“If you offer us whiskey, we respond, ‘hell yes…’” These words are spoken aloud at every gathering of the brothers and sisters in the Charleston Brown Water Society (CBWS), a toast written to express our mission, and to remember an original member who passed early in our journey (RIP Fish).
The original idea for a drinking club, conceived over shots of whiskey and country ham slices, was sparked in part by the observation that New Orleans had societies celebrating Bourbon to rival any from Kentucky. We felt it was a shame Charleston, our incredibly beautiful and arguably more historically significant city, didn’t have something similar. Our ports were once the most active in the nation. A diverse peoples populated the area and the wharfs were dotted with taverns serving rum, brandy, and fortified wines. The nineteenth-century brought rye whiskey, which reigned supreme until Prohibition. A seed was planted.
Four friends (and a mom) met at a local restaurant with a bottle of bourbon, a notebook and an idea. Misfits with a passion, we wanted to start a society in order share our love and knowledge for the brown water. Charleston has a long history with rum and rye whiskey. Chartering a society for sharing spirits with significance to the area seemed like a great fit. To make any of this a reality, of course, required organization and a clear focus. Each of us had connections in the local hospitality scene, but knew it would only carry us so far. Thinking Hibernian Society longevity, USBG chapter growth potential, with a bit of Sons of Anarchy for humor, incorporating a board consisting of an equally passionate, and professionally diverse group would be necessary. A group of 12. The “FourFathers” and “Original8”. We now had a plan and the CBWS was born.
Our first official event for CBWS was a tasting held at Husk Bar, with an awesome guest, Trey Zoeller. Trey is the Master Blender of Jefferson’s Whiskeys. Blending is a craft little used until recently in the states, but steeped in history of Scotch whisky. Trey is friend of mine and was in town for a staff training at Husk. It seemed like a fantastic time for me to use my connections to help launch the CBWS with a bang. We invited many people to come for a free educational tasting. But strategically, a large portion of the invites were for people we felt would be interested in joining our society and could help with spreading of the gospel we were preaching. Artists. Food writers. Musicians. Photographers. Food and Beverage professionals. It was successful, our board was chosen, and in short time we had our first “Gathering of 12”.
Those first few monthly meetings were a time to get acquainted with one another and become a unit. We each selected whiskeys that meant something to us personally and shared with one another those spirits along with the stories that accompany them. There were sad stories of friends lost. Tales of joy, sharing a nip with a grandpa. We talked about the mashbills, the producers, the labels, the history, the “smoke and mirrors”.
A consumer can pick up a bottle of whiskey, read a story, see a distillery name and think that whiskey has been made by a family up in the holler for generations, but in reality those distilleries have long disappeared with just a few giant names in the industry, producing for most of those labels. Not that it’s bad; it’s just not transparent. We wanted to educate everyone on this phenomena. We drank and we planned, and we drank and we planned some more.
In our first few years we have grown, amazingly, to over 75 members. We’ve led tastings with master distillers and blenders, visited distilleries, built relationships with other societies around the country, discovered the beauty of an expertly constructed cheese and whiskey pairings, hosted award winning pitmasters at BBQ invitationals, made our own whiskey (from milling to barreling), participated in events during the Charleston Wine & Food Festival and so much more. It’s so important for us and groups like ours to continue to pop up around the U.S. to spread the understanding and appreciation of the historical significance of brown water in America, how it’s produced, the nuances in flavors and aromas. All of these things are far more interesting to us than just getting banged up on Fireball (although there’s a time and a place for that, too). The CBWS wants to offer an alternative to just drinking to drink. Creating a community of like minded people looking for education in their libation is what we are.
2016 will surely bring more members into the fold of CBWS, and we hope to have many new and excited whiskey related events throughout the year. And maybe by 2046 we will have our own hall on Meeting Street.
Rod’s Whiskey Recommendations:
Smith Bowman Distillery, Virginia (Particularly the Abraham Bowman line of uniques finishes like the Abraham Bowman Gingerbread barrel finish.)
Chatanooga 1816 Cask Whiskey, Tennessee
Smooth Ambler Old Scout 7 year Straight Rye, West Virginia
Medley Brothers, Kentucky