Getting on for a year ago now I was approached by two men at a bar who asked me to join their group.
Alright, caveat. It was a Bourbon tasting, and the men in question were founders of the newly-formed British Bourbon Society. I don’t really use Facebook for whisk(e)y purposes. I don’t really use Facebook for anything these days, but membership to the society was free, and my outlets for Bourbon nerdery few and far between.
Several superb tastings, dinners and American whiskey conversations later I am a huge advocate of the BBS, and even do most of the scribbling for their blog. In fact just last week I helped them choose their first Single Barrel. In short, joining this completely free society was one of the best decisions I’ve made since I got into whisk(e)y, and I’d actively encourage anyone even slightly interested in Bourbon to do the same. Hence this.
As the British Bourbon Society gets close to its first anniversary, I sat down with three of the co-founders, Andrew (@thebourbonator) Ed T (@londonliquor) & Ed R (@whiskybunker), to discuss how BBS came about and what’s coming up next.
First thing’s first, how did the British Bourbon Society come about?
Ed T: BBS started out at Milroy’s of Soho back in 2016. Six of us first got to know each through a small American whiskey group on Twitter that we’d created. We then met up at Milroy’s one night to check out their whisky selection and that’s where we came up with the idea for BBS. We all loved American whiskey and didn’t understand why there were hundreds of Scotch whisky clubs in the UK but nothing similar for American whiskey. So we decided to set one up. We had two main aims: putting on great tasting events and creating a friendly, unpretentious community. The BBS Facebook group came first and then the website followed a little bit later. The six original members (including @mcrbourbon, @edkinguk and @barrelproofandy) are still all involved in BBS, which is great.
The BBS has been going almost a year now. What are your highlights?
Ed T: Seeing how BBS has grown to over 600 members in the past year has been really exciting. We’ve put on more than ten tasting events and dinners for BBS members in that time, often hosted by representatives of our favourite distilleries, and they’ve all sold out. Organising the Pappy Van Winkle blind tasting dinner and the Four Roses ‘ten bourbon recipe’ tasting with Brent Elliott, Four Roses Master Distiller are both highlights for me.
Ed R: Many highlights for me, but echoing Ed, just watching how the group has grown so rapidly in a short period of time and with such passionate members has been really awesome. We’ve worked hard to make it something unique and from having spoken to many people in the industry, the general consensus seems to be that we’ve managed to approach the idea of a ‘whisk(e)y society’ in a modern and refreshing way. In terms of events, my highlights would be our first event at Barbecoa, the Pappy Van Winkle dinner at Burger & Lobster and the Michter’s event at Milroy’s. I’d class all of those as hugely important to the growth of BBS – milestone events if you will. Oh, and getting our own single barrel is obviously a monumental highlight too.
Andrew: For me, the highlights have been many and I’m constantly surprised by what BBS achieves together. Making contact with and visiting the European Bourbon and Rye Association (EBRA) in Zurich was a definite highlight – they presented us with the kind of hospitality that shows exactly why I love the bourbon community and cannot wait to reciprocate. When we first met up at Milroy’s over a year ago, one of the many (now realised) pipedreams was to be the first UK American whiskey group to obtain a barrel from a distillery. We’ve been lucky enough to forge relationships with a lot of the industry in our short time as BBS and are proud to say that we recently obtained our first single barrel with FEW Whiskey in Evanston, Illinois, which for me typifies how far we have come since we first met at Milroy’s. The biggest highlight for me aside from all of the amazing opportunities we have had to drink unbelievable hooch, has been meeting some amazing people in BBS, many of whom I feel privileged to call close friends today. We have created more than a whiskey group; it’s a community that continues to grow together and I’m excited for everything that comes next.
Bourbon – and American whiskey generally – is really gaining ground in the UK. How do you see the next few years playing out?
Ed T: American whiskey is growing massively in the UK right now and I don’t think that will change anytime soon provided the distilleries, distributors and retailers play their cards right. Fundamentally, consumers need to be able to get hold of good American whisky at reasonable prices. A few retailers have recently started selling American whisky at inflated secondary market prices and that’s a real shame. If prices get out of control, consumers will get disillusioned and look elsewhere – for example, there are loads of great aged rums out there right now at good prices.
As with Scotch or Japanese whisky, there are certain ‘cult’ Bourbons and ryes commanding vast price tags and quickly being ‘flipped’ online. What’s your stance on this; do you perceive it as a problem, and if so, what’s the solution?
Ed T: Flipping’s become a big problem in the past year or so. Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection immediately sell out and re-appear on UK auction sites a few days later for crazy prices. Whiskey drinkers lose out – the flippers are the only ones who benefit in that scenario.
