By Johnny Griffith
If you mention the word “Bourbon” in certain circles, you’re sure to instigate several conversations, some which might even get heated. America’s native spirit has no shortage of myths and opinions surrounding it, nor does it have a shortage of people who enjoy it. Bourbon is currently enjoying a renaissance and, as such, there is more of the brown liquid, and distilleries producing it, than ever before. With so many options to choose from, and the process not lending itself to fly-by-night success, the possibility of spending your hard earned money on a subpar bottle of bourbon is very real. Combine this with the fact that more and more people are trying it and loving it and you have the perfect excuse to start the East Texas Bourbon Society.
Not that one needs much of an excuse to hang out with other people who all have an appreciation for the taste, history, and experience of bourbon, but the ETBS is more than just a justification for a little imbibing on a Tuesday night. Born out of a desire to create a more educated consumer and to peel back the layers of the famous drink from Kentucky (maybe), local businessmen and bourbon enthusiasts Andrew Griffith and Cole Tomberlain saw an opportunity to share their passion with others and grow their own knowledge in the process.
I recently sat down with Andrew and a couple of glasses to get more info on the East Texas Bourbon Society.
Johnny: So how did the idea of the East Texas Bourbon Society form? Were you guys just sitting around enjoying a glass of the good stuff one day and decided it would be a great idea or what?
Andrew: Well, it pretty much all but came up like that. Cole and I are a dangerous pair when we get to thinking big – as our wives will attest to. The idea came from Cole while we were working on this year’s Bourbon & Bow Ties event, a very successful fundraiser for the World of Wonders Children’s Museum in downtown Longview. Cole started it just a few years ago and it has grown to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars since then. We thought, this event is so much fun and raises so much money for a great organization – wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate bourbon like this on a more regular occasion, use it as a fundraising platform on its own, and in the process extend the success of Bourbon & Bow Ties in February? Of course, our wives saw straight the ruse and said we just wanted an excuse to go sit around and drink bourbon on a weeknight and call it a good deed!
However, Cole and I really did want to have a place to really nerd out about bourbon. We are at the peak of a five year “bourbon boom” and still a lot of people don’t really know what makes a whiskey a bourbon or about the rich history of the distilled spirit as an American creation with a protected designation of origin. We wanted people to have the knowledge and confidence to try new stuff and know how to pick something they like by knowing how to read a label or look at the mash-bill and age statement.
The idea developed pretty quickly and just as fast as we got excited about presenting some good drinks and finding some fine folks to talk with us about bourbon – we got nervous that maybe all people really wanted was a drinking club. Luckily, bourbon does a lot of heavy lifting. It inspires people pretty easily and it’s a fascinating topic. Now, we enjoy monthly meetings in two different cities where we get to taste fine whiskies and have great group discussions about their stories.
Johnny: What about bourbon is so fascinating that it draws enough of a crowd to have a group like this?
Andrew: I think a lot of it has to do with the history. Bourbon is an American original. Part of the New World. America is a melting pot and our culture is this beautiful tapestry of what everyone brought with them. Other countries have long-standing, proud traditions of craftsmanship and dedication to a skill passed from generation to generation – most with their own designation of origin. The artisans in the Parma Region of Italy have been proudly making Parmigiano-Reggiano since the 13th century largely in the exact same way. We see this with artisans and their countries throughout the world of food and wine. Bourbon is ours. It can only be made here, by us, and the rules and laws we developed so many years ago. I feel like that sense of pride really lifts bourbon up in the hearts of Americans.
That being said… even without the history lessons, Bourbon has held its own from the start. The economics of bourbon through its early days, prohibition, and all the way through to its current boom are very interesting. But if history isn’t your thing, bourbon still has a certain appeal to it. Bourbon is the fuel of the artist and the working man alike. Bourbon is Hemingway bare-knuckle boxing with a cigar in his mouth and then sitting down to write a prose about that magic moment when the sun first peaks over the horizon. Bourbon is sophisticated, but also the friend you want at your back in a bar-fight. It sits on the shelf of the one-percenters that manage hedge funds and the one-percenters that manage motorcycle clubs. It doesn’t distinguish between race, sex, or wealth – it just wants to be shared. And as thanks, we share it.
Johnny: What is your goal with the Society and what do you feel some of the benefits of membership are?
Andrew: Our short-term goal is to have a good visit every month and share a little brown water. We hope to give folks enough information about bourbon to have the confidence to know what they like and how to find it. Long-term, as we are a charitable non-profit organization, the goal is to take that shared interest and grow it into something that also benefits the community through fundraising and benefits. Giving back to your community is very rewarding – being able to drink bourbon AND give back to your community is just the best of two worlds!
The benefits of being in the society are plentiful. Aside from the reward of giving back to the community, there are the more obvious rewards of friendship and drinking bourbon, of course! If philanthropy, fellowship, and firewater aren’t reason enough – get selfish and save yourself some big bucks!
