August 2020

5 Drinks with The Bluffton Bourbon Club: Raising a glass to the great American spirit with one of Bluffton’s coolest not-so-secret societies

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

Barry takes on the Bourbon Club
(from left to right): Bryan Baker, Barry Kaufman, James Atkins, Kevin Sevier and Brian Witmer

What We’re Drinking
Bourbon that costs more than my car, including but in no way limited to a 12-year Pappy Van Winkle, a barrel-proof Colonel E.H. Taylor and the Bluffton Bourbon Club’s custom Woodford blend.

The Bluffton Bourbon Club had already set out the spread of high-end hooch by the time I arrived at Old Town Bluffton Inn. Bryan Baker, Kevin Sevier, James Atkins and Brian Witmer are four of the principals from the 25-member-strong club, which meets regularly to sample some of Kentucky’s finest. As an avid bourbon enthusiast who generally drinks on a freelance writer’s budget, this represented a chance to sip above my station and meet some real experts.

BK: You guys even have your own tasting glasses; that’s so cool. Now I notice you rolling it on its side before you sip, what’s the story there?
Kevin Sevier: To me, it’s more of a game than anything else. Some people will say it lets it open up. The idea behind these glasses is that it opens at the bottom, and then when you drink, it opens it on your nose. When you go to tastings in bourbon country, they’ll take the glass and literally roll it underneath their nose while they’re smelling it. They’re picking up the nose; to me, with this one I get a little bit of black cherry. Someone else’s olfactory is going to pick up something different.

BK: I see. So, I am detecting notes of … bourbon. I’m not very good at this.
Brian Witmer: There are no wrong answers. A lot of people will be like, ‘I don’t know what I taste, but I like this.’ I’m looking for something with an interesting nose. I like when it goes down my throat and I can feel it burn. They call it a Kentucky hug. You can taste flavor in that. A really good one, that flavor will stay with you for a while after you swallow it. That’s what I’m looking for. When we do blinds, we usually put out some bottles that are $20 and some that are $300. If you like the $20 best, you’re the winner. I think it’s interesting when we do it that way.

BK: So, what is it about bourbon that drew you guys together?
KS: For most of us, it was something we had experienced in life and maybe had some bad experiences in college because we had cheap stuff. For whatever reason, it’s really a Southern drink, and we all gravitate to it.
James and I went on a trip up to bourbon country with Josh from Corner Perk, and shortly after we got back, we said, ‘We really need to get a club going.’ So, then Witmer was into it and we found a few more, and it was really word of mouth; people we knew were into it. We started off kind of easy. I think we had 10, 12 members the first year we did it.

James Atkins: By the end of the year we doubled it, and then we capped it at 25 because you get 24 1-ounce pours out of a bottle. We taste four bottles at a time and finish them all, but if we have more than that there…
KS: We have to buy multiples, and it changes. I think going to 50 it loses some casualness. We all know each other well enough now, and we have private text chains where we razz each other like guys do. A little locker room talk, y’know. I think if we got to 50, we would lose some of that.

We’ve used this venue. Vince [Harrison, owner of Old Town Bluffton Inn] has been kind enough to share this with us. It’s good for them. It’s good publicity so people in the community can come in and see that this isn’t just for tourists. We’ve used the Roasting Room at Corner Perk. We’ve used the space above my office… It’s not just professionals in the business world. We’ve got guys who are carpenters and guys who are out painting houses. We’re not an elite group of guys, and we’ve never pretended to be that. We don’t want to be that.

BK: That’s pretty keeping with the character of bourbon. There’s sophistication to it, but it’s the working man’s hooch.
KS: Exactly. And we’ll have bottom shelfers and top shelfers at most of our tastings. Witmer’s in charge of our tastings. He has a great palate for tasting notes and loves research. He’s put some really cool tastings together. We’ve been relying on him to get all of our picks.
BW: I always try and learn something, honestly. There are times when you think because something’s more expensive it’s going to taste better (shakes his head no). And then there are things I never would have bought off the shelf. We put them in lineup; they go for $25 a bottle, and it’s fantastic.

