The Rundown: AJ Hochhalter

We caught up with film score composer and bourbon expert AJ Hochhalter about his recent documentary, “NEAT: The Story of Bourbon”
November 7, 2019

Welcome to the Rundown. Today we’re catching up with our friend and bourbon expert, AJ Hochhalter. AJ is the person we call when we need help pairing our whiskey with chocolate or want to learn more about bourbon’s heritage—the latter being a subject he’s properly immersed himself in during the production of his new documentary, “NEAT: The Story of Bourbon.” Read on for more on the film, tubing in pirahana-infested water, and AJ’s favorite bourbon. 

AJ Hochhalter

NEAT: The Story of Bourbon

Tell us a little bit about “NEAT: The Story of Bourbon.”
“NEAT” is a documentary that dives into the rich and storied world of bourbon. It’s a film that you need to watch with some bourbon in your glass, surrounded by the people that you love. It explores bourbon’s history, it’s charismatic characters, and the uniquely American process it undergoes. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you will hopefully learn to see bourbon from a different perspective. The film stars all your favorite master distillers, tour guides, and even my buddy and proud Kentuckian, Steve Zahn, who takes it upon himself to “educate” viewers throughout the film. 

Author that influenced you the most:
Ryan Holiday—particularly The Obstacle is the Way and Perennial Seller. I reread Perennial Seller five or six times when writing, producing, and scoring “NEAT.” The idea is that you need to find the timeless facets of your art and lean into those, so that it has the ability to move people that are a generation or two removed from the initial audience. Your film, music, art, or product might not have a meteoric rise to the top, but it can have lasting power and resurface year after year, which is way more valuable.

Splurge wine, beer, or liquor:
Those $15 craft bourbon cocktails with the housemade bitters and syrups, served in smoke with all the circus-like garnishes. I know they can be a bit much sometimes but I love seeing (and tasting) different people’s creativity. 

How did you get into bourbon?
As a Kentuckian, I knew enough to get by but didn’t really learn to appreciate bourbon fully until working on “NEAT.” Once you meet the people in the industry and see all the hard work and time put into it, you realize it is way more than just a drink. Drinking bourbon is like opening a time capsule. It forces you to slow down and think about what was happening 10 years ago and what will happen in the next 10 years. You can’t help but fall in love with the romanticism of it all, and I certainly did. Not to mention, it’s pretty darn tasty too.   

If you had $500, how would you blow it on Huckberry?
I’m a sucker for jackets so I’d start with the Relwen Shag Fleece Zip Hood because it looks like I could put it on and not take it off until May. I’d get the Relwen Stretch Windpants to match and some fresh kicks like the Saola Baikal. If I have any money left, I’d buy as many Rhodia Notebooks as I could—every film or piece of music I have ever worked on has started and developed through the pages of these notebooks. I love them.

Pouring Bourbon

Hack for better habits:
Never go more than three days without intentional exercise—whether that’s going to the gym, running around the block, or just trying to squeeze in 50 pushups before hopping in bed. Momentum works both ways—Newton got it right. For me, this one habit of staying in motion has helped other areas of my life as well—waking up early, eating better, sleeping well, and having more energy to chase my kids around after work.  

Favorite place you’ve traveled:
My father grew up in Ecuador, and after college, he took me on a trip through the country that shaped him. The beauty of all the different topography—the fact that you can drive a single day and see a rainforest, the beach, and high altitude mountain tracts—is spectacular. My favorite memory was stopping at a mechanic shop in the middle of the jungle and buying the innertubes of big semi tires and then tubing down piranha-infested whitewater with my dad. It was crazy. 

What inspired you to produce “NEAT?”
Working as a film composer, I had colleagues in the industry that were looking to do something different. Being from Kentucky, I had friends and family that wanted to help make a movie about something they loved. We knew just enough about bourbon to know that it was tied to American history and that it was a growing industry. It was equal parts curiosity to learn and an excitement to be a part of bourbon’s history by helping share the story of bourbon with as many people as we could. 

Favorite Huckberry Purchase:
Easily my Chacos. I wish I knew how many miles I had on them. I wear them hiking, fishing, and to work every day in the summer. 

Cooking hack:  
Cook steak right before it expires. I’m originally from Montana and first learned of this trick from my Uncle Raymond who was a rancher in Browning. Most butchers and grocers will discount the meat when it starts to “brown” a bit because people prefer buying bright red meat. It makes for a more tender and flavorful steak and you can get it cheaper—what’s not to like about that?

Weller with an Almond Joy

Favorite place to fall asleep:
I want to fall asleep in my own bed in my home, and I also want to wake up outside, close to water. I realize this combo is impossible, but I’m pretty passionate about each of my answers. 

Next Huckberry purchase:
Another Yeti Rambler water bottle. I lost mine on a dove hunt a couple of weeks ago, and my daily hydration needs have taken a hit ever since.  

Netflix recommendation:
I have “The Office”, “Parks and Rec”, and “Arrested Development” on repeat. I can’t break out of that cycle, nor do I want to. But hey, head on over to iTunes or Amazon and check out “NEAT: The Story of Bourbon.” I hear that is pretty good.  

In researching bourbon for the film, were there any interesting storylines or facts that didn’t make the cut?
You might recall a bunch of Pappy Van Winkle getting stolen a few years ago, AKA: The Pappy Heist. It made international news and involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in bottles and barrels of prized bourbons. Well, we scored an exclusive interview with the sheriff who solved the case during the same week they announced they recovered the bourbon and brought it in as evidence. He took us through parts of the investigation and showed us through the evidence room-—it was really riveting stuff. It ended up not making the film for two reasons. One: It was still an open case to some extent. Two: It completely changed the vibe of the film. All for the best, but I hope to make something with the footage we got there someday.

What’s your favorite bourbon?
Besides “free” bourbon? Haha, yes, I really like wheated bourbons and higher proof bourbons. Weller Full Proof is a favorite right now. 

>>Next: The Rundown: John Hodgman

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