Whiskey Journey Part Four: How I Came into Bourbon

There is a time in one’s life that you make the decision to go against what Mom and Dad tells you, and you finally get the courage to say yes to your first drink. That first drink may have been offered by a friend, a beer taken from Dad’s fridge, wine from Mom’s coffer, or whiskey from Grandpa on a summer visit. We all have a story, a memory, a smell, or a taste that will never leave our minds for as long as we breathe air. This is mine.

It was in the mid 1990’s when I was 14-15 years old and we stole one of my Dad’s Budweiser’s from the garage fridge. My Dad at the time drank about 12-24 beers a year, so I was good to go on him notcmissing it. Little did I know, beer goes bad. When the owner of said beer hardly drinks at all, that’s libeled to happen.

So, me and a couple of buddies took one beer and snuck out on to the golf course at Woodside Plantation in the middle of the night. We were men. Zach Morris and A.C. Slater wanted to be us. We cracked open that beer and all of us were going to be drunk in minutes. We all wanted to be cool, so each of us took a big gulp….it was a skunked beer. Didn’t matter what anyone said about our newfound manhood, that beer was thrown away half full, and we were completely fine with lying to everyone else about how great it was. Remembering each face as we passed it on is priceless to me.You couldn’t even pretend to enjoy it. I’m not sure who the new “leader” was amongst our group that night, but whomever decided to throw that shit away, I would follow them into battle.

That leads me to my next taste, which was Austin Nichol’s Wild Turkey 101 no more than a year later. As a freshman in High school, I remember where I was, and whom I was with, but I don’t remember anything about the flavor. The experience was probably what you would expect: gagging and coughing followed by something to chase it with.

The scene honestly couldn’t be any more perfect for a first taste of whiskey. We were in a 100-year-old barn hayloft out in one of the horse districts in Aiken, South Carolina. We had 4-5 buddies and 3-4 girls (there was no “rolling in the hay” that night) in an old barn while playing music and killing time the good way. This wasn’t a Beat’s by Dre or a Sonos sound bar: This was a full-blown jukebox powered by 800 D batteries. A far cry different from my first beer experience, so whiskey has always been a good memory from the start.

Growing up, my brother and I were always mistaken for one another. To my fortune, he was 3 years older and ID’s were easy to manipulate. My entire USC life pre-21 years old I had an ID that looked like me and would even scan if someone asked to scan it. I was a hot commodity sophomore that football season as I was pledging Sigma Nu (Fall 2002), even though I was barely 18 years old. At that time, I still didn’t love beer, and Green’s liquor store was right downtown Columbia. I was familiar with Green’s in Myrtle Beach because my grandmother’s house was close to it, and if we ever needed anything, that’s where we went. I walk in and am overwhelmed at the amount of whiskey to choose from. On a college student’s budget, that narrowed things down a bit; but I’ll never forget the first one: 1792 Ridgemont Reserve.

A quick google to find a bottle revealed a $3499.99 price tag. I paid $25. Ridgemont Reserve was made by Barton Distilling and was an 8-year whiskey. The company dropped the name and now you can find it as “1792”. Their line-up of bourbon is fantastic, and some labels like their “Sweet Wheat” fetch top dollar on the secondary market. Even as a broke college student who just dropped the equivalent of 30 Five Points beers on one bottle of Whiskey, I wanted to share. Don’t forget, I’m 18-20 years old, and not far removed from a life where my parents had to remind me to share. Coming to a tailgate with a new bottle of bourbon each week created a desire within me that wanted to know what everyone thought about my new selection, and that feeling is still inside me today. The truth is, I probably don’t even drink half the whiskey I buy. I can’t explain it further than the feeling of wanting others to enjoy it with me. When people oblige, taste it, and turn to you with an eyebrow raising nod…it’s like buying the perfect gift for someone. It makes you feel good, and it makes you want to do it again.

My pursuit of finding great bourbons came well before the new market we are dealing with today. Had I known Ridgemont Reserve 1792 would be worth close to 4k today, I would have worked a few extra shifts at Pavlov’s to invest about $1000 in 4 or 5 cases of 12. Side note: I’m not the biggest fan of flipping new bottles for double or triple the price. 20+ year old bottles are investments, and not even remotely the same thing. Neither is buying a hard to find bottle that you don’t enjoy for the sole purpose of trading it for one you can’t find. I’m a big fan of that because both sides end up very happy. Is there a better trade than that?

A lot of people ask me how I know so much about Bourbon, or whiskey in general. The short answer is the service industry that I was a part of for so many years. Waiting tables can be extremely lucrative, and to maintain the integrity of my story, I’m comfortable sharing that I almost made six figures in 2010 working at “Hege’s” restaurant in Freshfields Village. That is located between Seabrook and Kiawah Islands just south of Charleston, and I was working less than 30 hours a week. When you get to that level, you either rest on your laurels, or you find a way to be the best of the best in sales within your restaurant.

