Interview: Proof and Wood founder Dave Schmier

Interview: Proof and Wood founder Dave Schmier

After starting his whiskey journey in rye, Schmier is now receiving global acclaim for his independently bottled bourbons

News | 01 Jun 2023 | By Maggie Kimberl

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At the Whisky Magazine Awards America ceremony in Louisville, Kentucky in February 2023, Dave Schmier’s Proof and Wood Ventures took home four awards in the World Whiskies Awards competition: World’s Best Bourbon and Best Non-Kentucky Bourbon for The Representative Small Batch Bourbon, as well as World’s Best Single Barrel Bourbon and Best Non-Kentucky Single Barrel Bourbon for Tumblin’ Dice Single Barrel. Schmier’s products are always of exceptionally high quality, a difficult mark to hit as a non-distiller producer. His journey has been atypical, and his love for whiskey started with a rye Manhattan cocktail.

After graduating from college into a recession, Schmier says he was working in different areas of food service, including bars, waiting tables, and management, when he saw a problem he could fix.

“I saw every bar promotion under the sun and I thought to myself, ‘I think I can do this better,’” he recalls. “I founded a beverage-specific marketing agency with the attitude of, you guys are doing this all wrong, which got the attention of Seagram’s executives. They had recently acquired the US rights to Absolut, so our first client nationally was Absolut Vodka. I did an entertainment-based promotion that was, I guess, experiential marketing before experiential was the term.”

Schmier went on to create his own vodka brand with a partner, and eventually found himself enthralled by rye whiskey after a class taught by the late Gary Regan and a subsequent rye Manhattan cocktail.

“Gaz started doing these retreats [in] upstate New York for bartenders,” Schmier recalls. “I got to go to one, and Gaz started with the classic cocktails and talked about balance, not just ingredients, but how to make a good cocktail and everything else that goes along with it. And it was there that I was introduced to the rye Manhattan, which changed the world for me in terms of all this flavour.”

It was a decade later that Schmier co-founded Redemption Rye with his friend Mike Kanbar after the pair discovered a massive distillery in Indiana that no one had heard of since it changed from Seagram’s to Midwest Grain Products (MGP).

“Mike and I got about a gallon of sample rye and turned it into Redemption Rye and started taking orders for it,” says Schmier, “That’s back when rye as a category was maybe 5,000 cases annually. It was really a side gig at the time. We were thinking we can probably sell it in Chicago, in New York, San Fran, maybe LA – that was the original notion. I guess we were a couple of months ahead of a growing interest in rye, but what we thought might have been a 100-case-a-year project turned into a little monster as the rest of the world discovered rye.”

The Representative Small Batch Bourbon and Tumblin" Dice Single Barrel

That discovery, or rather rediscovery, of rye was led by bartenders, who were just starting to move out of the 1980s and 1990s world of premade shelf-stable cocktail ingredients and into the world of expertly crafted ‘10-minute cocktails’ made with high-quality and often scratch-made ingredients.

“That combined with the interest in the slow food movement, people in general were more interested in where their food and drink was coming from. That drove that introspection that led to [a resurgence in interest in rye whiskey],” Schmier says. “The knowledge on the web got a lot of people to go, ‘Oh, I get it. This is how it is supposed to be.’ It was another flavor profile that wasn't far off where they were used to working with bourbon, but rye was more interesting.”

Then, in 2015, Schmier and his partner sold Redemption Rye to Deutsch. Schmier says there were a number of factors at play in the sale.

“Both Mike and I looked at it and said, you know, is it our first choice? Maybe not, but it's the best choice,” he recalls. “One of the challenges in whiskies, I like to say the more successful you are, the broker you become. The mechanics of it are, you've got to buy whiskey today that you're not going to be selling for years, and as you're seeing your brand grow, if you want to do that, you've got to spend a lot of money today to keep up. There were a lot of venture capital deals that did not look very appealing, and the cleanest thing to do to let the brand grow and reach its potential was to sell it completely. So that's what we did. And we were very happy with that decision.”

However, Schmier felt that he had more left to achieve in the whisky world. So, he founded Proof and Wood. “We're an independent bottler, we don't distill, but in the name is a mention of some things that we control: how long in the wood, the age, and what we bottle it at, the proof. Those are two things that influence the flavor profile,” he says.

Awards for Proof and Wood Ventures" The Representative and Tumblin" Dice bourbons in the 2023 World Whiskies Awards

Proof and Wood bottles products ranging from blended whiskeys to cult-favorite rums. While Schmier has bottled vodka and whiskey throughout this spirits career, he explains that the rum was sort of a happy accident. One of the brokers he sourced whiskey from had happened some column-distilled Jamaican rum, which had been resting in ex-Canadian whisky barrels for about three years. “It might as well have been in steel because those barrels were pretty used up. After three years, it barely had colour to it,” he notes. “It was rum, nothing exciting…but I wondered what would happen if I took this to Kentucky and put it in all these empty rye barrels. So I did that, and three or four weeks later, I pull this sample and it had a tremendous amount of colour from the first-use rye barrel, and also picked up all the flavour from the wood and the rye, such that you could barely tell it was rum anymore. I called up my friend in Jamaica and said, can you sell me some pot still rum, and I'm going to age that in Kentucky as well, and blend those together. I'm thinking in my head, kind of like a Kentucky version of Appleton [Estate rum].”

After the barrels arrived, Schmier says he got a panicked call from his warehouse, saying the rum smelt “awful” and suggesting it could be faulty. “In fairness, this is 300 gallons of 150-proof heavy pot still rum to somebody who's unfamiliar with Jamaican rum,” he elaborates. “He sent me up the sample, and it smelled like it should.” Schmier then brought the rum down to 100 proof before bottling, saying that the final product had “all the elements of a Jamaican pot still rum” at a much more approachable proof.

While The Funk Rum has a cult following, Schmier is best known for his multiple award-winning whiskeys, most recently The Representative Small Batch Bourbon, which took home World’s Best Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards, and Tumblin’ Dice Single Barrel Bourbon, which took home World’s Best Single Barrel Bourbon. Both are non-Kentucky bottlings, challenging the notion that the best bourbon has to come from Bluegrass State.

“We use materials that I guess are readily available, but we try to put some care into how we blend them, how we bottle it, and how we present it,” Schmier explains. “My favourite one was two years ago, we also won the Best Single Barrel Bourbon, and it was also the best non-Kentucky... That happened to be a four-year-old bottle, so it’s a nod to the fact that age is not everything, and the other thing that was really cool about winning best non-Kentucky Single Barrel Bourbon is we actually sold that barrel in Kentucky.”

Schmier has been forecasting into the future for decades now, and while other independent bottlers and non-distilling producers are running into difficulty sourcing whiskeys, he’s sitting on a supply that should sustain his company’s growth for years to come: rye from California, malt whiskey from Colorado, and bourbon from Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, to name a few.

He concludes, “On the one hand, I've been extolling the virtues of that distillery in Indiana since 2001, and obviously enjoyed a lot of success using their liquid, but on the other hand, there's kind of an element of surprise and fun than what comes next when I have to start planning.”
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