Barrel proof stories straight from the
with contributor Jim Zadrozny
In this interview, Mark Pruett (Whiskey Network Writer) sits down with Geoff to discuss his love of whiskey, travel, and good conversation. Pour yourself a glass of something special and get immersed in our discussion. You can find the video of our interview here.
Geoff Tate joins our meeting, and his presence is immediately tangible. He is expertly perched at the head of a computer console and has an assortment of musical equipment in the background. It’s everything that you’d expect from one of the most powerful and recognizable voices in rock history. If you search for articles that rank rock/metal vocalists, you’ll find his name at or near the top of many of those lists. As a result, he’s enjoyed the success of selling over 25 million records. During our conversation, his body language changes as we delve deeper into whiskey; he leans in and delivers heartfelt answers. He has a deep passion for the subject, and it is immediately evident by the smile on his face.
There is no doubt that he is a true whiskey enthusiast.
“Photo by Cristina Arrigoni”
The Story Begins in Ireland
It doesn’t get any more magical than to say your journey into whiskey began in Ireland. When his career began to take off, touring the world brought him new opportunities. He is clearly a student of the industry, as he can discuss the history and traditions of Irish whiskey. It is evident that these early experiences have been the foundation for his deep and life-long love of whisky.
Mark Pruett (MP) - I understand that you enjoy whiskey. Can you take us down the road of your journey into whiskey?
Geoff Tate (GT) – My “whiskey road” … yes, sure! My first taste of whiskey came on my first ever European Tour, and it was Jameson whiskey in Ireland. To this day, it is still one of my one of my favorites. I really like Irish whiskey. At one point in time, there were a couple hundred different distilleries in Ireland. Then, they went through a period where there were hardly any, but now it's sort of seeing a renaissance. There are new distilleries coming up and groups of people getting together to create some truly unique whisky. So, that is exciting.
MP - You started with Jameson; with your extensive travels, has there been an evolution in your tastes? Have you been able to go around the world and experience new things?
GT - Yes, just getting older and trying different things. You know, I'm a foodie and I like food from… well, I like just about anything if it's done very well. As I’ve gotten older, I've probably become a lot more discerning about what I really like and what I will eat and drink. On the whiskey side of things, I've tried a lot of different scotches, single malts, and blends. I'm an open sponge when it comes to things like that.
MP - I understand that you're into wine as well. Like you would pair wine with food, do you also pair whiskey with food?
GT - I prefer drinking whiskey on its own more as an after dinner thing. If I'm in Ireland or Scotland, and having what they call a “session”, I'll have a Guinness or Murphy's beer and offset that with the whiskey for the round. It's an Irish style of drinking, to always have a glass of whiskey with your beer.
A Fascinating Whiskey Profile and an Astute Collector
He doesn’t place a lot of limits on what he likes to experience with food, wine, and whiskey. Focusing on whiskey, he is very quick to name the sweet flavors he likes, but then adds a twist in the story (read on to find out what it is). It’s not often that you find a whiskey enthusiast who can enjoy such a broad spectrum of flavor profiles.
Our conversation then turns towards his personal collection. It’s made up of some incredible mementos from his travels to Ireland. It’s clear that he loves Irish whiskey and is willing to spend a bit more for the “good stuff”!
MP - Do you gravitate towards any specific flavor profiles?
GT - Yes, I like honey, butter, caramel, and vanilla tastes. Also, I like a smoky nose, and I like peat. In addition, I like it when you can pick up some hints of spices (allspice, nutmeg, things like that) in the whiskey. Especially the Highland whisky style, they have a spiciness that I like and find is really unique.
MP - What's interesting is that you don't meet a lot of people that have the ability to take on the peat/earthiness flavor profile, and the smoky nose - in addition to the honey/sweeter tones. That's fascinating about your whiskey profile.
When you come home and you have your whiskey ritual, is there a daily or common bottle that you reach for or is your go to?
GT - Well as of late, I've really been enjoying the Jameson Black Barrel quite a bit. I got turned onto that from going to the Jameson Distillery in Midleton (Ireland) a couple years ago. My wife and I run this travel company called Backstage Pass Travel. We take people on tour with us to different places, and one of the places we take them is the Jameson Distillery. It's really, really informative. The people there are just beautiful, so knowledgeable, and into what they're doing. Anyway, they have this limited edition “Black Barrel” … that's quite something. It's a big drink and it has very round flavor notes that I don't know really know how to describe. I'm still getting to know it, but it does the trick for me. It's my latest go to.
