Well, being that this is my first blog post, and this past year was my first as an aspiring whiskey aficionado, I thought I’d take some time to write about where I started at the beginning of the year, where I’ve landed at the end, and several missteps and lessons learned along the way. This post will serve as my introduction to you all, and will hopefully provide the backdrop and context for all of my future posts. If such things are of interest to you, please read on, although I do feel compelled to warn you. This introduction may be a bit long-winded. I promise my future posts will be a bit more succinct. 🙂
Technically my transition from a casual Jim Beam drinker to an all-out whiskey fanatic began in October of 2014. For my 42nd birthday a friend gave me a book titled American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye (by Clay Risen), and my world was forever changed. Up to this point I had occasionally tried some bourbons other than Jim Beam white label, such as Booker’s, Knob Creek or Basil Hayden’s (apparently the Beam Suntory marketing machine had its grip on me), but I rarely strayed any further than that. However, once I cracked this book open, a glorious new world of bourbons and ryes unfolded before my eyes. Hell, I didn’t even know what “rye” was, aside from the Clutch lyrics, “Howdy Doody’s past the house of Aquarius. Bring me more whiskey and rye.” Well, after reading the introduction to the book, I learned that rye is whiskey (not sure Clutch was aware of that either), as is bourbon and Scotch. Beyond that simple fact, I learned a lot more from that very introduction; enough to instantly ignite a wildfire in my head. I became obsessed with finding and tasting (and in many cases buying bottles of) as many of the bourbons and ryes listed in book that I could find.
Armed with a fairly comprehensive list of bourbon and rye expressions at my disposal, along with Clay’s ratings, I started my hunt. At the time, though, I didn’t yet realize that said hunt would prove so difficult for those bottles that Clay had given a 4-star or higher rating to. I was pretty naive, to say the least. In fact, my wife and I were preparing for a weekend cabin trip at the time, and I had heard through the grapevine that there were some great liquor stores in the area where she works in Maryland, so I prepared a shopping list for her. I knew enough not to ask for any Pappy Van Winkle, but that’s about all I knew. In hindsight the list that I prepared is pretty embarrassing. To name but a few, there was Black Maple Hill (not the new Oregon-distilled incarnation, mind you), Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Parker’s Heritage Collection, A.H. Hirsch and Jefferson’s Presidential Select. I think you get the point. Haha! The good news is that E.H. Taylor Rye was at the bottom of my list, and she at least returned with a bottle of that. Score one!
Ok, so I’m starting to learn that some whiskeys are scarce and that I can’t just swing by the local liquor store on a whim and pick up a bottle. Even though I couldn’t find any of these rare bottles, I was still obsessed with trying as many bourbons and ryes as possible, and there were still plenty of bottles available in the primary market. I began buying bottles left and right so I could taste as many as possible. I know, it would have been far cheaper to go to a well-stocked whiskey bar and get individual pours, but I’m impulsive and don’t have such bars in my immediate area. So, buying bottles it was, and buying bottles I did! And as I bought bottles and regularly tasted new whiskeys, I decided to start posting my pours and scores to Instagram and start following other whiskey enthusiasts, thus opening a new chapter: The Whiskey Community.
Connecting with other whiskey enthusiasts on Instagram has been such an excellent experience for me. For starters, my wife was probably on the verge of divorcing me if she had to continue listening to me rattle off new whiskey facts or ramble on about new revelations. She’s a good sport, but she can only take so much. Sorry babe! Well, not only did I get to start chatting with and learning from other whiskey fans, but I also got to do something else I like to do: talk about myself and share my opinions. I’ll admit that at first I may have gotten a little carried away at times. The new guy on the block (me) occasionally acted like a know-it-all. Those following me at the time might remember a couple occasions when I went on tirades about various topics, such as NDPs sourcing from MGP/LDI. I think for a second I believed that I was a journalist breaking controversial stories. Haha! Nope. I soon realized that I was ranting about old news, and it didn’t take me long after talking with those more experienced than myself to realize that I had a lot to learn. Luckily no one had to put me in my place. I’m quick to take a hint. So, I decided that I would focus my energy on participating constructively in the great whiskey community and continuing to learn all that I could.
