The Oracle of Bardstown
Being a young wine & spirits professional, I'm often confronted by customers regarding my youth and expertise. How could someone of your age be knowledgeable enough to sell me the right wine, whisky or cognac? I'll confess that working retail is by far the best way to learn this industry. There are, however, many ways to gain experience in our industry. When it comes to wine, you have countless resources -books and classes, seminars and tastings. Universities all over the world teach classes on oenology, viticulture, and even wine tasting/appreciation. The world of spirits however is much more difficult to grasp. Just finding a place to learn the craft of distillation is a difficult and complex process. There are in fact few proper programs on distillation. They're generally centered around the main distilling regions in the world (Edinburgh, Charentes, etc.) The craft distillation movement has opened the door for knowledgeable professionals to impart some of their knowledge to enthusiastic amateurs, but of course amateur distillers also happen to be criminals, so this complicates things.
In general, knowledge regarding Spirits is difficult to come by. While there are plenty of critics, reviewers, and bloggers, there are very few sources for actual information. You can't turn around these days without bumping into a "single malt expert," but finding actual information on the distilleries of Scotland is not easy. While there are some great books about the spirits world and its history, most of what you find is little more than opinion or marketing. The spirits category is just as complex as the wine world. For starters, almost everyone distills something. From Japan to Africa, and everything in between, they are fermenting, distilling, and drinking something. Each sub-category has its own set of rules, history, and geography. These are almost never codified thoroughly. Needless to say, the complexity and lack of resources can be both exciting, as well as incredibly frustrating. There's an impossible amount of information.
My Spirits story starts early. I'm the product of two families, each with a special connection to the wine & spirits world. My paternal grandfather owned a small vineyard outside of Geneva. He was an amateur wine maker and committed lover of alcohol (in a good way). You could generally count on him to ferment anything he could get his hands on. His large garden provided the means to this end. I remember helping him stir a vats of fermenting plums during the summer, which would eventually be distilled by traveling stills much like Armagnac. When I was ten, Grandpa Pepe was teaching me the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. This is where my love of wine & spirits started. ON the other side, my grandfather and his father were part owners in a bourbon distillery in Bardstown in the 1950s. They were also involved in spirits importation and distribution. My great grandfather claimed to have been the original importer of Kahlua and his hand written notes and recipe survive today. My family history is why I became interested in wine & spirits and because of that I started to learn the business at a very young age. When I graduated college, I made the distinct decision to follow my love of the epicurean, rather than utilize my degree in economics. I wasn't even 22 when I got my first job in wine & spirits.
The point is that my heritage helped me find what really makes me happy. I was lucky to realize early that what I really love is great food, wine, spirits, company & conversation. Heritage and tradition play a big part in distillation. Kentucky is by no means the exception to that rule. Heaven Hill Distillery is the world's second largest holder of bourbon whiskey and the last operational family owned bourbon distillery. In 1996, a tragic fire raced through the distillery and warehouses destroying equipment and more 90,000 gallons of bourbon. All that survived were the original yeast strains that Master Distiller Parker Beam had stored in a home fridge for safe keeping. Heaven Hill was able to resume distillation after purchasing the Bernheim distillery in 1999. This bottling marks the 10th Anniversary of Heaven Hills acquisition of the wheated Old Fitzgerald brand and the Bernheim Distillery. Hand selected by Master Distiller Parker Beam, it is bottled at 63.9% and not filtered. The most affordable of the Parker's Heritage Collection to date, less than 5000 bottles will be made. No need to consult the oracle on this one.