Some Holiday Cheer
One man’s quest for the perfect pour
John Ward is a man of many passions. A successful real-estate investment manager, he lives his life with true gusto. The Seir Hill Road home he shares with his wife Tammy, five-year-old daughter Zoe, and Sadie, their English bulldog, is brimming with examples of his drive and interests. Ward collects historic relics and coins, and the walls are adorned with period artwork and family memorabilia.
Not fully satisfied with collecting and drinking wine, Ward’s abiding passion is for bourbon. It’s a long-standing love affair that began innocently enough as a teachable, if not irresponsible, moment at the age of 13. “My stepfather was a builder, and I grew up working on the job sites. One time, the guys on-site had me take a swig of Wild Turkey 101 thinking it would have me hacking and choking,” Ward recalls. “They were surprised when I took a nice belt and loved it. Little did they know my stepfather kept scotch and various bourbons around the house that I would sneak into from time to time and share with my buddies.”
Some 30 years later, Ward now shares his bounty with his friends in a custom-built home bourbon room. It contains over 300 bottles of some of the most coveted brands of fine bourbons and whiskeys this side of Bourbon County, Kentucky—a place that is considered the origin of this special distilled spirit. There is also a popular claim that the liquor is named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Either way, there’s no dispute. Like true Champagne, which can only come from the Champagne region of France, authentic bourbon can only come from the USA.
“We redid the room to mimic a 1920s Kentucky bourbon bar,” Ward says of the $50,000 renovation, which features wooden branded bourbon barrelheads mounted on the walls, as well as other bourbon artifacts and memorabilia. “We kept the original floor and ceiling beams but added new wallpaper and paint to match the custom bar with brass and glass shelving and antique French bar stools.” Four bourbon-colored leather club chairs are arranged invitingly in front of an antique fireplace. John and Tammy entertain there often.
Bourbon is a distinctively American concoction, likely invented by Scotch and Irish immigrants who brought treasured distilling techniques to their new country. The deep amber spirits must be aged in barrels made from white oak, for a minimum of six months, with at least 51 percent corn (as opposed to rye or barley), and 80-proof, or more. Jim says some of the rarest aged or in-demand bottles can sell for thousands of dollars.
“I scored a bottle of 13-year-old Pappy Van Winkle rye,” says Ward. “Pappy 23 sells in the secondary market for as high as $5,000. No one thought I could get one. I worked all these guys and within 60 days I not only had three bottles of Pappy 15 but I also had the impossible: Pappy 20 and 23. For me, the best part of collecting is the thrill of the chase, looking for the needles in a haystack.”
The wide array, taste, and value of bourbon aren’t the only aspects of collecting and imbibing that Ward enjoys. He also relishes the history and distilling complexities of rare brands. Like a sommelier, he reflects on individual characteristics of certain brands and on appropriate food pairings for great bourbons. (Bourbon is great with smoky cheeses, dark chocolate, and ribs.) A prized bottle of AH Hirsh sits in a locked display case that is humidor controlled. A true connoisseur, Ward has special highball glasses, and a space-age aluminum weighted ice press that transforms frozen chunks of distilled water into clear, compressed glacier-like globes, which can take hours to melt. His quest for a perfect pour goes beyond collector’s bottles, which remain sealed only to be opened on the most special occasions, if ever.
“Some of these are kind of bucket list bottles, I’ll save them for birthdays or anniversaries, my daughter’s wedding, or leave them in my estate.”
But until then, Ward intends to enjoy as much bourbon as he can, and leave behind as little as possible. “When I’m drinking the high-end stuff, I like it neat. I sit in my leather chair, use a great glass to drink from, and take my time breathing in the fragrance; a slow sip, tasting it as it goes down, loving the typical strong lingering finish. My favorite time to imbibe is in cold weather, with a fire going.”
We’ll drink to that.