Understanding grains in whiskey and the flavors they impart was just as important as knowing terroirs and viticulture. Some people see it as waiting tables, I saw it as sales. When 6 male golfers come in with their wives or partners at home, it’s safe to assume whiskey is a good possibility. They also aren’t paying for 2 or more (family dinner), so they are more apt to order nicer items. When the stars aligned and they would take my recommendations from wine down to pre and post-dinner whiskey, I would have a ticket between $200-$250 per person, 3-4 tables at a time. I averaged over 20% tip, and it isn’t hard to do the math and add up that whiskey knowledge was very important if you wanted your income to rise.

I ended my service industry career at “Ovenbird” in Birmingham, Alabama after helping James Beard Award winning Chef, Chris Hastings, open up his second restaurant. I learned so much at this stop that I can’t put it into words. This was an all-live fire restaurant with the single best whiskey selection of any place I ever worked. I was the last remaining staff member from the day we opened, to 3 years later when I moved back to SC with my growing family. It was during those 3 years that Chef trusted me with a few gallons of incredible Alabama “White Dog”. The same stuff that made him famous when he defeated Bobby Flay on his own television show. His final course was a dessert paired with Peach Moonshine that was sure to be north of 140 proof. He is to Alabama what Sean Brock is to South Carolina.

The reason I mentioned the few gallons of moonshine: it was my next whiskey lesson. Moonshine isn’t for the lighthearted, and I found not many people wanted to taste it. I didn’t get that great feeling of seeing people satisfied, so how could I take this very expensive, very exclusive moonshine and make it better? For Christmas that year, my parents ordered me a personalized 5-liter new white oak charred barrel. My next deep dive was going to be aging whiskey and changing the color from clear to brown. I poured the entire gallon in and added about ½ a liter of spring water. After about a month, I tasted it every week. Smaller barrels don’t age the same as your typical 53-gallon barrel; they are essentially an express lane for whiskey to age. The process in simple terms:

    1. Whiskey goes in.
    2. Whiskey begins to seep into the oak (much more so in hotter temps).
    3. Flavor and color are extracted from the charred oak.
    4. Evaporation, oxygen, and congeners change the flavor and proof.
    5. Your corn whiskey is ready, and is now called bourbon.

I left it there for 3 months. To my surprise, it was quite good. I credit the quality of whiskey, not my aging ability. My second filling of the barrel, following the same process, took much longer as the wood had already been used. This also can’t be called bourbon, as one of the rules is that it must be aged in a new white oak barrel. Its proper term would be “American Whiskey”. I used the barrel 3 times, and each one of the offerings was much different than the next. This was one of the final steps in truly understanding bourbon and whiskey. Once you understand the grains, the aging process, and the different mash bills, you are now able to discern what it is you like and don’t like about a particular whiskey. I encourage people to go on as many distillery tours as you can; not everyone has the time to work for 12+ years in the service industry and do it the way I did.

I would be a fool not to credit those early days at Williams-Brice opening new bottles each week, just as much as I would be a fool not to credit working for so long as a waiter. There is no right or wrong way to learn, and again, each path is our own. I’m thankful for my path as it opened so many doors to some of the best relationships I have today. It allows me to be an integral part of our barrel curation team at the Gamecock Bourbon Society.

We don’t want exclusive bottles with our name on them if they are average at best. We don’t want to offer $100+ bottles of whiskey unless it is worth every penny. It takes a team of people with different palates that are willing to engage each other so that we can choose the best barrel for all of us. Sometimes they will be award winning, sometimes they will be the vanilla/oak bombs we expect, and other times we will choose bottles simply because they are so unique that we are willing to bet you have nothing like it in your cabinets at home. Each whiskey we choose, we will offer with pride.

This month, we are releasing our High Proof Club within the Gamecock Bourbon Society. With this premium membership, you will have first access to these barrel picks and events that we put on involving tasting exclusive whiskies. Even better than getting your hands on one of our bottles, we will be offering barrel selection opportunities to our High Proof Club. Throughout the year, we will be offering 2 single members a chance to be an honorary member of our curation team on site at a distillery, or off premise to taste multiple different barrels for our next barrel pick. In addition to those two lucky members, we will be offering a once in a lifetime opportunity for 1 lucky HPC member to choose 4-5 friends or family to help us select and name our barrel pick.

We are just as excited to pull your name out of a hat as you are excited to hear your name. We hope you will join us in the High Proof Club, and continue your bourbon journey with us!

If you are interested in finding out more information about the High Proof Club, visit HighProofClub.com and sign up for the newsletter.

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