Whiskey Journeys: The British Bourbon Society

Bourbon cabinet at Barbecoa, London
Bourbon cabinet at Barbecoa, London

All photos courtesy the British Bourbon Society. 

When settlers came to The United States from Great Britain, they brought stills and the knowledge of whiskey making with them. In Colonial America they were producing rye whiskey, but as settlers migrated further south and west they found corn grew better in that location and started producing corn whiskey in what is today the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Eventually they began putting their corn whiskey into charred oak barrels- mimicking European brandies- and the identity of bourbon whiskey was formed.

Now bourbon has gained popularity all over the world, including in the country from which many of our whiskey-making ancestors came. In time for Independence Day, it seemed fitting to catch up with Andrew Watson, known better as The Bourbonator, about the formation of The British Bourbon Society, a group he recently formed with friends in London who love bourbon.

Maggie Kimberl: How long have you been interested in bourbon? What was your "aha" moment?

Bourbon Society tasting flight at Barbecoa
Bourbon Society tasting flight at Barbecoa

Andrew Watson: I'd say I've been into bourbon seriously for about 3 years, and have been drinking it as a novice for a few years more. I, like many of my generation knew that bourbon existed though had little experience of it other than JD* and Coke served as a staple at student parties served in plastic cups or if you were traveling somewhere, a 1 litre plastic bottle which tasted progressively worse as it warmed and diluted with backwash.

Fast forward to my 30s and gone is my inhuman tolerance to subpar alcohol consumption, coupled with an inability to sleep anything off (2 year olds tend not to care you have a hangover) and my modus operandi for drinking changed irrevocably. Opportunities for social drinking now few and far between, it started to make more sense to enjoy the good stuff when the opportunity eventually presented itself.

whiskey flight bbs
whiskey flight bbs

It was my dad that introduced me to bourbon properly on my 30th birthday, putting the world to rights with me over a bottle of Woodford Reserve that subsequently wrote off the rest of my weekend. What lasted longer than the headache however was my enjoyment of the spirit and I started to read reviews online before taking the decision to buy a bottle of my own. Blanton’s Gold was the bottle I settled on, It looked expensive with its brass stopper shaped like a horse racer, surely there was no better way to start my collection? A no-brainer you might say, and of course, the taste didn’t disappoint, thus becoming my 'Sideways moment'. From there I bought a 2013 Four Roses Single Barrel LE and my obsession was born. My dad still drinks bourbon with me and we put the world to rights together as we always have, but now the hangover is cask strength!

Taking things to the next level (as is normally the course for my ever increasing list of hobbies), I started a blog www.thebourbonator.co.uk which afforded me a platform and air of legitimacy to my new found drinking habits, posting regularly on Twitter and Instagram reviewing anything I could get my hands on and attending industry events. Social media has played a very big part in raising the profile for UK bourbon lovers, bringing the beginnings of a close knit community of enthusiasts together. Twelve of us have been in constant communication through a Twitter message group and from there, we have formed what is now known as the British Bourbon Society. Within a month we have grown to over 100 members where we share our thoughts and experiences with American whiskey and try to share tips on where to find bottles in the UK at the best prices. We also arrange group bottle raffles for members at retail cost to provide the opportunity to own rare whiskey that would otherwise be impossible to find on these shores without paying secondary prices. To date, we have had 3 raffles for a High West Yippee Ki-Yay, Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 21 and a ’16 Michter’s 10 Bourbon.

MK: What kinds of events do you have with your fellow Londoners who love bourbon?

old fitz bbs
old fitz bbs

AW: There's a place called Milroys of Soho, in London that is the oldest whiskey establishment in town, run by a few young upstarts that are as into whiskey as anyone can be. This has become the accepted headquarters, if you will, for our meetings, bottle/sample swaps and general nerd-baiting repartee. The proprietors are also members of our group and have been staunch supporters of the cause since its inception and we feel as though this is our very own whiskey themed version of Cheers (though they still don’t know our names).

In terms of formal group events, we have worked with Barbecoa bar in London, which is an American BBQ restaurant owned by Jamie Oliver to put together a ticketed ‘Bourbon & BBQ’ tasting event which was a resounding success. Our next events being discussed are a Pappy Van Winkle horizontal tasting at a well-known burger restaurant, a monthly bourbon flight tasting at a prestigious steak restaurant (known for their unicorns behind the bar such as Bitter Truth and Rathskeller) and a bowling alley in Manchester with a fantastic bourbon list including Weller 19. There are a lot of new places popping up all over this Island and you can bet that if there’s bourbon worth drinking, the British Bourbon Society will find it!

We are also currently discussing various collaborations with other groups based in the US and Europe to grow our network and ability to access great whiskey. The ultimate goal for the group is to set up a barrel picking program of our own, leveraging from partnerships and industry contacts.

MK: How and where do you buy your bourbon? Do you ever run into supply problems?

private Elijah Craig bourbon barrel selection at Barbecoa, London
private Elijah Craig bourbon barrel selection at Barbecoa, London

AW: The UK is no exception in terms of the increasing difficulty to source particular bottles. I was just that little too late to the party to remember seeing Pappy on shelves at retail prices (still waiting for that time machine) though we are now at the stage where I think lottery systems are an unfortunate inevitability. Demand has outstripped supply and allocation so when BTAC hits in September, there are thousands crashing the websites to get their hands on a bottle now. This was apparent last year with no fewer than 3 separate websites crashing minutes after BTAC [Buffalo Trace Antique Collection] was released. Interestingly enough, I sourced my bottles from good old fashioned walk ins and relationships forged with shop owners, happy to sell to an enthusiast assured that it was going to a good home. Pappy Van Winkle is still easier to purchase here than it is in the States (from what I understand), with the Van Winkles working with just one retailer that do not sell them online. That appears to be changing soon with other distribution channels likely so we will either have more competitive pricing or just more opportunity for retailers to maximize profit in line with the secondary market.

