In today’s Bourbon landscape, where certain private barrel picks are coveted more than major limited edition releases, Ed Bley stands atop the mountain. He’s selected more than 200 individual whiskey barrels for a single store in just under 4 years’ time. His picks sell out before those who’ve camped out all night have even approached the entrance to Cork N’ Bottle. And if the experts are right about blending- if it truly is the next big wave in whiskey- then Ed will once again be right at the center of it all.
September 1st will be Ed’s last day behind the counter at Crescent Spring’s famous Cork N’ Bottle, a store he resurrected from the dead and turned into one of the top destinations in all of Kentucky. Following three ridiculously successful releases of his own blended concoctions, Ed Bley is opening a distillery.
“I use the term [distillery] loosely because we aren’t distilling anything,” he points out. Normally, this is where you’d sigh and mentally toss him into the basket of unexciting NDP’s (non-distilling producers) crowding store shelves everywhere. Except you aren’t likely to find Ed’s whiskeys sitting on store shelves anywhere because they’re different from everything else out there. And they have a cult following.
“We could have sold 2,400 bottles that morning if we had them,” he said, “at $110 a pop.”
It started two years ago with Old Baldy, a collaboration between Ed and Jeff Mattingly of Bourbon 30. A tiny 63-gallon blend of 11-year, 8-year and 4-year whiskeys, Old Baldy was such a runaway hit that a single one of the 320 bottles released is worth over $1,000. For a follow-up, Ed and Jeff tripled the release size of Old Baldy 2 and it still sold out instantly. “We could have sold 2,400 bottles that morning if we had them,” he said, “at $110 a pop.”
As if that weren’t enough, just last week Ed released a three barrel blend of Old Weller Antique that again sold out instantly. John Little (Smooth Ambler) used to jokingly tell him, “You can do anything you want to do, Ed. All you gotta do is open a distillery.” That comment, along with conversations he had with Jeff Mattingly, convinced him what he needed to do. “You get told that enough times and it starts to sink in.”
“You can do anything you want to do, Ed. All you gotta do is open a distillery.”
The new Northern Kentucky distillery will be called “Rising Tide Spirits” after the expression “a rising tide raises all ships.” While one might cynically interpret it as the Bourbon Boom lifts all producers, this is not at all why Ed chose it. Rather, Ed is honoring the opportunity he has in improving the lives of those around him by what he’s doing. Anyone familiar with the tremendous charity work Ed has been involved with understands his motivations.
There are no plans to distill whiskey at Rising Tide Spirits now or ever. “I’m very confident in the person that would be distilling knowing more about the actual distillation end of it than I do,” he explains, “I’m not known for that. I’m known for palate work.” Ed’s sole aim is “to release the best tasting whiskey we possibly can.” Sometimes that will be by blending and sometimes that will be as a single barrel release. Sometimes variations in proofing and filtration will be utilized. There will be different brands for each different style released at Rising Tide and there will literally be full transparency…right down to the all-glass building being designed. Both the whiskey and the destination will meet Ed’s guiding principle for all he does – “The Wow Factor.”
Ed’s heart and soul is in everything he touches, and that includes Cork N’ Bottle. Refusing to risk any deterioration of all he had worked to build, Ed handpicked his successor, Eric Bollmann, and has been working alongside him to ensure a smooth transition. They’ve even done barrel picks together. Eric brings experience picking barrels for DEP’s and, while he is genuinely respectful of what Ed has built, you can tell in his voice that he’s confident in his own abilities. This is great news for fans of the store, as Eric joins a team that Ed describes as “a level of knowledge that is unparalleled right now.”
The Old Baldy brand and its unique flavor profiles will remain with Jeff Mattingly at Bourbon 30. Rising Tide will be sourcing and experimenting with several different whiskeys, taking advantage of all the opportunities for variety. A contract distiller is being considered for some point in the future. There is even a Bourbon and Rum blend on the horizon that Ed thinks is going to blow people away. Possibilities such as these in the hands of a master like Ed Bley may very well shape the future of whiskey.
John Little saw the trend toward blending coming. So did Dixon Dedman (Kentucky Owl) and even giant Jim Beam (Little Book). “Bourbon now is like a kindergarten soccer game. It’s run-and-huddle. Something new comes out. Run-and-huddle,” Ed explains, “Blenders are not getting the attention they deserve.”
Getting attention has not been an issue for Ed Bley and the anticipation will most certainly build toward Rising Tide’s first release expected by Summer 2019 in Kentucky. Plans to later expand into other markets including Tennessee, Texas and Ohio are on the horizon. He is confident but it is clear he is having the time of his life. “I don’t work,” he says, “I go in and have fun every day.” From a guy who has to deal with 1,000 private messages every single release day, that is truly saying something.
Full disclosure: I have a friendship and a professional relationship with Ed and was honored to be invited to the roundtable discussion where Ed shared his future plans.