When I was a kid, every spring, I rode my bike over the railroad tracks and through an old man's yard to Red's Grocery—my hometown's No 1 baseball card store. I slammed my little blue BMX to the ground and sprinted as fast as I could to grab the first package of Topps baseball cards.
I saved money from allowances, mowing yards and doing kid grunt work that would be considered criminal today just so I could buy the whole box. I hoped for rookie cards, special limited editions and couldn't wait to analyse every hitter's homerun and RBI (Runs Batten In) counts. I passionately collected baseball cards and treasured them more than the baseball game itself.
Whenever mom took me shopping, I rushed to the store's small corner card section next to candy bars and gossip papers. Did they have the allusive Fleet cards Red's Grocery never carried? Perhaps the Donruss cards with the special Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie card? Or could they have the shimmering glossy score card I loved so dearly?
Yeah, those were the days; and I'm as geeky about American whiskey as I was about my youth's baseball cards. My collection includes a 1940s W. L. Weller Barrel Proof, 1920s Waterfill & Frazier Mexican Bourbon, a Korean labelled Evan Williams and 1940s Kentucky Tavern, which sadly only has a drop or two left. I've purchased these at auctions, received them as gifts and found them the old fashioned way—walking into a liquor store.
During my Wisconsin "Whiskey Women" book tour, I took a couple of friends with me to peruse through their state's liquor stores. I hoped to find old dusty bottles sitting in the corner waiting for a good home or perhaps a rare Wisconsin tax stamped bottle with the tax sticker still intact. And of course, I loved talking to the liquor storeowners.
At the Ridgeview Liquors store in Green Bay, Wisconsin—a few miles from where some football teams play—I found one of three bottles of Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel allocated to the region and Eagle Rare 10 Years Old. Most Eagle Rare sightings these days don't have age statements. I also learned Ridgeview has a stash of Pappy Van Winkle, but still hasn't figured out what to do with the whiskey. Interestingly, one woman discovered they have yet to sell Pappy and reported them to the state. Yikes! Fortunately, the state has yet to create the "you must sell your Pappy" statute and no charges were brought to Ridgeview.
At a store in Madison, the storeowner was extremely high on Angel's Envy. "It's the world's best bourbon," he said. "Just Google it." So I did, and sure enough, according to Google, Angel's Envy is impressive stuff. But the man was just leading with what he had. Angel's Envy stood out on a shelf of a flavoured whiskey, Jack Daniel's and Early Times.
Like many states, Wisconsin is running low on bourbon. They get a few bottles of the limited editions, are on constant Maker's Mark shortages and fight over Pappy Van Winkle releases. With that said, these kinds of states offer the best finds for us whiskey collectors, because the liquor stores and their consumers don't really know what they have. I've walked into stores with Wild Turkey from the 1970s, a bourbon on my top 10 all-time list. If they only knew what I'd be willing to pay!
Back in my Wisconsin liquor store journey, my friends embarrassed me by announcing, "this is Fred Minnick, the whiskey writer," making it harder for me to see what stores have in storage. But I found a store with a significant supply of Blanton's Single Barrel. It was the only Wisconsin store I had seen with Blanton's. It wasn't on allocation and this particular store didn't really move much of it, so how did he get the bottles and other stores didn't?
Sometimes whiskey hunts leave you with more questions than answers, but that's the beauty of it. The hunt never ends. Case in point, that treasured Wisconsin tax stamp in the shape of the state I was looking for, I found in my friend's basement. Thumbed on the neck of a late 1970s bottle of Jack Daniel's, the bottle was in mint condition, a noted piece to my collection and instantly my best Tennessee whiskey piece.