BK: Have there ever been any that just completely missed the mark?
JA: When we did the South Carolina night … those are meant for mixed drinks. That should have been a cocktail night.
BW: I’m hoping Burnt Church Distillery can change the South Carolina landscape. We’ve done some tastings with Sean and Billy [Watterson] and they’re on the right track.
KS: We got to do a tasting with three or four of their products and give feedback. They have one called, I think, the Bluffton Whiskey that’s amazing.

BK: What’s the story behind the Bluffton Bourbon Club bottle here?
KS: We’ve done three barrel picks now: an Old Forester Barrel, a Whistle Pig Rye 14-year-old, and the last one was the Woodford. So, we got to go up and taste six different bottles; we said we just want one individual bottle, and they told us you have to blend two together. We picked two; we blended them on the spot.
When they blend it, they want that consistence of flavor, and then they water it down to their proof. So even if you do a barrel pick from Woodford, they’re going to water it to their proof, and that’s the only way they send it out. We put together a Woodford that does not taste like Woodford. (At this point, someone in the group audibly muttered, ‘And that’s a good thing.’)
KS: Yeah, that was intentional. The Whistle Pig, Witmer named it; he calls it Christmas. You’re drinking Christmas. It tastes like baking spices, cinnamon … you take a sip and it’s like you just walked in and mom was baking a pie. It has that great potpourri. And because it’s single barrel, it doesn’t taste like any Whistle Pig you’ve ever tasted before.

BK: You mentioned that Josh Cooke was a founding member. So, the new Corner Perk opening up right next to your office—that’s not a coincidence, right?
KS: (pointing to Atkins) Guess who the architect is? Guess who my architect was? Guess who talked me into putting a bourbon room on the second floor of my office?
JA: All I said was you need a large conference room on the second floor.
KS: It was designed as a bourbon room.
JA: We had fun designing it though.

BK: We talked earlier about how expensive bourbon isn’t necessarily the best. This may be heresy, and I don’t want to sound unappreciative, but I didn’t really care for the aftertaste on that Pappy.
JA: We’ve had the opportunity the last couple of years to do a tasting with Julian Van Winkle. One of the years, there was a pretty bad review of their 20 year—arguably, one of their most expensive bottles to buy. One of the reviews went to the words of, ‘It tastes like a wet leather boot.’ When we asked Julian about it, he didn’t say no. He said, ‘Taste it and tell what you think afterward.’
That year, we tasted a 10, 12, 15 and a 20. Everyone wants to gravitate toward the oldest because you think it’s the best, but it was the worst of the four. This was a 2018 12, so this is not Buffalo Trace Juice yet.

BK: What does that mean?
JA: There are only so many distilleries in the U.S. E.H. Taylor is made by Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s is made by Buffalo Trace….
BW: The other big one is Heaven Hill. They make Evan Williams, Elijah Craig … they’re probably the largest. U.S.-owned brand.

BK: Are there foreign distilleries? I thought by definition bourbon had to be domestic. What are the legal parameters there?
JA: All bourbon has to be under 150 proof to be bourbon. If it’s over that, it has to be dumped.

BK: Dumped? There has to be a market for flammable rotgut.
JA: I’m sure it doesn’t get dumped. I’m sure something gets done with it.
BW: They can call it whiskey; they just can’t call it bourbon.
KS: It has to be 50 percent corn, it has to be made in the United States, and it has to be aged in an American oak barrel—a new American oak barrel.
JA: It’s a very wasteful process. One barrel and then it’s out.
BW: But you can buy the barrel. They’re used for all sorts of different things — whether it’s beer or furniture. I have a bourbon barrel in my house; it’s become a piece of furniture.
Bryan Baker: We have distributors come in and do tastings. We had Old Forester come in and one of their products … they use the exact same recipe as their bourbon in a used barrel and they call it their American whiskey because they can’t call it bourbon. So, if you ever see an Old Forester American Whiskey, it’s exactly the same recipe as their standard bourbon; they’re just repurposing the barrel. And it’s far better. It’s smooth, it’s a little more mellow… It’s nuts.