BBS has been trying to make sure that these releases go to customers who’ll actually drink them! For example, we recently collaborated with Milroy’s of Soho to put on a Blanton’s Tasting and Pappy Van Winkle Raffle, which sold out in minutes. If you won the Pappy raffle, you could buy bottles of Pappy at retail prices – the only rule was you had to take the foil off the bottle right away. We were lucky enough to go to a HiSpirits dinner with Preston Van Winkle recently and he was a big fan of that approach.
At the other end of the spectrum, and beyond the usual supermarket suspects, what are your top tips for Bourbon value?
Ed R: Often people make the assumption that you have to spend a lot of money to get a great whiskey and that just isn’t true at all. We’re big fans of brands like Four Roses, Michter’s, Blanton’s and Buffalo Trace because they offer excellent juice at very accessible price points. Four Roses Small Batch and Single Barrel are both excellent whiskies for the money. The regular – but very palatable – Buffalo Trace comes to mind too. You can find the latter for around £20-£25 a bottle and for that price brands like JD and supermarket own brand ‘Kentucky style’ bourbons don’t even compare in my opinion.
Just to touch on the supermarket own brands for a moment, I’d generally be wary of them. If it’s going in a mixer for a party on a Saturday night then great but if you want to sit down and truly appreciate a nice drop, it’s worth looking elsewhere.
Andrew: Value is in the eye of the beholder and one man’s Pappy is another man’s Woodford Reserve, so whilst collecting bottles can be fun, buy what you like to drink and you’ll never feel short changed. Outside of what is available readily in the UK (which has been growing exponentially) don’t be afraid to scour the internet for pan-European honey holes where bottles scarcely seen on the secondary market can be found gathering dust at RRP. Admittedly, the internet is both a blessing and a curse in this regard and acute knowledge of secondary value has all but made stumbling upon dusty gems as common as finding a winter truffle in Epping Forrest. That said, it doesn’t make the thrill of the hunt any less enjoyable.
Ed T: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof isn’t particularly cheap but it’s great value and you can still find it on the shelves. It’s just as good as some of the massively hyped American whiskies that people will pay hundreds for on auction sites.
Bottling your own barrel of Bourbon makes quite a statement. There can’t be too many groups doing that in the UK. How did that come about?
Andrew: Paul Hletko, Master Distiller of FEW has been in the BBS Facebook Group for a number of months offering information on bottle releases and sharing knowledge of the distillation process to our members, so he was aware of what BBS was about. This coupled with our friendship with Maverick Drinks who distribute FEW in the UK led to our first BBS barrel. When we reached out to Paul directly to ask for a barrel, we were overwhelmed by the response as four samples from different barrels selected in his rickhouse landed promptly at my door and our tasting to select them shortly followed. Paul Hletko, John Young, (UK FEW Brand Ambassador), Michael Vachon and James Goggins (Maverick Drinks) have been staunch supporters of BBS and we look forward to continuing to collaborate with them.
Ed R: We work collaboratively across BBS, and all of us have varying skill sets that come in helpful. I happen to work in the creative sector so was able to enlist the help of the design team at the agency I work for to create our own bespoke label for the FEW bottle. Everyone has a voice and is able to suggest ideas; that’s how we’ve always been, and that was exactly the same for the bottle design. In true whiskey fashion, there’s a story behind the label and some little nods to our short history. I know we’re all really excited to reveal what it looks like soon – that and our new BBS logo.
Is producing your own bottlings the long-term raison d’être for the BBS? A sort of American whiskey answer to the SMWS?
Ed T: Working with distilleries to release BBS Single Barrels is definitely something that we’re really excited about. BBS’ main aim is to develop a great American whisky community right here in the UK and BBS Single Barrels certainly help to achieve that.
How can people join the BBS, and what’s on the immediate horizon?
Ed T: It’s as simple as joining the BBS Facebook Group. Anyone who’s interested should also check out the BBS website, which has our blog and whisky reviews, as well as the BBS Twitter and Instagram pages.
BBS has some great events on the horizon. The First Anniversary party is happening on 22nd April at Barbecoa and Milroy’s of Soho. Our friends from EBRA will be flying over to join us for that one. Two very special Four Roses tastings with Benji Purslow, Four Roses’ UK Ambassador, are taking place at Milroy’s of Soho on 10th April and 15th May. We’ll be tasting all 10 recipes of Four Roses, which isn’t something that happens very often because the bottles are so hard to find. Finally, the BBS FEW Single Barrel should be released fairly soon, so there’s a lot to look forward to.
Big thanks to Andrew, Ed T and Ed R for sharing their thoughts and experiences. Free membership, regular tastings, and Pappy Van Winkle at its actual retail price. What more could you want?
American whiskey fans – you know what to do.