MP - Do you have a collection?
GT - Yes, I have a small collection. I have been really into Irish and Scottish whiskies as of late. Besides the Jameson factory that we take people to, we also visit the West Cork Distillers distillery in Skibbereen, which is a beautiful coastal area. They do a black cask whiskey that I quite like. Also, there's another place up by Dublin in Wicklow called Glendalough, and they do this 13-year-old whiskey that's aged in these two-hundred-year-old oak barrels that they get from Japan (an island in northern Japan called Hokkaido). The trees must be two hundred years old before they cut them down to make a cask. That's a really old tree. They use that wood because it's porous and soft, so it tends to soak up a lot of the flavors, and then that imparts part them into the whiskey, which is so interesting.
MP - What does that taste like?
GT - On that one, it's traditional. What you would expect is: slightly smoky, not overdone, honey, and vanilla. There are some things in it that are quite different, and it must be because of the wood. Sandalwood comes to mind, which I've never experienced before. That was exotic, but it’s an expensive bottle.
Price points are an interesting topic, for example how people come up with one. What are you going to charge for your whiskey? That's always puzzled me. What are people willing to pay for it?
MP - There's a dark art to the idea of the relative value of something, but also what are people willing to pay for it.
To that point, are you willing to step up to the plate and pay for a bottle that you like, even if it has a steep price?
GT – Absolutely! (laughs) I'm ridiculous like that. But you know, why not? I wouldn't spend an exorbitant amount of money on a sofa for my house, but I'd spend a couple grand on a bottle of Scotch that I was interested in.
MP - I must agree, and I think our audience can all align to that.
The Connection Between Whiskey and Music
As our discussion turns to the connection between music and whiskey, he has a simple approach based in good principles: great products sell themselves, but a little rock and roll notoriety doesn’t hurt either. He already owns a wine brand, Insania, and is heavily involved in the process. Much like his approach to music, he is a partner who jumps into things on a deeper level. Perhaps a partnership with a whiskey company is possible, and it would likely be quite tasty.
He has a firm grasp on the history of whiskey and rock and roll. It’s an obvious next step to hear stories from the road. Geoff is remarkably grounded in his response. First, he enjoys the rituals of whiskey, but he is also disciplined enough to know when enough is enough. He is truly connected to the essence of whiskey, which is that it’s meant for having a great conversation and making those memories. Rather than the stereotypical rock and roll story of excess, he intelligently approaches whiskey outside of the gratuitous.
MP - What do you think of this trend of bands being involved with whiskey labels? Is there a chance that we could see a branded bottle of whiskey from Geoff Tate?
GT - I think it's a wonderful thing, actually. It's an art form and a craft, much like music is. I know a lot has been said comparing music to distilling or wine making; it is similar in a lot of ways. Whiskey is something that's had a connection to music since at least the turn of the century. It became synonymous with rock'n'roll in the 50s, and before that a lot of Jazz era musicians were enjoying whiskey. So, it's had a long connection.
In the age of branding, it's a great way for a small distillery to gain a lot of attention and notoriety by forming a partnership with a famous musician or celebrity. It can be extremely beneficial to both people. For example, take my wine brand, Insania. My winemaker, who's incredible, does the majority of the hard work, and I help with the tasting, blending, and the grape harvest. I like to be hands-on with that kind of thing. If I ever did a whiskey, I'd probably jump into it neck deep because I'm fascinated by it. It's definitely something I would be look forward to in the future.
MP - We all look forward to something like that happening.
Have you been to any of the local distilleries that are up your way? Woodinville, Copperworks, or Heritage Distilling? Have you had a chance to partake in any of their products?
GT - I have been to Woodinville. Most of the whiskies that I really enjoy are out of Scotland or Ireland, so I haven't experienced a lot of American bourbons or whiskey yet. I don't know why, I just haven't leaned that way.
MP - For me personally what I've come to find is this…With the scotch and the whiskies that are coming out of that particular part of the world, the idea is you're going to have this smooth and complex experience. In contrast, the hallmark of American bourbon or American whiskey for me is that rough edge. There is just a difference, and some people don't have the ability to crossover into that because it is more bold on the nose and in taste. It sounds like we need to put together a care package and get you some samples of bourbon!
