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Jay Erisman is the fine spirits manager for The Party Source. He has worked in spirits, wine, beer and gourmet food retail and wholesale industries since 1997
I found a fascination with alcoholic beverages from an early age. I was raised in a household that responsibly celebrated and honored the cocktail hour, as my chemist father mixed martinis with a graduated cylinder.* My mother did not rest on her masters degree in home economics, but took (and taught) cooking classes; she was cooking Chinese for us in 1976, and so exposed me to good and different flavors from a young age. By the time I was old enough to lay hold of a bottle or three, it was a foregone conclusion that I would learn about the world of booze. The bottle of port I smuggled off to college orientation was fantastic stuff, at the time. In beer, I never went through a stage of drinking mass swill coorsbudmiller products, but proceeded directly to imports. I recall my first Guinness-and this was in the days when the only Guinness was the 12-ounce, non-draft bottle-was like drinking a tree.
In 1988, two important things happened for me in drink. One, a classmate recommended I try something called Wild Turkey. I secured a bottle, and from the first taste knew what was meant by the term "smooth" in whiskey. Gosh, it was good (don't you miss that eight-year-old 101 proof Turkey?). The other experience, three months into my freshman year of college, was reading a Michael Jackson magazine article, and on Jackson's recommendation, I acquired a bottle of Glenlivet 12 Year single malt Scotch. By this time I had some familiarity with Scottish blends like Pinch and Passport. But that Glenlivet tasted like a whisky from another planet. It was strange, and very good, and very quickly grew on me. But I still didn't see quite what all the fuss was about, until I read David Daiches' 1970 book Scotch Whisky. Daiches counseled that one should drink malt scotch sans ice, a heresy I had roundly committed in my ignorance. I tried the Glenlivet straight up-and there it was, single malt Scotch in all it's glory. The light bulb went on, the scales fell from my eyes, and by the time I graduated college I had a tidy collection of perhaps three dozen single malts.
Throw in homebrewing, which I began in 1990, and basically I grew up amidst the revolution in American drink. If my early experiences and curious nature pushed me to learn about drink, I also had the good fortune to come of age just as the late, and definitely great Mr. Jackson was beginning to publish on whiskey, and Americans rediscovered flavor in many guises, and the whole gastronomical revolution kicked off, probably, by Julia Child started to pay dividends. Innovators like Julian Van Winkle, and Ridge Winery, and then-Gordon & MacPhail importer John Gross, and Applejack Liquors in Denver and Sam's in Chicago and D&M in San Francisco, all played a role in an education which I consciously expanded beyond whiskey. I recall thinking, I need to know about all the liquors of the world, not just whiskey, and that led to Cognac and Armagnac and Tequila and rum and grappa and more. By 2001, when I joined The Party Source, I had a comprehensive knowledge of most all the world's spirits.
But The Party Source had its own part to play in this story. We Cincinnatians were well astonished when this stunning "toy store for adults" opened in 1993 on the south bank of the Ohio River in sleepy Bellevue, Kentucky. I often thought how lucky we were in Cincinnati to have The Party Source nearby, given the near-communist level of service given to spirits in state-controlled Ohio. However, my experience at the various national stores listed above told me that The Party Source, however otherwise amazing, at that time was not necessarily the best store in the country, most of all for single malt Scotch, because Kentucky wholesalers did not have the rich selection of independent bottlers I could find in Chicago and elsewhere. Today, I have brought the store a wicked selection of single malt Scotch at The Party Source, one of the best in the country, private casks and everything; yet there are a number of stores with more Scotch labels, and probably always will be. There was one category, however, in which The Party Source has led the country since its opening. Not coincidentally, it has to do with the world-class whiskey region located just south of our store.
In my opinion, The Party Source is now, and has been probably since 1993, the single best store in the country for Bourbon. Their buying power allows great, great prices-heck, the place was founded on a mantra of "never, ever get greedy." And thanks to their Kentucky location, they have a selection which is simply unavailable in other parts of the country. In time, my work with Kentucky distilleries has led me to unprecedented access to the warehouses and bottling lines of the Bourbon industry, resulting in one groundbreaking whiskey after another. The store serves as a test bed for new ideas from some of Kentucky's best distilleries.