We’d finished our tour at Willett and headed back into Bardstown, making our final assemblage in the tiny back parking spaces behind the Harrison Smith House, three cars loaded down like a holler-n-still Bedouin caravan, trunks brimming with bottles that ranged from ultra-old Brown and Foreman employee only gifts, to 1960’s Old Taylor decanters, to Willett’s first aged distillate. Aaron and John, the bourbon prophets from the Northland joined our party, towing a full complement of boxes and bottles in the back of the car that would be the envy of most bars and taverns in Kentuckiana. Aaron had driven down here through the Alberta Clipper that was pounding Chicago, and its chilled breezes followed him right across the rolling plains of northern Kentucky. The afternoon was cold, gray and it rained lightly on and off, a cool mist; the kind of sky you notice in old photographs of your grandparent’s house from winters long ago. Faded, darkened at the edges. The pours started immediately, and heavy. The aroma of duck fat simmering like a sacrifice to the God’s of Kentucky was wafting out of the kitchen windows. We huddled together around an old barrel, its top serving as our table, the Bar du Saint. Try this, try that, this is it. Lifesavers. Caramel char. Vanilla toffee. Cherry and anise. Papaw’s tobacco barn. I stood behind the barrel, hammering a recently released Willett 4 year old, barrel 69. Realizing we were consuming mass quantities of rare alcohol on a sidewalk in Kentucky on a Sunday, within blind sight of the county courthouse, I asked Sean if we were risking getting cited, or worse, arrested. In a heavy drawl that was only party slurred by the gulp he’d just choked down, he replied, “Man, we are in Bardstown. We would probably get arrested if we weren’t doing this.”
We carried on this way for an hour, getting louder and more rowdy. At some point Jamie walked up off the street with a box of liquid treasure to share. I did the math and we had roughly enough bourbon for every member of our party to drink 7 bottles before dinner. I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough.
A door cracked open from behind the historic Federal-style building of the Harrison Smith House. A wild-eyed bearded fellow says “Hey, are you guys, are you guys ok?”
We told him who we were. He said, “I’m Newman, I’m feeding you. You look like you need some water, I’ll bring some out.” He wasn’t far off; I’m fairly certain John had jaundice at that point.
We decided to move our party up off the street to the side patio of the house. Boxes filled with open bottles were arranged on the black iron table, filled to the breaking point with every Four Roses limited edition single barrel, small batch and ultra-aged gift shop release. The Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon Women fall release was a particular favorite in the chilly parking lot. There were wax top Willetts. Gift shop Willetts. Wheaters. A stellar line-up of Smooth Amblers. An old Old Overholt. Various private barrels of Russell’s Reserve. Knob Creek private picks. On and on and on. We drank glass after glass, having a better time with each sip, and the proceedings continued up until the point it started to rain. We would have been happy as it was, but Newman told us to go on in.
Standing and holding the door open for us, he said “Just head up there and set your boxes down.”
We followed Aaron, unquestioningly, up the stairs, arms loaded with bottles, and suddenly realized that our inebriated navigator had just led us into Newman’s private residence, with wife and kids staring back at us. It’s like the story of the driver who plows his car into a lake because his Garmin didn’t say “Turn.” We waved stupidly, and walked backwards down the stairs. I was actually sweating from embarrassment. Newman seemed unconcerned.
We re-arranged the bottles that still contained bourbon on a table in the dining room, then set out to drain them.
We all needed to eat. Newman laid out manna from heaven for us, both in the form of boudin filled egg rolls (which could be the greatest marriage of two foods in history) and an 11 year old bottle from Willett, known as The 2015 Whiskey Pig. The glencairns started appearing from left and right, with the ferocity of heavyweight boxers. I don’t think the server behind the bar was prepared for the ferocity with which we would attack the bar to be the first to get a pour of the Pig. Everyone wanted a pour, or a double. The Whiskey Pig was flowing. It was so perfect. I mean really. It was so sweet and powerful. It had a supreme burn, with perfect balance of oak and sugar. I felt special getting to sip and enjoy such a famous pour. (It deserves it’s own review, and it will get one soon.)
Newman brought our football helmet sized bowls overflowing with steak tartare, and little toasts to spread it on that tasted something like sweet cornbread.
Sean said, “Damn son, that’s a big ass bowl of tartare”, which he pronounced Tower Tower.
We drank and ate for eternity. I slammed a C22D wheater. God, I love Willett. The banter between new and old friends, an online fraternity who have been acquainted for no longer than an internet eternity. We talked shop, bourbon, favorites, picks, secret shelves, bunkers, etc. It was fantastic and frenetic. More pours. I grabbed a deep glass of 2010 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, my first foray with that edition. I dubbed it the “Better Than Anthing” pour.
Then the staff started bringing out plate after plate of food. Aged, smoked duck over a ring of grits, filled in the center with greens, slathered in a sauce so special that when I asked Newman to divulge the recipe, nee the ingredients, he looked at me inquisitively and said, “No idea, I just whisked together what tasted awesome. It’s great, right?” Uh, yeah. Great is an understatement. The chef and cooks at the Harrison Smith House would proceed to feed me what stands out as one of the top three meals I have ever eaten. A four year old aged pork belly and arugula salad over a grilled biscuit. A chorizo meatball over hominy and gravy, covered with a quail egg.
Just then a white wax Willett, a Dugz and Willyz 17yr old bottle, made it’s way around. I want to say I loved it, but I didn’t. It was pretty tobacco heavy, and I love tobacco, But it had this weird, acrid aftertaste that was just not good. On the heels of the barrel 826 and the Whiskey Pig, the Dugz never stood a chance. Over by the bar, Greg was ham fisting both Whiskey Pig and some bottle of old wine he had brought, nosing one after the other. I opened up my bottle of Lincoln Road Knob Creek dubbed “Sweetness”, which everyone liked. I ended up leaving that bottle for Newman to enjoy, seeing as how he took his night off to host our bourbon soiree.
Newman’s staff continued to bring out more courses. I really wish I could remember everything that we ate. It was all so choice. (Perhaps my compatriots can chime in here.) But I had consumed so much bourbon, my memory got a little cloudy. I remember looking over at Jamie at one point, eating a flourless chocolate tort covered in ooey gooey chocolate ganache, and grinning “Can you believe we get to do this?”
Another pour or two of Whiskey Pig. A glass of wine. Another 2010 Four Roses. Hell, I drank the 17yr white wax Willett from the bottle. Then, as the clock struck 2AM, Jamie killed the Pig. That was the ceremonial end to the evening.
I was wiped out, having consumed bourbon for a better part of the day, with more to come in a scant few hours. It was time for a curtain closing.
The last thing I remember saying was “Tomorrow, the pick.”
Next up: “Part 4 – We Pick the Barrel We Weren’t Supposed To Pick”