Going back to the connection between whiskey and rock and roll, I agree that there has always been a strong connection. This is a great segue into my next question.
You've done extensive touring around the globe. Are there any memories that you have that are connected to whiskey? Any stories that you'd be willing to share from that perspective?
GT - For me, and I know a lot of people probably share the sentiment, whiskey and conversation go well together. For me, the tradition is at the end of the evening, or towards the end, you switch to whiskey. That is where you sit around a fire, a table (someplace cozy), and have good conversation. That’s been my whiskey experience. I've never had a bad whiskey experience. It's a drink for me that I know when to stop. With some kinds of alcohol, like wine for example, you can suddenly realize, “Oh, I'm in a different place than I should be right now...” With whiskey, I seem to pace myself well with it.
MP - A part of the journey is understanding your limits and understanding how much to enjoy at a particular time.
GT - Sure.
MP - That’s a great ritual: you finish a show and then you're having a great conversation. It applies to other things you do. For example, if you finish an album or your touring company finishes an 8-day run with a bunch of guests.
GT - We do trips to Ireland and Scotland where we take our guests to the different distilleries. If they have never tried whiskey, then they get try it on our tour. A lot of people become familiar and enamored with it. They start collecting interesting obscure bottles. Why not? It's a wonderful hobby, and it generates great conversation and memories.
A Unique Travel Opportunity with Backstage Pass Tours
For talented musicians, it’s a nice fringe benefit that you can travel the world on tour. Without question, Geoff loves to travel and immerse himself in each destination. Of course, he never does anything halfway, and he’s refined his travel skills so much that it made sense to form a travel company. It’s not a company that just bears his name, it’s actually his own operation. What you get is the best that your destination has to offer, with the personal touch of him and his crew. He is big on experiences, and that directly translates to what he offers in each excursion. The entire trip is a sensory adventure involving food, beverage, scenery, history, and music.
MP - I’m glad you mentioned your tour company, and I would definitely love to talk more about that. I think what you’re doing is interesting and the destinations that you're going to are exciting.
The name of the company is Backstage Pass Travel, and I saw several destinations that are listed: France, Germany, Ireland, Montana, the Pacific Northwest, and Scotland. As a note, Ireland and Scotland are completely sold out. That is not a slight to the other destinations, but the popularity is easy to understand by the way it's positioned.
These trips are a way to spend 8 days hanging out with you, visiting exciting places, and making wonderful memories. Here are a few highlights of the place that you visit (these are not all one trip): the Guinness Distillery, Temple Bar, Blarney Castle, an Irish gin distillery, Lismore Castle, touring around Belfast, the Bushmills factory, Aberlour and Glenfiddich distilleries, Loch Ness, and Edinburgh. Wow!
It sounds like an amazing experience. How did this come about?
GT - It was an evolutionary process. My wife (Susan) and I travel most of the year, and we go on excursions wherever we go. One time, we took some friends with us through France, they ended up telling their friends about it, and their friends contacted us. They asked us to take them through France the next time we went. We started thinking that people would be interested in checking some of these places out. We have a unique perspective in that we've been to these places many times, we know where to go, what to do, and how to get there. We thought this would be an interesting travel experience. We could share with people and offer this service of showing them around. So, that's what we did. We now take people on these excursions that center around music. There's music everywhere in Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy. They're culturally oriented towards music, so we have musicians that work with us on the tour. Every night there is a concert, pub crawl, or something associated with music that's going on.
It's quite fun and something unique for somebody that has never been to Ireland or Scotland, but really wanted to go. This is a great opportunity to go with people who know where they're going, and so you avoid the potentially bad experiences you could have by not knowing what to do or where to go. We've already had those bad experiences.
MP - In looking at your career, there's always been a message of experience that is in your lyrics. With your tour company, you’re guiding people in a different way. Now, you are actually taking people on these guided journeys and showing them these experiences.
How many times a year do you do these trips?
GT - Actually, it varies. We spent four weeks in Ireland doing back-to-back trips. Then there are three weeks in Italy, two weeks in France. In addition, we do a trip to Germany every year when we harvest all our grapes for our Insania wine. We have everybody come to the winery, and they spend the week harvesting grapes, celebrating with food and drink, and sightseeing in the area. This is a fun trip, and it is one of my favorites, but that's a once-a-year thing. Some of the other ones we do multiple weeks throughout the year.