BK: Since most of us aren’t dropping this much on bourbon, what are some good approachable bottles you could recommend?
BW: Old Forester 1910 and 1920 are great bottles, in my opinion. They’re closer to $60, but you can find them on the shelf. Elijah Craig barrel proof is another one. I like the barrel proof stuff; I just think you taste more of the true whiskey. Evan Williams single barrel I think is great. And Early Times bottled in bond, which is $25 per liter. I know everyone’s not a fan, but Wild Turkey makes a very nice bourbon. Wild Turkey 101 has a nice punch to it. For what you pay, you get a very flavorful whiskey.
JA: Look for Johnny Drum. It’s made by Willett, but it’s under a separate label and I think it’s a fantastic pour for $20. If you want to splurge a little, Booker’s is great. It used to be $49.99; I think it’s $79.99 now. It comes in a wooden box, and it’s all barrel strength.

BB: If you’re not a drinker, though, you’ll typically want something smooth, and that means lower proof. I watched this documentary about the ’70s when everything was going ‘light’ and the younger generation were all drinking gin and clear spirits. So, the whiskey world said, ‘We’re going to have to tone this down,’ so they brought it down to 86 proof. When something didn’t turn out well, they were going to 86 it, and that’s where that term comes from.

They were bringing proofs down to get the younger generation to drink something they thought was their dad or mom’s spirit. That’s why it started to get diluted.

(At this point, we all break into the Colonel E.H. Taylor. As I pour myself what turns out to be a generous portion, all four men visibly shudder. It is immediately clear I have committed a serious error.)

JA: Let’s help Barry understand if he went to a bar and got a one-ounce pour of everything he’s had, what that would cost. The 12-year, they’re charging $50 or $60 for a one-ounce pour.

BK: How much would this cost me?
KS: That’s about a 2.5-ounce pour, so around $150.

BK: Woah. If you guys do feel like charging me, I can turn around and expense this to the magazine (NOTE TO MY PUBLISHER: I was totally kidding).
**KS:**(laughing) No! We say bourbon’s for sharing. Unless we’re buying a bottle, there’s no money that changes hands.
BB: We’re just telling you that so you can tell your friends, I went to this thing and probably drank about $500 worth of bourbon. We’re going to start calling you Eric. You gotta tell that story.
JA: We went on a bourbon trip; it was me, Kevin, Josh and Eric. We traveled up, and it was four days of intense bourbon drinking—like two hours of sleep and 40 hours of bourbon drinking
KS: So, we get to Willett, and this storm comes in. They told us they were going to cancel the tour.
JA: It’s not good to be in a brickhouse when there’s lightning. They’re very flammable.
KS: They let us come in and at least let us do a tasting, and it’s the normal pours: Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Johnny Drum, Pure Kentucky, Pot Still—all the mid-shelf pours made by Willett. We had met the master distiller Drew Kulsveen at a ham and bourbon pairing with Sean Brock in Palmetto Bluff. We’re sitting there and James is like, ‘Text Drew saying thanks for setting that up.’ So, I text him and he says ‘Are you still there? I can be there in five minutes.’
Drew rolls up in this blacked out Land Rover and says, ‘Do you want a tour?’ We thought the tour was shut down, and he says, ‘No, do you want a tour?’ If there was a mop closet at Willett, we got to see it. We even got to climb up into the brickhouse.
JA: Then rather than going back to the gift shop, Drew took us back to his lab, opened the cabinets, and said, ‘Try anything you want.’
KS: Our buddy Eric runs out to the bathroom, while Drew puts out this spread…
JA: One is 25-year-old rye whiskey. On the secondary market they probably go for three grand.
KS: We’re all trying to be gentle, thanking Drew for the pours. I go for the 25-year-old. If he’s going to let me drink it, I’m gonna go right to the 25-year-old-rye every time. It was a money pour. Eric comes back, we’re all sitting there, he grabs the 25-year-old and he’s like, (pantomiming a pour that puts mine to shame) glug, glug, glug. We all just jump—‘woah!’
JA: Eric’s like, ‘What did I miss?’
KS: It was probably a 3-4-ounce pour. Drew was just laughing his [posterior] off. 

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