Living the Dream: Duncan Holaday (Gr '84), Becomes Master Distiller

Some of us fantasize of picking up from the inane workweek, where we toil away in a secure and comfortable position that’s eons removed from the job we once imagined back in high school, when anything – including living in the Alps as a professional Chocolatier – seemed possible. Of course, cumbersome school loans and larger responsibilities later, eating bonbons in a Swiss chalet begins to seem excessive, if not completely unattainable. And just like that, the faint impulse to change one’s life course becomes but a hazy reverie, dismissed with a haughty chortle and long, deep breath.

So it’s not every day you meet someone as daring as Duncan Holaday, Ph.D. (Gr ’84), whose wanderlust found him teaching at National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), spending time with West Javanese villagers in Indonesia, and, finally, settling in rural Vermont where he would build and operate a distillery – now the home of Duncan’s Idea Mill, LLC.

“Today, I work with a growing group of micro distillers in the U.S. who are trying to establish themselves in a business dominated by huge corporations,” said Holaday, founder and first president of Vermont Spirits. “There are many lessons from my previous work, and many new challenges.” 

Holaday compares his work today – consulting for new micro-distilleries and designing distilling systems – to participating in graduate seminars. “I have been collecting notes and material on this decade-long project for a book when and if there is time. But, today for example, I will be distilling and preparing a batch of elderflower rum for our New York distributor who expects to launch next month. Later in the day, I will be visiting a nearby micro distillery to begin plumbing in condensers for stills I designed. I will end the day with a tasting of the new rum.”

Before penetrating this milestone, when Holaday still had an international six-digit zip code, he had been working diligently with a colleague in Singapore to establish a program of communication studies at National University of Singapore (NUS) and later at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). According to Holaday, who concluded his work in Singapore as Head of the Division of Research and Director of Graduate Studies at NTU’s School of Communication Studies, the feat of obtaining his doctoral degree from Annenberg gave him the courage to take on such big challenges in Asia. “Paul Messaris and Bob Hornik were very important to my understanding of visual communication and development studies, both of which have been at the center of my research and teaching in Asia.”   

It was Sol Worth’s essay, "Toward an Anthropological Politics of Symbolic Forms,”  in Dell Hyme's Reinventing Anthropology, that ultimately influenced his decision to study at Annenberg, where later, after Sol Worth’s death, he would work with Ray Birdwhistell to determine a dissertation topic. “His influence was profound, and led me to examine the micro-politics of media transfer and control. Through George Gerbner, I was introduced to ongoing research on communication in Indonesia by Dutch scholars, and received a Fulbright Grant (The Fulbright Program offers grants for U.S. citizens to go abroad to study, teach and conduct research, and for non-U.S. citizens to come to the United States) to go there to teach at the University of Indonesia.”  While working with the University of Indonesia and TVRI (Indonesia National Television) to bring filmmaking technology to rural villages in Indonesia, Holaday’s dissertation topic was realized: “Making Media Fit: Short Term Adjustment to New Media in a West Javanese Village.”

Holaday still looks at lessons learned from participating in forums for exchanges of ideas and mutual support, such as the TVRI initiatives for village participation in satellite TV in Indonesia. In 2006, he gave the keynote address for the American Distilling Institute (ADI) – “an attempt to give an edge through information and cooperation to micro distillers.” Though he left academia (and his international zip code) back in Singapore.

Holaday still speaks publicly and writes and reads as much as his scholarly contemporaries working in academia. “I don't feel that my work is done. My father told me, ‘Go where you need to to get your education, then you can go where you want to do your work.’ I still don't understand that. But, I feel that I caught the spirit of what he was saying.”