Oxford, Mississippi chef John Currence (City Grocery, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast, and Snackbar) is fiercely passionate about bourbon, but to raise money for his foundation Move On Up Mississippi, which fights childhood obesity across the Magnolia State, he’s banking on your love of the smooth amber spirit—especially near impossible-to-find bottles. To get his hands on the really good stuff, Currence tapped a few well-connected friends and during the inaugural Oxford Bourbon Festival (May 18–20) will auction off a half-dozen rare bottles.
“I’ve worked a ton of wine auctions in my career,” Currence says. “But last fall, it struck me that I’d never been to a whiskey auction before—putting one together seemed like it would be a smash hit.”
For a price—remember, it’s for a good cause—you can scoop up a 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle that was bottled to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Currence’s City Grocery in 2011 from a barrel that Julian Van Winkle called the “best barrel he ever tasted.” A bottle of Jefferson’s Presidential Select aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels and packaged for the opening of Husk Charleston in 2009 is on the auction block, too. There’s even a bottle of single-barrel Willett that was selected by Sean Brock and Bill Murray—and is signed by Murray. But if you ask Currence, he’d put his money on the Van Winkle Rye, bottled from the last Stitzel-Weller barrels before the company changed the recipe. (Online bidding will be available, too, if you can’t make the trek to Oxford.)
The fest offers a full weekend of bourbon-soaked events, beginning with whisky- and wine-paired dinners on Friday night. Acclaimed chefs Mike Lata (FIG; Charleston), Asha Gomez (Third Space; Atlanta), Joe Kindred (Kindred; Davidson, North Carolina), Edward Lee (610 Magnolia; Louisville, Kentucky), and ten others will take over the kitchens in some of Oxford’s most beautiful homes, including the historic Ammadelle house on North Lamar Boulevard. Diners will head over to the restored Lyric theater for the dessert course and a performance by the soulful husband-and-wife duo, The War & Treaty.
On Saturday, sip bourbons from more than a dozen distillers—Angel’s Envy, Woodford Reserve, and Mississippi label Rich Grain among them—and sample whole-hog ’cue from South Carolina pit master Rodney Scott before the auction begins. In addition to the rare bottles, chef-driven trips to Charleston, Napa, and Nashville are up for grabs. (The Music City adventure comes with a pair of front-row center tickets to the Ryman Auditorium.) Or go big and bid on the weekend at Blackberry Farm with the legendary Tennessee country ham master Allan Benton.
Stay for the Milk Punch Brunch on Sunday for a much-needed eye-opener. “Traditionally made with brandy, it’s the cocktail I grew up watching adults drink when they needed to bounce back,” Currence says. For this crowd, naturally, he’s mixing up a stout bourbon-spiked batch.