‘We were bourbon before bourbon was cool’

This piece is presented by JJ’s Wine, Spirits & Cigars.

By Tom Slattery, owner of JJ’s Wine, Spirits & Cigars

The title of this article if self-gratifying. And it speaks to the degree of confidence that is required in today’s world of brown spirits, or whiskey, of all kinds. A degree of confidence that is necessary to convince those within the current adult-beverage supply chain that we are still the retail giants of brown spirits, and we intend to stay on top of that food chain.

Tom Slattery

When I was in high school, I sneaked booze out of my parents’ liquor cabinet. Don’t judge me: It’s an important part of this narrative.

While most kids were sneaking vodka and rum, I was sneaking Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. Why? Because that’s all that was there. When I was growing up, Dad liked to smell his drinks, and Dad had trouble smelling because of a perpetually broken nose from his high school football career. What is more aromatic than bourbon? So that’s what we had to sneak if we were going to sneak booze.

I had forgotten about that crucial part of my upbringing until shortly after we opened JJ’s. I was reintroduced to bourbon through the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon Collection: Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Booker’s. Smelling these wonderful whiskeys took me back to those precious moments of my life in the middle of the night quietly filling whatever I could find into whatever manner of container I could find and then sneaking out to share with my friends — who, of course, wanted nothing to do with it.

I bought my first bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon in 2004. We were the small adult-beverage retail store attached to The Gas Stop convenience store at the corner of 57th Street and Western Avenue — JJ’s 1.0, for those keeping count. I was pitched on the Van Winkle line by my salesperson as a step up in our already aggressive brown spirits program. I never opened those first bottles, and they moved off the shelf relatively slow. It was $50 a bottle for the 15-year-old and $89 for the 20-year old, and there weren’t a whole lot of people shelling out that kind of money for something made in Kentucky.

In 2006, we moved into our current location — JJ’s 2.0. We had more room, so I needed to fill the much larger space. Bourbon was just starting to make some movement in the brown spirits world, as The Bourbon Trail was becoming a bona fide destination vacation for whiskey lovers. I remember moving nine bottles of Van Winkle bourbon to the new store next door and hoping the cart didn’t tip over. But they traveled safely to their new shelves, where they continued to sit.

The Slattery family: Mike, Tom, Nick and Jim at a bourbon release party.

Appropriately, I tasted my first bottle of Pappy Van Winkle with my dad. I was at a loss for a gift at Christmas 2008, so I grabbed one of the 20-year-old bottles, wiped off the dust and wrapped it up. He opened the package and displayed the bottle to all in the room and proclaimed, “This looks nice.” After dinner, Dad, my older brother, Nick, and my younger brother, Jim, retired to the garage with that bottle. We cracked it open, poured it into glasses and drank gleefully as the aromas of caramel, vanilla, wood and leather teased our olfactory senses, and the taste of viscous heat and earth flowed down to the back of our palates. “Yummy,” was my declaration. We were all in awe of this remarkable whiskey, and Dad proclaimed, “Wow.”

My fire to acquire as much of this as I could get my hands on was met by my wholesaler at that time with, “How much do you want?” I proceeded to unknowingly corner the market on Pappy Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, or BTAC, whiskeys. This was not because I didn’t want anyone else to have any; it was because nobody else wanted any. So for the next three years, I bought all I could get my hands on, culminating in a slight overstock of high-end whiskeys in the winter of 2010, about four months before I pulled the trigger and purchased JJ’s from Tom Howes, the owner at that time. My inventory was pretty high, so I decide that the overstock of Pappy Van Winkle and BTAC items needed to be depleted before I had to write a check for all of that excess inventory. It was fun enlightening people to the greatness of these whiskeys, especially at the prices they were getting. I sold three bottles of 23-year-old at that time for about $190 a bottle. The 20-year-old went for $99 a bottle.

After completing the purchase of JJ’s, I eagerly awaited the release of the next round of Pappy Van Winkle and was surprised to learn increased demand meant my allocation had been cut dramatically. Sadly, I would be able to satisfy only a few of those who wanted bottles. Same went for BTAC items. The bourbon boom had begun.

So here we are today in the height of the bourbon boom awaiting our meager allocation of whiskeys that are now trading on the secondary market for, in some cases, 10 to 20 times their retail value. Bars and restaurants are getting the lion’s share of the state’s allocation. The logic is that a bar and restaurant will get more people drinking the stuff than a retail store that will sell a bottle to one individual. I get it, that’s fine.

But the prices — oh, boy. What are we doing to combat this? Single-barrel selections. Why? Because the bourbon is good, and the unique nature of a hand-selected single barrel of bourbon has a much more compelling story than a whiskey that will be blended and sold for years to come and generally rarely varies in its flavor profile.

Mike Slattery celebrating his birthday with his son, Tom, in Kentucky.

I have travelled to Kentucky many times, purchasing barrels from the likes of Knob Creek, Buffalo Trace and 1792. The most memorable trip was with my dad, Nick and Jim. We took Dad to Bourbon Country to celebrate his 70th birthday and have him select his very own barrel of Knob Creek. His chosen whiskey was really good and sold out in a matter of weeks. Most recently, I and a group of worthy consumer participants, did barrel selections with Four Roses, Buffalo Trace and Knob Creek. All those whiskeys will be in-house during the holiday season. We recently sent one of our freshly emptied Knob Creek barrels up to Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis and had them fill the barrel with Navy- strength gin, creating an outstanding single-barrel “Barreled Gin.”

For next year, we have already committed to single barrels of Old Forester, Jack Daniels and a couple of other barrels that I’ll soon share with you! All of this comes at the perfect time with the impending expansion of our business. We have started construction on JJ’s 3.0. As part of this expansion, we will have a full-service cocktail bar, and I’m pretty sure that most of the spirits we will use to create awesome drinks will be sourced from single-barrel selections.

A group of JJ’s regulars at a barrel tasting in Kentucky.

So do you still want to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle? Sadly, there are rules, but if you made it this far into this narrative, you obviously are interested. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Live locally in Sioux Falls and the surrounding area. We like to take care of the people who live here and shop at locally owned retail stores. We will never sell any of these allocated bottles to people who live out of state, except for our neighbors in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
  • Buy our single-barrel spirits and express an interest in quality spirits that aren’t the highly allocated bottles. Our single-barrel spirits are the most unique expression of whiskey you can find. Each barrel is hand-selected by me — or my recent think tank — and once a bottling is gone, it is never to return. Talk about unique. They will be making Pappy Van Winkle for many years, but once our hand-selected single-barrel spirits are gone, they can never be duplicated.
  • Shop at JJ’s for your other adult-beverage needs. We factor everything into our allocation decision, but it’s largely based on frequency of visits, not so much on how much you spend when you shop.

Above all, send me emails, send me texts and shop! We love to talk about bourbon, gin, cocktails and wine. The more you engage me in conversation, the more likely I am to move you up on the list! You also will be surprised how much those highly sought whiskeys become less and less interesting once you realize that there is a lot more good stuff out there, with some pretty good stories to tell.

‘We were bourbon before bourbon was cool’

Talk about trend-setters: Here’s the back story on why bourbon is so big at JJ’s — and how you can get your hands on some of the best.

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