Now that I’m hungry to learn from others on Instagram and I start to follow a bunch of seasoned collectors, I desperately want to taste some of the hard-to-find limited releases and older releases that are now considered to be rare (i.e. “unicorns”). I begin the search for whiskey bars, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to find one of those in our little town. We do live an hour away from Washington, D.C., though, and I figured that was the best place to search. I heard that whiskey bars were starting to pop up and become fairly trendy, so I figured there had to be at least one in the city. Yep! I was right. There are several whiskey bars in DC, but only one that I now refer to as my Whiskey Mecca, and that is the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. When I first saw the main page of the website with the current count of bottles in stock (2,390 as I’m writing this post), my jaw just about hit the floor. Then when I saw their Domestic Whiskey and Rare Bottling lists, my jaw did hit the floor. Wow! I didn’t know much about rare bottles at the time (I still barely do), but it was pretty clear from these lists that if there was any place on the planet where I was going to have to opportunity to sample rare bourbon bottles, this was it. I asked Cas if we could book a hotel room in the city and go to Jack Rose as soon as possible. We love spending a night in DC, so she was cool with it. I was so excited, to put it mildly. I began creating my “to try” list immediately, like a kid in a candy shop.
I won’t get into too much detail about my first trip to Jack Rose, but the short of it is that my wife and I each got several pours, and we shared the pours with each other so we could both sample a total of 6 different bourbons. Being that I had never tasted anything rare before, I had to start with some of the obvious ones, like PVW 15 and 23, Old Forester Birthday 2009, Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18, Parker’s Heritage Promise of Hope and A.H. Hirsch 16. Aside from the hundreds of dollars we dropped, it was an awesome experience. We’ve been back a second time since and are planning another trip for Valentine’s Day weekend next month.
There are two key things that I took away from my first experience at JRDS: 1) just because a bottle is legendary and extremely rare, doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to blow your mind, and 2) the idea of building my own whiskey library at home, like a wine cellar, was very appealing to me.
Regarding my first point, please don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed every single pour that night. It was an awesome experience and I am super grateful for the opportunity to taste such highly reputed bourbons. With that said, I suppose I sat down at the bar that night expecting bourbons that were leaps and bounds above the pedestrian offerings that typically line the shelves of liquor stores. I was almost nervous as I ordered my first PVW, thinking that my world was going to change forever, and I prayed they wouldn’t deny me this opportunity for some reason, like a kid that waits in line for the roller coaster, only to find out that he’s 1-inch too short for the ride. Welp, I got my Pappy pour, but my world wasn’t rocked. Not even close. All of the pours were delicious, but so are many everyday pours, which is why I drank bourbon to begin with. Of course, some are clearly better than others, but my point is that the high end of the scale isn’t way up there in Cloud 9 like I had expected. At this point my scale boundaries were adjusted and the scale appropriately calibrated.
Regarding my second point, I was most influenced by the fact that the bulk of Jack Rose’s inventory (I believe) was pulled from the owners’ private collections. I don’t how much of that is true, but regardless, it got me super excited about the idea of one day, maybe 20-years down the road, having a cellar filled with bottles that at that time would be rare and sought after. Something to share with special friends and family members; my very own bourbon and rye library. That sounds more appealing to me than just about any other material possession that I can think of at this point in my life. Although, new cars are pretty damn sweet, too. If I can find a bourbon with some new-car notes in the nose, oh man, look out!
