The Exotic Booze Club: An Interview with Brian Armstrong

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Brian Armstrong is an Australian-born filmmaker and booze-hound. Founder and president of Red Rock films, he has spent the last couple of decades roaming the globe searching for scenes of natural beauty and/or housing dangerous animals. His films, now totaling fifty and rising, have been seen on National Geographic TV and the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week extravaganzas, among other notable outlets. He was the brains behind such popular series as Dangerous Encounters, and is the author of The Exotic Booze Club.

The Exotic Booze Club, was an informal meeting of globe-trotting adventurers and documentary filmmakers, who gathered, beginning in 2000, in the offices of National Geographic to enjoy stories and booze. Exotic booze. Booze from the wilds of the world. Booze that, in many cases, had only rarely even touched the tongues (or battered the palates) of Western drinkers. As they traveled to the far reaches of the planet, Mr. Armstrong and his gang of happy inebriates routinely encountered the Booze of the Locals, which they brought home and shared with (though some might say “inflicted upon”) their friends and colleagues.

Mr. Armstrong and a Friendly Lemur

I got to spend some quality time with Mr. Armstrong to discuss drinking and filmmaking, and the ins and outs of doing both at the same time.

ME: First of all, Brian, let me say again how much fun your book is to read. So many great stories.

BA: Thanks. Thanks very much.

ME: You live now in the US, in Washington DC, but you were born and grew up in Australia. Can you describe, or elaborate on, Australian drinking culture? Maybe as it compares to what you have found in America?

BA: Well, Australians like to drink. Alcohol is the nationally preferred route to oblivion. The national drinking age is 18.

ME: For any kind of alcohol?

BA: Yes. Anything. And kids there start drinking early. Getting into their parents’ liquor cabinets.

ME: Did you? Get into your parents’ stash?

BA: Actually, my parents were tee-totalers.

ME: No kidding?

BA: Really. I never saw either of them touch a drop. But I still managed. I grew up on a horse ranch outside Bendigo [in the State of Victoria], and there were 54 pubs in a city of 50,000. That’s like a pub per thousand people. I never really developed a taste for beer, and by the time I started drinking my arms were longer and I could reach to the top shelf. I guess I kept right on reaching.

ME: Any other similarities or differences you see, between America and Australia?

BA: Australia is a social country. Drinking is a big social activity there. And it’s a sporting thing. Sports and drinking. Cricket is played there, and it can last five days and end in a draw. So people bring coolers. The players take breaks for tea in the middle of the match, so the people take breaks for beer. In non-professional matches you see players on the field holding cans of beer.

ME: Like American rotisserie-league softball.

BA: Right.

ME: What’s your usual? Your usual drink? In your book you mention Wild Turkey and Coke.

BA: Yeah, I like bourbon and Coke. Wild Turkey. I used to travel with six-packs.

ME: Six-packs?

BA: Yeah. In Australia you can get every kind of cocktail, premixed in cans. Wild Turkey and Coke. Beam and Coke. Gin and tonic. Gin in Australia is like tequila here. Everybody has it.

ME: They keep trying the canned cocktail thing here, but it never really catches on. They taste terrible.

BA: Many are sickly sweet, but they’ve gotten better. Very popular in Australia. Also, what most American’s don’t know is that almost every bar in Australia has a drive-up window. So you can pull up, order a bourbon and coke, and drive on.

ME: A canned one, right?

BA: Yes, right. They don’t hand you a glass out the window.

ME: Yeah, OK. Duh. Are shots a big thing in Australia? When I’ve traveled to other countries I’ve found they don’t do shots the way we do them in America.

BA: Yeah, we do shots, but you’re right. And never with the good stuff. Good alcohol is for sipping. When we do shots, we do celebratory shots, or a round of after-dinner shots. Like that.

ME: One thing I was surprised to learn, reading your book, was how popular Wild Turkey is in Australia. Thirty-percent of their sales just in Australia. Why is that, do you think?

BA: Well, it’s good bourbon.

ME: One of my favorites.

BA: And, I think, they had a very good marketing campaign in Australia.

ME: Lots of bourbon drinkers down there? Is there a home-grown whiskey business, or is most of it imported?

BA: Not really a whiskey industry, no. There’s a Beam plant in Queensland, but I’ve never been fond of Beam. Too sweet.

ME: On Wild Turkey: the 81 or the 101?

BA: The 101, always.

ME: What is your home bar like?

BA: My home bar? You mean my—

ME: The bar in your house, I mean. Not your local.

BA: Oh, I see. Yes. Well, I’m looking at it now—20 or 30 bottles… I have Bulleit, Bacardi, Wild Turkey, Glenfiddich, lots of Tequila, a bottle of Scorpion Vodka, with a scorpion in it, from Thailand. Oh, and bottles of Hobbit Beer, from New Zealand. Bought it on the Hobbiton tour.

ME: How was that?

BA: It was fun. And they give you a free beer at the end.

ME: Nothing tastes better than free booze.