MP - The two things that I wrote down about the Germany trip were visiting the winery and the Alpine slide. That Alpine slide looks like a blast. I would need a drink after that, but it does look like a good time.
GT - Americans love that because it is so different than our culture. We have rules about everything and we're a litigious society. There are always forms to fill out and all that. Not there. No, you just get on this slide and down you go.
MP - I saw the picture; you're sitting on a plastic chair that's put onto a track where there's a 3,000-foot drop that's just a few feet to your left.
GT - There are no seatbelts. You hurtle down there without anything connecting you to it at all. Just gravity.
MP - It sounds still like an incredible experience.
GT - It is!
MP - You're also doing tours in the Pacific Northwest and Montana. There is great nod to the history in those areas: Montana ghost towns, a sapphire mine tour, hot springs, and exposure to the native heritage. In the Pacific Northwest, there are a ton of historical sites that you go through and ride on all the different ferries. Sounds like a fantastic time, and especially with the fact that it gets tied back to food, drink, and whiskey. I suspect that people want to jump all over it. Anything else about backstage Pass Travel?
Again, it sounds like an incredible thing.
GT - It is something that I was shocked to enjoy so much. I really love it. It's fun to do because it takes you out of the norm. Well, it takes me out of the normal schedule of touring, and it's unique because you see a lot of these places through the eyes of somebody where it is their first time being there. You remember the wonder, amazement, or the feeling of 'wow' when you first went. This is so different than anything I've ever experienced before. Sometimes, we get jaded with our everyday schedules and what we do.
Often, it's hard to appreciate that you're there, and so you're not there. However, I'm having a great time doing it, and I'm looking forward to May (2021) when it begins again. Now that the restrictions are lifting (regarding the Covid-19 pandemic related closures), things are starting to look incredibly positive.
MP - The smile on your face tells that story.
GT - Absolutely.
MP - The best thing of all, most of these tours end up with an evening with you performing and include an all-access pass.
GT - A lot of them do, some of them do not.
MP - There is another fantastic thing that I was reading about. This is you doing this. This is not a company doing this for you and you make appearances. Maybe it's not you at the airport with a sign saying, “Mr. Smith, I'm here to pick you up”, but it is unprecedented access to you, is that right?
GT - Yes, and actually I do go to the airport many times and pick people up. I'm the designated driver. A lot of times, they jump in the van with me driving and we turn the radio up really loud and rock-out as we're driving to the first destination.
MP - Whiskey Network, you need to go on one of these trips! In 2021 with Covid-19 restrictions lifting, I wish you continued success in this venture.
New Music, Upcoming Tours, and Musical Legacy
Geoff continues to make music and is touring in support of the landmark albums of his past. Without a doubt; “Rage for Order”, “Operation: Mindcrime”, and “Empire” are milestone albums in rock history. There is no denying the influence and impact of these records on multiple generations of rock/metal music fans. Despite the stature of these records, he is humble and grateful to be protecting their legacy.
In addition, he continues to produce new material. With a global pandemic restricting travel and causing closures, he was able to make a new record with his collaborators without ever meeting in person.
MP – From a music perspective, I did see today that there were some dates posted for 2021 where you are going to be touring the US and Europe.
Is there any new music in the works?
GT - Well, I have an interesting album that's just getting released in April. It's called “Relentless” from Sweet Oblivion. It's a collaboration that I did with my Italian record company Frontiers Music, and some talented Italian musicians (I’ve only met one of them in-person). We made this entire album over the Internet. Working in different studios in different places in the world, it’s a fun project and we made great music. The first single, “Another Change”, just came out 2 weeks ago and the full album comes out in April. Check it out.
MP - Is there a chance that you're going to tour behind this record? Or weave it into your set?
GT - I don't know if I'll tour that for that record, but I'm definitely going back out on tour starting in April. We have dates in Ireland, Scotland, and in the UK. In the fall, we come to America and resume our tour that got postponed (due to Covid-19). I'm looking forward to getting back out on the road. We're performing the “Empire” album which is a pretty well-known album with Queensrÿche fans. We are performing that album in its entirety for the 30-year anniversary of the album. 30 years… can't believe it.