Again, to go back to the comparison of the craft beer bubble we have seen, this is an incredible way to try many fine bourbons without breaking the bank. There is a high value and benefit associated to the opportunity to try out premium bourbons at this price point, accompanied by a full report on the history and unique qualities, plus tasting notes.
Johnny: How has the response been so far to the ETBS and has it met your expectations so far?
Andrew: We have been very happy with what we have seen in the group. Our numbers in Longview are growing right along with our more ambitious goals and we are developing the Tyler market as well, with a few other cities in the greater East Texas area already asking for a charter. Our goal is not to grow fast, but to grow smart. We don’t just want a lot of members, we selfishly want a lot of members that really like what the society is – both in our monthly meetings and our long-term goals. We are more than happy to take our time finding those folks and letting them find us. That being said, please tell your friends!
Cole and I have been pleasantly surprised with the response to the meetings. As I said before, we were nervous in the beginning that people might not share our enthusiasm for the history and details of each bourbon we try. We find that that is something our members not only like, but contribute to at each meeting in our group discussions.
Our next goal to hit before we expand to include another charter will be to start hosting more frequent fundraisers within our community and expand our support that way.
Johnny: When and where are you currently meeting?
Andrew: We very lucky to have two very handsome spots to gather every month. We host our meetings every third Tuesday of the month in Longview at Heritage Wine & Spirits, and every fourth Tuesday of the month at The People’s Petroleum Building (in the meeting space, behind Jack Ryan’s bar) in Tyler. We currently meet from 7-9pm.
Johnny: So I’m sure some people are wondering, since you’ve obviously been exposed to some good and not so good bourbons over the past few years, what is your overall favorite bourbon if you can pick any bottle, any vintage?
Andrew: Yikes! That is a tough one, for sure. I think when you take away the traditional allocated offerings like William Larue Weller, George T. Stagg, and of course Pappy VanWinkle, my pound for pound favorite would be Weller 12 year. Any member of the society will roll their eyes to hear me once again pine for this particular juice but true love just doesn’t care about the opinions of others.
When I first started really drinking bourbon – in those clumsy years when you transition from whiskey and coke to bourbon neat – I found this particular offering as a poorly placed well bourbon at a restaurant I managed. I fell in love with the flavor and the price. This was over ten years ago and for a fifth, the Weller 7 Year was shockingly under priced and the more developed 12 Year was only a few dollars more. It was my Huckleberry. I remember friends at the time arguing that my drink of choice couldn’t possibly be any good at that price but it was all I’d drink. As the years went by, people caught on and the production couldn’t keep up, as you can assume a 12 year production of anything wouldn’t be able to do. Weller 12 Year became scarce, followed by its kid brother the 7 Year. The 7 Year never came back and became a blended version of different age statements, but the 12 Year is still out there. It is harder to find, but it is still an incredible value.
Johnny: How about your favorite bourbon that is easily accessible in this region?
Andrew: Angel’s Envy. The further into my own Bourbon education that I go, the more I realize that I am a big fan of two things: wheated bourbons and second finishes. Angel’s Envy falls into the second finishes category, simply meaning that after its aging process in the required charred new American Oak barrel to earn its classification as a bourbon, it is moved to a different barrel for further aging. That second barrel could be anything. Woodford’s Double-Oaked moves it from one charred new American Oak barrel after several years right into another one for just a little bit longer. Maker’s 46, another one of my favorite and accessible offerings, achieves a new level of flavor and sophistication by simply adding seared French Oak staves into the same barrel it has been aging in towards the end of its production. Since I am so nostalgic, Angel’s Envy earns my vote because it was the first time I tried a second finish and recognized something special enough to actually research it and figure out how it got there, learning about its process of taking their Kentucky Straight Bourbon and finishing it in a port wine cask. I was so impressed with it. It also opened my eyes to the fact that a traditional Kentucky bourbon accounts for one branch on the bourbon family tree. It is still a regular favorite of mine.
Johnny: What are some of the tastings and events coming up on the radar over the next couple of months?
Andrew: Coming up in August, we will be doing a flight of Texas Bourbons. It will be very interesting for a few reasons. One, people still have a common misconception that it isn’t bourbon if it’s not from Kentucky. It is very interesting to see how the super diverse climate in Texas is changing the whole bourbon aging process and therefore becoming the crown jewel of craft distilleries. Second, because we Texans are a very proud bunch!
In September, we will also be hosting a blind tasting on the Jim Beam family tree. The blinds are fun and we always feature them on a flight where the brand name packs a lot of preconceived notions – both good and bad – and often forgets that the most commercially successful offering is not the heart and soul of a distillery.
In between, we hope to take a couple of group trips to a few distilleries that have offered the ETBS private tours, a visit to a local collector that has a noteworthy collection of popular American whiskey, a cigar-pairing tasting outside of the regular meeting, and hopefully an open to the public get-together somewhere in there too. Keep an eye out on that internet thing everyone is always talking about for news about some of those irregular events that may peak your interest.
Be sure to check out the East Texas Bourbon Society on the World Wide Web:
Andrew Griffith answers questions at a recent Tyler gathering of the ETBS
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