[Note: Mr. Armstrong is known for his high-risk documentaries. He routinely travels to the most isolated locations on the planet—Kamchatka (to film active volcanoes), the jungles of Burma (in search of spitting cobras) and Madagascar (where his team discovered a new species of lemur), and Burundi (to film the capture of Nile crocodiles).]

ME: Now, when you are making a film you are usually out in some pretty rugged, remote territory. A long way from doctors and, you know, bars. How regularly do you get truly loaded while you’re out there?

BA: It’s all part of the routine. Usually, when I arrive at a location, some of my team has been there prepping before me, and when they pick me up at the airport they always have a bottle of something ready in the car. Usually Wild Turkey, but sometimes local stuff too.

End of Another Day

ME: So you have a drink first thing?

BA: Sometimes, right then. Depends on how loaded I got on the plane.

ME: Would you say that drinking is necessary to filmmaking?

BA: Necessary? Sure. For me it is. I know some guys, some filmmakers, who don’t drink on the job, or ever really, but for me it’s necessary. For my style of film.

ME: How important is it that your team members are also good drinking companions?

BA: Very. Drinking is social and it’s fun. It breaks down barriers. You don’t always work with the same people on every shoot, and sometimes the shoots are very short. With a few drinks you get to know someone very well, very quickly. That’s important. And we always have a big blowout on the final night. Everybody gets drunk then.

ME: Most of your usual team members are good drinkers?

BA: Yeah. For the most part they are. Some more than others and that often depends on the country we are in.  Some Asian crews like to drink, but often really bad rice-fermented shite and they’re drunk after a glass or two. Australians are usually big drinkers and the last ones standing—or at least leaning. Brazilians know how to put on a good night—but they prefer sweet cocktails, which can cause a bad hangover if you’re not careful. The Russians are probably my favorite. They embrace good vodka with gusto and it’s always a fun late night with people passing out where they sit.

ME: And you drink most days on location?

BA: Oh, yeah. Well, I try to avoid getting too tipsy when we are playing with deadly animals.

ME: I can see that. You might not want to be too drunk around king cobras and great white sharks.

BA: Right. But when we are done with them, a good drink helps settle the nerves.

A Relaxing Day Fishing

ME: Or when militia troops are shooting at you.

BA: Yeah, that was in Burundi.

ME: Bet you needed a drink or six after that, though, right?

BA: Yes I did. Or seven or eight.  Talk about dangerous animals—humans are the worst.

[Note: While Mr. Armstrong and his team were on location in Burundi in search of the legendary killer crocodile named “Gustave,” they found themselves in the middle of a battle between the country’s warring Hutu and Tutsi tribal factions. A minibus nearly identical to the one carrying the filmmakers was blown up by rebels in a nearby village, and automatic weapons fire and explosions sounded throughout the countryside.]

ME: Do you have a favorite alcohol you’ve collected while working? A Club specialty?

BA: Let’s see. I have a list of them I’m looking at. Nothing from Asia. Nothing top-shelf from Africa. Most of the very exotic ones are hard to drink. We got a nice chartreuse from France. And the pisco. From South America. That one was probably the best. And a lot of the tequila was really good. Americans don’t have it right about tequila.

ME: Yeah. Usually when we drink tequila we do shots or have it in a margarita. Most of us don’t drink it like a sippin’ whiskey.

BA: Right. A really good tequila, like Don Julio, is best when you drink it slow. Sip it. Enjoy it.

ME: I totally agree. Now, about National Geographic. Have you ever gotten any grief, from them, or any other company for that matter, because of your fondness for alcohol?

BA: No, you know, I haven’t. At least not yet. I think it’s because I’m Australian, and people just think it’s a quirky characteristic of my culture. They seem to enjoy the character of an Aussie guy who drinks all the time. The people at the Discovery Channel are like, “Oh, it’s just that Aussie guy.” I think the response would be completely different if I was an American. Also, my product is good. If my films weren’t good, I’m sure I’d hear more about the booze.
ME: Do you have a bar in your office? At Red Rock Films?

BA: Oh, yeah. Full bar. Whenever I meet someone at my office, they are offered a drink. Doesn’t matter the time of day. Americans sometimes seem uncomfortable with that. And the staff, we all usually meet near the end of the day for drinks at the office. I have this gong that I got from a Buddhist monk in Burma. Whenever someone rings the gong, it’s time for drinks.

ME: Anyone can ring the gong?

BA: Sure.

ME: Are you the bartender?

BA: No, no. Whoever rings the gong pours the first round.

ME: And ringing the gong sort of sounds the end of the day’s work?

BA: Sometimes, yes. But a lot of work still goes on with a drink in your hand. You need to decompress after work, or after a shoot. You have to plan out the next project. Or even get ideas for the next project. It’s a great strategy. I get more creative. A lot of great ideas come out of those office drinks. Also, when I’m hiring someone, I have them come around for a drink. They ring the gong, and make the drinks. You can learn a lot about a potential employee by how they react to that.