MP - If someone does not know what “Empire” is from Queensrÿche, then perhaps they've been living under a rock.
Interesting question about that, if you'll indulge me a little bit, I know we've talked about whiskey and travel, but how do you approach the songwriting process? For example, being separated by an ocean between your friends in Italy. How did that come about?
GT - They proposed it. It was fun because I knew the one guy, Aldo, whom I had met a few times when on tour in Italy. He and I started a conversation that led to us exchanging some musical ideas. Then, it started expanding. Like all music, you start with a sketch and that gets elaborated on until you have a big picture. We would pass the music back and forth via the Internet. You know, transferring files back and forth until we had what we liked. Then it came time to mix it and make sure that it was all balanced. For me, the writing and sharing it via the internet was cool because I would send him a file and a couple hours later, he'd get back to me. He’d highlight what he liked, then I’d expand on it and so on. Then, we started piecing things together until we had the song the way we liked it.
MP - In other words, it is just as fulfilling as being in the same room with somebody and playing off with each other. However, it's just that you're hitting send on the email and exchanging files.
GT - Yes, and we were talking like you and I are right now. He would get his guitar out and play a piece just to give me an idea. That works really well, actually. Funny enough, a lot of the time that you spend in the studio when you're face to face is spent wasting time telling stories. Just the everyday stuff that you go through and you communicate with. Well, in this situation, there's not a lot of that. Your time is spent actually making something, so there's less down time. I'll say it's more of a creative zone, and you can be there for a long period of time without getting distracted.
MP - I recently spoke with another singer songwriter from New York and he talked about inspiration for one of his new albums, and of all things it was sort of a weird incident that happened on the subway in New York. Is it similar for you that you see something and think… You know what? There's a song there.
GT - Absolutely. I'm a very visual person and so I take that in a lot. The city of London has been very inspirational to me at various times in my life, as have Paris and New York. I wrote an album with Queensrÿche called “Operation: Mindcrime”, while living in Montreal, Quebec. I found that place to be incredibly inspirational at that point in my life. You find inspiration in the strangest, unlikely places, but then when you experience it, you know you have a responsibility, as an artist, to do something with it.
MP - Mr Tate, with all due respect… let's not just gloss over “Operation: Mindcrime” like that, because it is one of the best concept albums written in modern music history. It's important to point out its place in history.
GT - Thank you.
The Mashbill: Whiskey Network Wants to Know Your Recipe
It is our tradition at the Whiskey Network to ask our guests the same final 5 questions, also known as the Mashbill.
MP - There is something that we do to close our interviews and it is a quick five questions we ask all our guests. These are the most popular questions in our social media community in some form. It's always interesting to get your perspective on these things.
If you don't mind, I'd like to throw the questions out at you.
GT - Sure. OK. Now I'm nervous for some reason.
MP - Don't be nervous. It's not a test.
GT - OK, good.
MP - Tell me the answer that comes right off the top of your head and you’ll be fine.
Here is the first one: What was the last whiskey, Bourbon, or Scotch that was in your glass?
GT - That would be Oban 14 year Single Malt. I could just finish that bottle.
MP - Very nice, very nice. You can't go wrong with that.
GT - I had some houseguests for a couple months; a couple of guys that I work with in my music career. They are both Scottish, and we did a lot of whisky drinking while they were here.
MP - Now that's what I'm talking about. Those are the stories I want to hear, Geoff!
MP - I just moved into this new house, and I don't know my neighbor very well because of Covid-19. I was taking the recycling out and setting it by the curb. He was doing the same thing, and he commented about the amount of whiskey bottles in my recycle bin. He’s never seen that many whiskey bottles before.
MP - That is actually a running joke that we see once in a while in our social media community for us as well. The trash man comes and knocks on your door and says, “Hey, you might have a problem” after seeing all the bottles that are in the recycling can.
On to the next question. When you drink whiskey, do you prefer to drink from a specific type of glass?
GT - Well, I like my whiskey neat, so I'm not too picky about it. Although, I like to spend a lot of time with my nose in the glass, so I like the traditional Glencairn glass. Then again, I like the hands feel of a bigger glass like a rocks glass.
For me, the nose of a whiskey is a big part of drinking whiskey. I could spend an hour just smelling it even before I taste it.