Despite the few small, first-world struggles I’ve had along the way, I will probably never know the struggle of my grandfather’s life. Instead, I find myself trying to channel the passionate energy and memories he left behind.

My memories of Chattanooga go as far back as my memories of my Grandpa…

When I was just old enough to remember, we would travel every summer to Florida in a van he had borrowed from the dealership. Each time we made that trip, we stopped in Chattanooga for a pit-stop at the Hungry Fisherman in East Ridge. It’s no longer there, but it was Joe’s favorite. I’m not exactly sure why he liked it so much… but I guess when you go to a place frequently enough, you start to appreciate the people and the place as an embodiment of your personality. Something in that particular place connected to my grandpa and, for a moment, I think he felt like a Chattanoogan…

… even despite not being a Native…

Fast forward 30+ years and here I am, working down the road from our road-trip stop in an old car dealership just like Grandpa Joe. Now making beer distilled to whiskey form, I look back to my old career with fondness and admiration for the folks who keep doing it so well. Chattanooga has become our home and I’ve come to appreciate this town…

… but I, like Grandpa Joe, am no Native…

Being a Native of somewhere might mean you’re on the inside looking out.It affords you some rights that others might never have:  maybe bragging rights, a story of “how things used to be” or a keen understanding of “how things are done around here”. But maybe the most important right of a Native, is the right to call somewhere home… and it actually be home.  

As everyone everywhere continues to put down roots or migrate from place-to-place, we find ourselves in these two groups:  those who are content to stay where they are, and those who are looking for something new.The outsiders look at a new place in wonder and appreciation for its uniqueness and Native spirit. Native insiders, meanwhile, look to tell their story and preserve their established traditions for generations to come. Outside looking in or inside looking out, both feelings can seem just as legitimate as the other. So, in the curvy and straight lines of territory and origin, there could be symbolism that speaks both to the curiosity and anxiety of cultural reciprocity. But in a place we all call home, throwing ourselves together might be the only way to figure out how to preserve our identities, while giving each other the freedom to do something new.

Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe being a Native is just that feeling of comfort you can’t describe. After all… “home is where the heart is”… (fart noise).

What does this have to do with whiskey?

With a name like Native, you’d assume this was a product of a particular place. But there’s a little more to it than that.

Maybe it’s about a whiskey that’s half-us from somewhere else, trying to make itself at home. Maybe it’s looking to our past and realizing our future. Maybe it’s about preserving some things we love and looking for something new at the exact same time. Maybe it’s about appreciating our surroundings, gaining inspiration from them and letting the Natives speak for themselves. Or maybe you can tell us… cause this might be your whiskey more than it is ours.

Don’t dwell on it too long, though, because just like being a Native, it might be less about the history, the future or the symbolism… than the feeling. And if it feels like home – even for an instant – it probably is.