Heads, Hearts and
Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories
Charley Boorman: Whiskey, Wanderlust, and Wild Adventures
Charley Boorman is a modern-day adventurer. He is also a fellow whiskey enthusiast.
His resume includes wild adventures where he scales mountains, races motorcycles, and completes long distance motorcycle treks.
The full scope of his background includes being a star of motion pictures and television, a motorcycle enthusiast, and an author. His adventures have been chronicled through several TV series, including the “Long Way” series where he and his best friend, Ewan McGregor, have been experiencing the world through long distance motorcycle expeditions.
Most recently, the third installment of the series, called the Long Way Up, debuted on Apple TV+. It has become a cultural touchstone where viewers can experience the highs and lows of the duo traveling off the beaten path. Additionally, it is a lens on their enduring friendship as they indulge in their shared wanderlust.
This interview is an opportunity to connect with a fellow whiskey enthusiast and find the connections their adventures have to whiskey. Our discussion covers motorcycles, how this new adventure pushed the limits of travel by electric vehicle, cultural insights, interesting people he met on the road, and several whiskey (mis)adventures.
Whether you are a rider, someone who enjoys travel, or a person who loves good stories… settle in with a pour of your favorite whiskey, bourbon, or scotch because there is a lot to cover here. You do not want to miss any of this!
Click here to see the video of my interview.
My interview with Charley has been edited for clarity and continuity, but every effort has been made to preserve the original conversation.
I wanted to open with this question: is there a dream motorcycle for you?
It would have to be my Harley Davidson Live Wire, right now.
I have been lucky enough to ride lots of different bikes. There are few regrets in my life, and a lot of them are in the bikes I had to give up so I could buy another one. I remember I crashed a Suzuki GSXR 750 and then bought a Honda XR600R. The Honda was a beautiful motorcycle and iconic in many ways. It was very hard to start and the only way you could do it was by sneaking up behind it, jumping on top of it and kickstarting it really quick before it realized what was going on. If you came to it forward facing it would see you and it would not start. I loved it but sold it to buy another sports bike. To this day I regret it. I often think of that bike. Maybe I should just go get one – where someone has put an electric starter on it.
The Long Way Up… 13,000 miles, 13 countries, border crossings, all done on electric Harley Davidson motorcycles and with Rivian electric chase trucks. I think the legacy of Long Way Up is still young and may be misunderstood, as far as the electric perspective. What do you think about that? What do you think the legacy is going to evolve to?
With anything new, there is always resistance. When you look at when cars first came out, and people said cars would never replace horses. People were very against it.
When we finally got the bikes and vehicles down to Ushuaia in south Argentina, Ewan (McGregor) and I realized we had only ridden them for about two hours in total. We had also had never charged them, and there was a lot to learn. Also, it had been the worst winter in twenty years down there. It was cold, which does not help electric vehicle batteries and you get less range out of them. Those first few weeks were difficult, frustrating and had a big learning curve. There was some charging infrastructure put in, but the electric chargers did not help the Harley Davidsons for fast charging. We were still keen to be able to leave something behind that would be useful to other people wanting to do the trip.
This is very new technology, and no one had ever done this before. There were some problems. On the positive side, there is electricity everywhere in the world. Plugging in was not an issue and you could charge overnight and wake up in the morning to go again. It certainly created a different vibe, a different story, a different feel.
One of the most interesting things about it is that I remember when we were in Pampas, Argentina, Ewan and I pulled up by this whole herd of llamas. They were just looking at us because we had made no noise. The eight of us just stood there, looking at each other. They are beautiful animals, they have big eyes, big eyelashes, and pretty heads.
I have heard you talk about there being no motor noise. You do not have to shout over engine noise, you can hear people talking, and hear the wildlife. It is an incredible shift. The first few episodes show you and Ewan learning how to ride the bikes from a battery perspective. In one of the first episodes you did have to bring in a diesel generator. Then it became about interfacing with the culture to find a charge.
Occasionally, we had to do it, but we tried desperately not to.
Did you know in Costa Rica the first lightbulb ever turned on was with renewable energy? 95% of the country is run on renewable energy. They have no military, so they spend all their money on renewable energy, education, and infrastructure.
In Central America, we came across this solar farm. People are shocked and curious about the electric vehicle aspect of the trip. They let us in and offered to show us around. We asked if we could plug in, which was no problem at all. With a bit of technology, we plugged into the sun and charged the bikes. It was a lovely feeling. We were having this adventure and not leaving anything behind.
Long term, that will end up being the legacy of Long Way Up. The footprint changes completely.
For sure. It was complicated charging every day. You did not have quite the freedom you would have if you had a big tank of gas and could stop where you want.
It was different because we were relying on people for their kindness and generosity to plug into their houses. You were not only plugging your motorbike into their houses; you were plugging into them. There were businesses, restaurants, camp sites, youth hostels, and bed & breakfasts where you had this lovely interaction with everybody. It was not expensive for us to plug in, but we made sure to offer to pay for electricity. The experience is different because you are meeting people or talking to businesses that you would never normally meet if you were on a combustion engine. The difference was nice.
The common threads of the Long Way series are the motorcycles, the culture that you interface with, and connecting with the locals. Adventure travel on a motorcycle makes so many things accessible. You could be in the United States going through the Sierra Nevada area, there is still an opportunity to capture that spirit just by stopping at a hamburger stand in the middle of nowhere.
For the Long Way series, we did not want to make it bike centric. We wanted to do it like everyone else does. People do it on motorcycles, bicycles, busses, trains, hitching rides, or however they wanted to do it.
