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 left my family business and my life in Chicago behind to move to Nebraska. I know that hurt my dad a lot, as did the fact that I went to work in my wife’s family business. At the time, we had our first of three kids on the way as well. 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 the 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 can appreciate the value of the secondary market because I know I have an outlet for the things I don’t want, and I can also get someone a bottle of something (often at my cost) that they couldn’t find on their own. Most of the bottles you’ll see on display at my house are open.
Some of my favorite phone calls in recent years have been from my Dad at his local liquor store. He 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 a 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.”
September is Bourbon Heritage Month, and I have joined my Bourbon & Banter colleagues in “30 Days of Bourbon” on Instagram and Twitter. It’s really been fun picking out a different bottle to feature and drink each night of the month. For tonight, I make a special toast to my Dad with W.L. Weller 12. It was the last bottle we bought together the last time I visited him.
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 that gave us one last thing for us to do together.