I often find myself looking up at the dozens of bottles on the top shelf of my pantry and wondering … how did I get here?
After all, two short years ago, I had never even bought a bottle of whiskey. For most of my drinking life, I’d been a beer snob. I enjoyed the occasional mixed drink, but the thought of drinking a cask-strength Macallan or a barrel-strength Four Roses by itself never appealed to me. Too strong, smells like varnish, don’t want to get indigestion. As good as Jack Nicholson made Jack Daniel’s look in The Shining, I just couldn’t bring myself to embrace it.
Everything changed in October 2011. I was invited to a tasting at Adam Carmer’s Freakin’ Frog featuring the bourbons of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a family-owned company with a large array of bourbons and ryes. Maybe it was meeting the people who actually bottle and market the product; maybe it was the history lesson on bourbon (an American product that dates back to the 18th century); or maybe it was the camaraderie of being among a group of people whose faces reflected the pure joy of sampling each pour. Whatever it was, something clicked. I found each dram’s uniqueness fascinating—some dry, some sweet, some oakey; some had a deep burn, some no burn at all.
I bought my first bottle the next day—a bourbon called Rowan’s Creek (also distributed by KBD). Within a few weeks I’d worked my way through most of their other inventory, doing living-room taste tests to see the subtle differences. Soon I was sampling the entire bourbon spectrum. Some nights I’d get better acquainted with Evan Williams Single Barrel’s easy drinkability; others I’d try to determine what made Willett Rye so damn complex. Some nights I struggled to get out of my chair after meeting 120 proof-and-above bruisers like Booker’s, Willett Single Barrel and Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve.
And I wanted to learn more. I sought out helpful clerks at various liquor stores who were only too happy to recommend their favorites—and offer a free taste before purchase. At tastings, fellow fans discussed their own collections, and online, I discovered Jason Pyle’s excellent website, Sour Mash Manifesto, and “ralfystuff,” a YouTube channel featuring Scotsman Ralfy. He’s a tough critic, but dead on in his analysis.
Within a year, my collection was approaching 20 bottles, and I was hosting tastings for friends. I’d progressed from convert to evangelist.
Finding new product was growing difficult, until another tasting opened the floodgates. Finally, I discovered what many aficionados revere most of all, peated Islay whiskies like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Caol Ila.
Today, America shares space with Scotland and Ireland in my pantry, and local liquor stores know to call me when a hard-to-find bottle comes in stock. I probably could have leased a Ferrari for a month for what I’ve spent over the last two years, but my wife can hear the passion in my voice when I justify walking through the door with a $100 bottle of Ardbog. Whiskey is like life—it’s meant to be savored.