The well-worn Pappy/BTAC issues aside, our ability to source great bottles and new releases is in a pretty good shape. Store allocations are growing as bourbons’ popularity allows them to shift more standard bottlings granting them a higher allocation of the premium bottles. Barmen up and down the country class the ability to make a perfect Old Fashioned as a rite of passage, Mint Juleps and Sours now firmly in the psyche of the bar hopping elite. It’s a bit of a golden age right now for American whiskey here and I’m still not sure if we’re at the apex of the upwards curve, all I know is we are happy to be in the center of it!

It does appear that the focus of bourbon distribution is concentrated in the capital and those that are unable to get to London may miss out on certain new bottle releases (such as the Michters 10s) but with online only stores such as Master of Malt, it is possible for anyone to get their hands on great American whiskey. One of the best presents I’ve received actually was an advent calendar last year put together by Master of Malt containing a new bourbon sample for every day which is a fun way to try many you may not have tried before without purchasing the bottle.

From what I understand from speaking with the UK brand manager for Buffalo Trace, the UK represents one of the biggest markets (if not the) in terms of how much we are prepared to spend on whiskey. Whilst there are markets that buy more in terms of volume such as France and Australia, the premium bottle expenditure is higher here.

MK: Do you like all whiskeys or just bourbon? Do most of the people in your group feel the same way?

Saz 18
Saz 18

AW: I think I can speak on behalf of the group by saying that we are fans of all whiskey. An understanding of the process and how changing slight variations can yield wildly different results is what we all appreciate. When people ask, 'do you prefer bourbon or Scotch' it's a question I refuse to answer simply as would be unfair to pit them against each other in the same way I would not compare tequila and mezcal.

I do think that American whiskey is far more accessible and non-pretentious in its approach to engaging with the drinkers. Scotch at the highest level can at times be elitist with bottles fetching inordinate amounts of money that the buyer (usually dressed in tweed) will rarely even drink. It has become an appreciating asset that form investment portfolios and I don’t think (yet) there are American whiskeys that people look at today in the same way. This could change of course, but most of these bottles are annual releases and none are aged longer than 25 years so it would be difficult for many to ever command such a high retail price. Michter's Celebration is the only bottle I can think of that comes close and was really just clever marketing to reinforce the ethos of the brand, hence requiring an ornate wooden box to put it in, fit for Liberace’s dentures.

To sum it up, our hearts are with American and it would take one look at our obscene bunkers to confirm this, though there is a world of whiskey out there that would be a mistake to shut the door on. Asia is producing some fantastic blended whiskey and single malts with the Yamazaki Sherry Cask now a permanent fixture on the ‘I’ll cut my arm off for’ annual release list. Parkers Malt was an interesting example of an attempt to please both camps and polarized many. A nice experiment but essentially, I couldn’t help thinking back to my first point, they’re different drinks with different (though similar) production rules and perhaps both left to be enjoyed on their separate merits.

Mood and situation also plays a big part in dram selection, a roaring fire on a cold winters night with a glass of heavily peated whisky such as Lagavulin, Laphroiag or Ardbeg seems to be the perfect accompaniment, then a roaring BBQ flame whilst cooking outside on a hot day was made for a glass of Michter's Toasted. There’s a whiskey for all occasions if you have enough bottles!

MK: Are most of the people in your group British natives or are there more American expats?

AW: As it stands, there is just one American expat in our group, though he is leaving to return to the States this month. He was the first person I got talking to in the UK seriously about bourbon through Twitter and the first person I have ever met up with through social media (Tinder wasn't around in my heyday). The group has grown exponentially with his input and he has been an integral part in getting the UK bourbon scene off the ground. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, "we need another resident American expat" so will hold American Idol style auditions in the near future. (Please apply.)

Andrew Watson (L) mugging with Michter's and Bourbon Society pal at Barbecoa, London
Andrew Watson (L) mugging with Michter's and Bourbon Society pal at Barbecoa, London

All those of legal drinking age are welcome in our group, though our focus is on growing the bourbon community in the UK so are encouraging those that either live in the UK or are here frequently/infrequently to come forward and be part of the events and chatter we are all now enjoying. We encourage bottle and sample swaps between members and want people to use the group to try as many and learn about as much of American whiskey as they can.

MK: Has your love of bourbon translated into fondness for any other aspects of American history or culture?

AW: I have always been interested in American culture, it’s unavoidable as it’s part of everyday life, from what you listen to, to what you eat, to what you watch on television. Since drinking bourbon, my interest in American history has definitely grown alongside it. Reading books such as Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler and Bourbon Curious by Fred Minnick has provided great insight into the truths (and convenient truths) of the American whiskey industry. The spirit has followed the birth of the nation and has weathered a few storms along the way to get to the barrel boom we have today. I think it’s particularly interesting how marketing has played such a big part in the spirits evolution. Just looking at old posters for bourbon, it opens up a window into the zeitgeist of the time in terms of attitudes to sexuality, gender and race as well as what marketing companies believed would resonate with the target demographics. I saw one from Evan Williams that had a split picture of a young unassuming schoolgirl on the left and then to the right is the same girl but with bleach blonde hair and a heaving chest, the slogan underneath read, “The longer you wait, the better it gets.” Political correctness of today would have had a field day with that one!