The Great Bourbon Taste Test
What happens when a dozen-odd whiskey aficionados, led by one maniacally obsessed Southern chef and the reigning bourbon king, gather to test twenty-four years’ worth of a legendary brand? Among other things, a hell of a good time
“I’m not sure we’ve got enough bourbon,” said the chef Sean Brock on the morning of the epic whiskey tasting. Brock was joking. The quantity of bourbon in the room had turned the daylight brown.
Bourbon was not only the dominant decor in Brock’s downtown Nashville loft; it was, by volume, the primary occupant. Crowding Brock’s living room were geriatric gallons of Old Grand-Dad and Old Fitzgerald, enthroned on their own miniature rocking chairs. Imp-scale bottles peeped out from behind cured hams (another form of furniture here). Against the near wall stood a four-shelf bookcase stacked three deep with bottles that would make a bourbon fancier take out a second mortgage. Shelved there were delicious antiques including but not limited to Old Rip Van Winkle, David Nicholson 1843, and Very Very Old Fitzgerald, which Brock sells at his acclaimed restaurant Husk for $240 per pour.
The business at hand, however, was not Brock’s deep holdings but a lately acquired army of fifths, pints, and handles crowding the kitchen island. With the help of his girlfriend, Adi Noe, Brock—known for his Charleston, South Carolina, restaurants McCrady’s, Minero, and also Husk, whose Nashville branch opened in 2013—was draining the bottles into anonymously numbered flasks for the day’s blind tasting.
From left: Bottles of W. L. Weller Special Reserve; Brock and his dog Ruby in front of a portion of the chef's bourbon collection; bourbon samples.
The collection represented a twenty-four-year “vertical” of W. L. Weller Special Reserve containing a bottle from every year from 1987 to 2010. Vintage Weller is a substance direly coveted by bourbon fanatics. It is a close sibling of Pappy Van Winkle, a bourbon over which the whiskey world has lately gone insane. Empty bottles of Pappy can sell on eBay for upwards of a hundred dollars. A full bottle, when it can be found, will set you back thousands. The good news is that modern-day Weller is a lot easier to find than Pappy, and it is genetically identical to the celebrated stuff. Weller and Pappy enter the world in the same distillation. As they age, the most extraordinary barrels get set aside for the Van Winkle line. The unchosen ones are sent off to market under the Weller label at a bit north of twenty dollars a bottle, within reach of the common man.
In Chef Brock’s unguarded opinion, vintage Weller is “the best damn whiskey ever made in the whole world. You taste it and you have to have it, no matter the cost. Then you become obsessed with different labels and expressions and years, and then you wake up one day and you have way too much whiskey in your apartment.”
The loosely scientific purpose of today’s gathering was to determine which bottlings and distilleries have produced the tastiest Weller. This advance in whiskey knowledge, Brock explained, had come at considerable inconvenience and strain. “This will only happen once,” he said, topping off a taster’s flask. “It’s a pain in the ass and it’s expensive as hell.”
Assembling the twenty-four Wellers took him the better part of a year and the better part of ten thousand dollars. So where did he find all of these obscure bottlings? I asked Brock. He looked at me as though I’d demanded power of attorney. “It’s a secret,” replied the chef, a solid, low-built man of thirty-seven with plentiful tattoos. “If I tell you where I bought it, then you’ll go buy it all, and then I’ll kick your ass, and then we’re not friends anymore.”
Sampling all twenty-four bottles would be a full day’s work running from noon to night in two shifts with a lunch break in between. Right around twelve o’clock Brock’s team of connoisseurs arrived. There were twelve or so of them, I think (soon into the tasting, they became hard to count). Mostly from out of state, they were a disparate bunch of middle-aged men who had intersected over the Internet at a common node of bourbon obsession. There was Mike, a guy from Pennsylvania who, in addition to ransacking “dusties” from the storerooms of rural liquor stores, worked for a water quality bureau and also collected jeeps. There was a hulking man named Jared, the whiskey curator of the Washington, D.C., bar Jack Rose. Rampant peptic ulcers had forced Jared onto the wagon, but his commitment to bourbon was so intense that he had traveled more than five hundred miles merely to smell the Wellers. There were guys who worked in restaurants and residential construction and a guy who claimed to be the campus chaplain at a university in Florida. Beyond maleness, their only ostensible common thread was a nearly hazardous degree of whiskey expertise. To get into conversation with these fellows was to become a receptacle for information about tax stamps, the history of sour mash, Distilled Spirits Plants codes, and the chemistry of barrel char.
Elevating the gathering from an assembly of serious bourbon hobbyists to a conclave of the royal whiskey society was the arrival of Julian Van Winkle III and his son Preston. Julian III is the president of the Old Rip Van Winkle company. He is the grandson of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., the late co-owner of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which sits at the headwaters of the Weller/Van Winkle bourbon streams. It was Julian III who first bottled the Pappy Van Winkle line of whiskeys and who also made a bourbon extremist out of Sean Brock.
Julian Van Winkle takes a deep whiff.
“I wasn’t a bourbon fanatic until I drank Pappy Van Winkle, which wasn’t until 2007,” Brock recalled. At that point, he had been confining his culinary relentlessness to the meticulous sourcing of heritage rice strains, cowpeas, grits, and Ossabaw Island hogs. In 2008, Van Winkle collaborated with Brock on a Pappy Van Winkle dinner at McCrady’s. After that, Brock fell into an obsession whose ferocity outstripped Van Winkle’s own.
“Damn,” said Van Winkle, taking in Brock’s bourbon rack. “And I thought I had it bad.” Then Van Winkle turned toward Brock, and in a coals-to-Newcastle gesture, presented the chef with a bottle of twelve-year-old Weller. “What do you want for it?” Brock asked.
“I don’t know,” said Van Winkle, musing. “Let me drink good whiskey all day, I guess.”
By now, the connoisseurs were getting restless. They were up on their toes. They were ready to drink. A visiting journalist, however, was feeling pangs of concern. While the rudiments of bourbon drinking are not lost on me, twenty-four was more glasses of whiskey than I usually have in one go. Grateful though I was to be along for this once-in-a-lifetime binge, I did wonder how much of the vertical I would manage to blind-taste while remaining vertical with sight left in my eyes. The temptation was strong to batten down, to put leashes on my wallet, phone, and keys, to pin to my lapel the address of my hotel. Still, this was anxious expectancy of a pleasurable kind, like anticipating the onset of a sumptuous typhoon.
But in his wisdom Chef Brock had laid in a hospitable array of sobriety preservers: a fleet of deviled eggs, pimento cheese and crackers, ham biscuits with pickled cauliflower, and a saw-your-own hog leg over by the bourbon shelf, a saber jutting from the meat.
There was no spittoon in sight.