My Dad never drank alcohol, yet strangely it became something that bound us together in the last years of his life. Today, on what would have been his 72nd birthday (and the second since he’s been gone), I am struck by how much more this whiskey thing is than just liquid in a glass or some bubble ready to burst.
In 2003, I moved to Nebraska, leaving my family business and my life in Chicago behind. I know that hurt my Dad a lot, especially since my wife’s family was here and our first of three kids was on the way. We were always incredibly close up until that point and it took many years to repair the relationship.
My Dad was a pathological collector his entire life. He never did anything halfway: Coins, watches, Presidential documents, sports memorabilia, cigars, and so much more. I’m uncertain as to whether there is an actual genetic component to certain behaviors, or whether they are merely observed and modeled by children, but I inherited this particular one regardless. I collected baseball cards and comic books as a kid and moved on to CD’s and DVD’s as I got older. We had just begun working together full-time when the Beanie Babies craze hit in the mid-nineties, and we had such a blast storming the Hallmark stores and hunting for the rare ones together.
There seem to be two passionate segments of the whiskey world. On one side are the purists who drink it and enjoy it. They scoff at rare releases and curse the posers who snatch up all their beloved daily drinkers. On the other side are the collectors, who fill their basements with everything they can find, preserving them as trophies or flipping them for quick profits. I fall somewhere in the middle. I love the hunt because I buy good things that I want to drink. I also love the secondary market because I know I have an outlet for the things I don’t want, and I also trade bottles with people when neither of us can find what we want locally. Sometimes these are at our cost. The only bottles you’ll see on display at my house are open and empty.
Some of my favorite phone calls in recent years have been from my Dad at his local liquor store. He used to read every name on the shelf to me, even names of whiskeys you can find at the convenient store. My assistant would hear me saying, “Nope. Nope. Nope,” into the phone and she’d say, “Tell your Dad hello.” But my Dad was still my Dad, and he still had to remind me (in his own special way) that I was his son.
On one of his random calls, he asked me, “Do you have any of this Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year stuff?” I laughed and replied, “No, Dad, that’s pretty much the hardest bourbon to find on the planet.” After a classic pause, he said, “Ohhhhhh, maybe that’s why I was only able to get TWO of them.”
I told that story during his eulogy, which turned out to be a huge mistake because those two bottles ‘mysteriously’ disappeared sometime between the funeral and when they were supposed to be given to me. That’s not the end of the story, though. At a tasting event just a few weeks later, my name was pulled first out of a hat, and I went home with my Pappy Van Winkle 23. It was pretty emotional for me, and I like to think it was my Dad saying, “we both know what happened to those bottles and I’m making it right.” It doesn’t fully make it right for me, but it does reaffirm my belief that the world can be a magical place sometimes. And my Dad was always full of magic, even from the beyond.
In the time since my Dad’s passing, my brother has tiptoed into my Dad’s role of calling me from liquor stores. On his visit here a decade ago, he and I ran through an entire bottle of Woodford Reserve one night, but since then he’d become a devoted wine drinker. After I brought him a bottle of Blanton’s for the holidays last year, the spark was lit again in him.
September is Bourbon Heritage Month, and I have joined my Bourbon & Banter colleagues in a “30 Days of Bourbon” campaign on Instagram and Twitter. It’s really been fun picking out a different bottle to feature and drink each night of the month, and it has forced me to drink many of the bottles that haven’t been poured in awhile. For tonight, I make a special toast to my Dad with W.L. Weller 12. It was the last bottle he bought for me.
People say you should drink good bourbon neat, others say throw an ice cube in it if that’s how you enjoy it. The important thing is to not listen to what anyone says and do with your whiskey whatever makes you happy. Drink it, hoard it, put it on a shelf, or anything else you want to do. Whiskey is something that can mean so many different things to different people. For me, it will always be a link to my Dad and something special we shared together.