ME: That’s awesome. Can I come for an interview sometime? I’m not qualified to work for you, I just want to ring the gong.

BA: [Laughs.]  Absolutely.  I bet you’re a great bar tender.

ME: OK. You started the Exotic Booze Club in 2000, with some obscure Russian vodka you found on a shoot in Kamchatka. The Club was never really acknowledged by National Geographic, right? But continued in what you might call an “officially unofficial” capacity?

BA: That’s a good description, yeah.

ME: Apart from getting together for exotic hooch, did you have other reasons for starting the club?

BA: Sharing the booze was the main thing, of course. But I found Nat Geo stuffy. Very conservative and corporate. I came from Australian television news production, where everybody drinks. After a broadcast management provided drinks for everybody. It was nice, and I got used to it. But you don’t find that in America. [Chuckling] And I wasn’t going to stand for it.

ME: Did the National Geographic people ever come down on you? Issue an, I don’t know, like a cease-and-desist order or something?

BA: The threat was always there and we had to be careful. There were people who didn’t like it. People who thought we were doing something wrong, and it was against Nat Geo policy. But again, it was like: “He’s Australian. What are you going to do?” Then one time the President of Nat Geo came by for a drink. I think he wanted to see for himself what was going on. He came back many times, and he stuck up for the Club, so HR had to turn a blind eye. When he came to a meeting he was no longer the President when he walked through the door. He was just another drinker, and at any given meeting he might be sitting next to an intern, the two of them enjoying drinks together. Pretty soon all those middle managers started showing up, but for them it wasn’t about the booze or hanging out, it was about being seen with the President—which I discouraged.  I mean, just let the guy have a drink already.

ME: Really? That’s fairly messed up.

BA: You’re right. It was. But the answer to your question is no. The Nat Geo people never said too much against the Club.

ME: Excellent. Changing topics… What is the drunkest you’ve ever been on location? Or, another way, what’s your favorite drunken story from out in the field?

BA: [After a pause.] I would have to say being in China, if you remember from the book.

ME: Sure.

[Note: While gathering film for the Countdown Croc special, Mr. Armstrong and company traveled all over the world collecting footage of Brady Barr, the host of the special, as he attempted to capture, in the wild, every one of the twenty-three known species of crocodilian.

One of the countries visited was China, home of the rare Chinese alligator. The Chinese government is notoriously difficult to work with, and the film crew was kept waiting for days in order to obtain the necessary permissions and permits. Finally, they were summoned to a meeting with a Dr. Wang Wen, the scientist in charge of overseeing and monitoring the population of Chinese alligators.

What ensued wasn’t so much a meeting as a drinking contest. Dr. Wang dispensed shots of a massively alcoholic, distilled-rice moonshine that Mr. Armstrong came to call “Godawfulgunk,” and demanded, with exhortations of “Gan bei! Gan bei!” (“Drink up!”), that the filmmakers get busy drinking.

Failure to drink, failure to drink the glass dry, post-drink hurling and/or turning green, were met with cries, in English, of “Girl! He girl!”]

BA: We’d spent a week trying to charm these guys—dinners, massages, everything—and then it all came down to one night of drinking this vile, vomitous potion. Brady [Barr] grabbed his and managed to swallow about half. He turned green and spat the rest out, and called for a beer. The Chinese called him a “girl.” Shady [David Shadrack Smith; one of Mr. Armstrong’s regular team members] was on that trip as shooter. He chugged his and turned a little green, but managed to keep it down. That impressed the Chinese. They went to refill his glass, and he shouted “No!” He speaks fluent Mandarin, and explained to them that he declined another shot. The Chinese said, “Woman. He woman.” And then Shady totally threw me under the bus! He was like, here, this guy is Australian! They love to drink! Do it with him!

ME: You had to be the hero?

BA: Right! Now it was up to me to save face. So I grabbed mine and threw it back, and managed to suppress my gag reflex. Instead of spitting up I slammed my glass down and poured another. They didn’t see that one coming, and they had to hurry to catch up. I threw back another. And another. And they were nodding at me. I’d impressed them. And the main guy [Dr. Wang Wen] was watching us closely the whole time, really measuring our character. That’s what the drinking was all about. Measuring our character. And he must’ve liked what he saw, because we got access to the alligators.

ME: And Brady captured one?

BA: Yep. And the film was a huge success. Huge ratings.

ME: All thanks to booze.

BA: Right. All thanks to booze.

ME: It’s been great talking with you. Thanks for your time, and good luck with your films.

BA: You bet. My pleasure. Thanks.

Postscript:

After the completion of filming on the crocodile film, Mr. Armstrong was back at his offices at National Geographic for a meeting of the Exotic Booze Club. One attendee wanted to know if Mr. Armstrong and Brady had indeed captured all twenty-three of the world’s crocodiles. Mr. Armstrong said that, even though it had been hairy, they had gotten all twenty-three.

“Wow,” said the attendee. “You do like to live dangerously.”

“Here,” said Mr. Armstrong. “Try some of this fine alcohol from China.”

Cheers.

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