Once this whiskey library seed was planted, a new obsession was born: collecting unopened bottles. I spent the remainder of the year buying bottles for my library and carefully cataloging them. I was still searching for rare bottles, but I was also buying more common bottles that I thought one day would be cool to have. I bought just about any new release that came out, hoping that it would become the next in-demand but not readily available bottle, thus adding value to my collection. I searched myriad online liquor store sites daily, hoping to find some gems. Now, because I was (and still am) on a mission to taste as many whiskeys as possible, I couldn’t just buy one bottle of each. I felt the need to buy “one to pour and one to store”. Bottles were arriving at my office building non-stop. The receptionist would bring boxes to my office daily and chuckle about my new-found obsession. I would also make trips to all of the local liquor stores every week, eventually learning when their shipments arrived and timing my visits accordingly. My collection was growing rapidly, but it was getting a little out of hand.
I think by now you get an idea of what my mindset was and how I quickly got sucked into the bourbon and rye hunting/tasting/collecting world. I’ll try to start wrapping up this post before I completely lose you. If your attention span is as short as mine is, I may have already lost you. If you can muster the energy, please read on. We’re almost done here, I promise.
Well, at is stands today I have 150 or so unopened bottles and close to 80 opened bottles. It’s been an interesting year. I’ve learned so much along the way, but it’s clear that I will always have much more to learn. I’ve made a lot of expensive mistakes, some of which make me laugh in hindsight. No sense crying over spilled milk, right? There are a handful of purchases that I think are worth sharing. The first is quite embarrassing, but oh well, what can you do? When I first started adding bottles to the unopened collection, I had heard all about the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and of course one of the more popular in the lineup, William Larue Weller. One day when searching some new websites hoping to score a gem, I came across a listing for a “Weller 12” for $125 plus shipping. I was so stoked. Holy crap!! I found a William Larue Weller for $125!!!! That’s amazing! I’m sure you can picture how bummed I was when a squat bottle of W.L. Weller 12 showed up instead of the tall, slick WLW. I didn’t even know there was a W.L. Weller 12, and I definitely didn’t know that it should only cost around $35 retail. Ughhh!! I tucked that bottle away in the collection and tried not to think about it. Recently I decided to crack it open to break its curse. What are you gonna do? Another (among many) bad purchase I made was Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep. I had been watching release calendars and knew that a 17-year Wild Turkey would soon be released. 17 years!! I had to hunt for it, and hunt I did. And one day I walked into my local store on delivery day, and lo and behold there were 3 of them sitting on the shelf. And guess how many I bought? Yep! You guessed it. I bought all 3 for $150 each. I needed one to pour, and at least two for the bunker because they would quickly be valuable. I’d thought I’d be able to trade one for a BTAC bottle maybe. Haha! Months later I was still finding MKs sitting on the shelves. I wasn’t enjoying the bottle I had cracked open, and most of the reviews were lackluster. So, here I am with a $150 open bottle that I didn’t even feel like pouring on most occasions, and two in the bunker. There are plenty of other bad purchase examples, like several Whistlepig Old Worlds (under-proofed) for $120 each, and several Orphan Barrel Forged Oaks, thinking they would be something special and highly sought after. Both can still be found on many store shelves, and both were big letdowns for me once tasted. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the point. By the way, I know there are some fans of Master’s Keep, Whistlepig OW and Forged Oak out there. Please don’t take offense. Our taste for whiskey is individual and so subjective.
In the end, which at this point feels more like a beginning, I basically spent thousands of dollars on what I now consider to be my first year of whiskey college, street style. My wife may not agree (again, sorry babe), but I think it was worth every penny. I may be a bit impulsive and tend to go a little overboard when I first discover a new passion in my life, but life is short and I feel the need to seize opportunities while I still have the chance. I learned so much this past year and I have met some kind and generous people in the whiskey community, and I hope to share those lessons and experiences in future blog posts. I’m also positive that there will be more examples of less-than-desirable purchases in the future, and I’ll post about those as well.
If you made it this far, well thanks for hanging in there and listening to me ramble on. Cheers to all of my fellow whiskey lovers out there!
-Steve (a.k.a Fletcher Whiskey Dog)