When people who like to travel watch the series, they understand the common experiences of bumping into people. We stopped at this nice town and saw a restaurant/hotel. We thought we could plug in and have a meal and get a charge at the same time. Every time we plugged in, we kept plunging the hotel into darkness… so that was out the window. Then, we went to a campsite to try their power. We ended up meeting this couple. He was from eastern Europe and she was from Turkey. We had wonderful conversation with them. It turns out they had met, and they had fallen in love. He came back for her because he could not live without her and she felt the same way. It turns out, she told her father she was going to Istanbul to teach kids… but she really went to South America to ride a bicycle. The episode is out now, and I hope that is not how her father finds out where she really is.
What is lovely about this is that she has fallen in love, traveled and lived their life. That is what you should do: go and live your life. It was such a positive experience and great life story. In the first world, we are often told that these other countries are no good because they do not live like we do. That is rubbish, they are wonderful. Every culture and every country have incredible ways of living. It is not wrong or right, it is simply different, and we all need to respect that.
There is the Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice…” That shines through in you guys being able to connect with perfect strangers. Can you imagine a stranger pulling up and asking to plug a motorcycle in?
It is nice to come up through South America, Central America, and Mexico to show people how wonderful, kind, and generous those people are. Ewan and I have traveled around the world and it is the spice of life. You need to see other cultures. Usually, 99% of people are nice. Often, it is the governments who mess it up.
I wanted to ask for our audience… whiskey played a role in the first Long Way series, where a motorcycle had broken down. Some locals approached and were laughing at you because you were not able to fix it. They ended up helping you get the bike started and some whiskey did exchange hands as a result. Is that the true? What other road stories do you have that involve whiskey?
When we first did that trip, we were told to always have packs of cigarettes to barter with. I also picked up this idea that you bring along the little bottles you get on airplanes.
It was any of the popular brands but in the small bottles. You can put about 10 of them into a bag, which makes it easy to carry. When you are at a border, meeting people or want to give someone a gift these little bottles can be used. They are a great commodity to trade.
We were in middle nowhere in Mongolia with some locals, sitting around a campfire passing around this little bottle of whiskey. They love the whiskey no matter what, but the size of the bottle blew their mind. When we are allowed out again to travel then definitely have a few of those in the bottom of your bag. It is a must have.
Under the current pandemic the saying now is “staycation” … and to have an adventure you do not have to go for 100 days, through 13 countries, while on the back of an electric motorcycle. Just going out your back door for a Saturday ride or staying overnight somewhere is enough. You go racing in the desert, or you go meet your mates, because you can socially distance on motorbikes and still have a wonderful experience. I think drink always does come into it afterwards.
However, I did not have a great experience with tequila, and it is everywhere in Mexico. But every country has their version of whiskey… Mexico has tequila. Brazil has cachaça. In Ireland, we have poitín (potcheen). It is nice to explore these.
Since you grew up in Ireland, tell me about your love of whiskey.
When I was growing up in Ireland, my family had been living there for fifty years. My father still lives there (he directed films like Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory, The Emerald Forest, and many others). We had this most charmed upbringing, we would live in Ireland for 2 or 3 years and my father would get a film off the ground and we would go off for a year depending on where it was.
When I was around 14, 15, or 16 years old the whole culture was to go to the pub for live music. On Sundays, the whole family would go to the pub. As kids, we would have a little Guinness and whiskey as a chaser.
There is a place called Kitty Ó Sé (O’Shea’s) which is popular with tourists now. Years ago, good bands would come and play. I remember, well I do not really remember, I ended up dancing on a table with not very much on. As a result, I was thrown out of the bar… and then my clothes came out afterwards. The proprietor said, “Charley you are banned until tomorrow.” – and I looked at my watch to find it had just turned twelve, so I got dressed and went back in. He gave me a pint and little whiskey and I carried on. Of course, I have never taken my clothes off since.
Everything about that story is great. From the name of the pub to the fact that you got thrown out and then you went right back in and that it also involves whiskey.
Whiskey is a sensory experience. For example, you could be in a tent in the middle of nowhere, freezing cold and someone could have the worst whiskey on the planet. In that moment, when you are drinking that whiskey it could be the best tasting thing that you have ever had. Circumstances matter. To your point of experiencing things in individual places you could be in Mexico thinking “this is the best tequila I’ve ever had in my life” but then you get home and have a drink only to wake up 4 days later not knowing what happened.
It is like when you go to Spain and fall in love with Sangria. You come back and it and just does not taste the same when have it at home. There was a time I was in Canada and we had gone to the top of the highest mountain I had ever climbed. While we were looking out around us, someone handed me a flask of whiskey. I do not know what it was, but it was fantastic! I do not think I have ever had a better swig of whiskey than that.
Are you partial to any whiskey? Something to have at the end of the day while at home.
I like a peaty whiskey and that may be my Irish upbringing. I like a Talisker or something like that, but I will drink a Scottish whiskey occasionally. The flavors that I like are oak, burnt, and peaty tastes.
You can also look at whiskeys in Japan and how far they have come. They are now some of the best whiskeys in the world whereas back in the day you struggled to touch them. Now you struggle to afford them.
Absolutely, there are a lot of emerging markets. If you look at the product that is coming out of Australia or India – it is a whiskey revolution. Have you done any exploration around American Bourbon?
Yes, when I am traveling, I will certainly hunt out the local favorites and in America there are a lot of choices. I do these motorcycle tours in Africa and people will bring their own bourbon along with them. Someone brought Wild Turkey and I had never tasted it.
On these trips, you can sit in your own thatched hut and watch all these animals at the local watering hole as you are sipping Wild Turkey. That is not a bad experience at all. They always promise to leave the bottles after the trip and then end up being empty by day ten.
Hopefully, you can get back to America and do more adventure travel here. For example, the Bourbon Trail.
That sounds good. You will have to come along and show me the Bourbon Trail. Hopefully, we can survive the trip.