Bayou BourbonHunters by Sarah Baird For the most part, serious collectors — whether of coins, stamps or salt & pepper shakers — are a fussy bunch. Baseball card collectors keep their prized, rookie-season gems safely stored in pristine sheaths, and plenty of vinyl-obsessed record collectors would never dream of taking a mint-condition record out of the plastic to actually listen to it. As a child, I learned the hard way that collectors are very serious about the “look, don’t touch” rule. A playmate’s mother collected vintage and rare Barbie dolls, but I could never understand why we were banned from opening the doz- ens of boxes of those well-costumed playthings. (After all, they were just sitting there!) One afternoon, I talked my friend into freeing one of the vintage Barbies from her box to join our tea party, and let’s just say…I was not invited back. A new generation of collectors, though, seems to suggest that the persnickety nature of collecting enthusiasts might slowly be falling by the wayside. For lifelong friends and bourbon collectors Blake Richard and Jordan Barbera, their expansive bourbon collections are as much about sharing and community as admiring the difficult- to-find bottles on a shelf. Richard describes Barbera and himself as “two of the biggest bourbon fanatics in the Thibodaux area.” “The whole bourbon world is different from any other spirit,” says Barbera, who originally found a passion for bourbon (and specifi- cally, theHeavenHill portfolioof products fromBardstown, Kentucky) while working for the liquor distribution company Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “It’s all about stories and traditions with bourbon. A lot of other spirits are made quickly — for instance, like a bottle of vodka. But a bottle of bourbon is going to take years to age before it can be sold. That brown color isn’t just food coloring in a bottle — it’s the oak that’s been aging the spirit.” “What attracted me the most…to bourbon is the story behind the bottle,” says Richard, a third-generation member of the Rouse family and current assistant store director in Thibodaux. His preferred bourbons come from the Buffalo Trace Distillery out of Frankfort, Kentucky. “There’s so much history that goes into every single bottle, especially with the Buffalo Trace Distillery. I mean, that place is a National Historic Landmark.” As bourbon collecting has boomed over the past decade, the community of high-stakes collectors and rare-bottle hunters has also exploded across the country. Ten years ago, it would’ve been unimaginable to think that there would be hundreds of message boards, dozens of secret trading groups and countless listservs devoted to swapping bourbons and comparing tasting notes. Thirty years ago, it would’ve been ludicrous to think you’d find dozens of people camped outside of a grocery or liquor store overnight — with sleeping bags and tents — awaiting the limited release of a bottle of bourbon. Today, it’s par for the course. Richard was formally introduced to Buffalo Trace at a Rouses Christmas party, where his uncle, Donald Rouse, suggested he try a glass. But it wasn’t until he started the search for a fairly obscure bottle of bourbon — Weller 12 — as a wedding gift for a friend that the passion for rare bourbons truly took hold. “Once I bought that [Weller 12], it opened up a whole new door for me to all of the other stuff, especially what comes out of Buffalo Trace Distillery: the Pappy Van Winkle and the E.H. Taylor and the Elmer T. Lee,” laughs Richard. Of course, not every collector is such a devotee of the Buffalo Trace family of spirits. Barbera is fond of what comes from the

Bourbon collectors Blake Richard and Jordan Barbera PHOTO BY CHANNING CANDIES

Heaven Hill line — which includes Elijah Craig, Larceny and Henry McKenna, among others — meaning that Richard and Barbera (who are now in their late 20s but who’ve been “best friends since the diaper years”) are now engaged in a spirited rivalry of sorts between “Team Buffalo Trace” and “Team Heaven Hill” as their collections grow. “I started with Elijah Craig — that’s still my go-to — and Larceny, then started buying some different single barrels, and my collection kept growing and growing. I’d find one I liked, and then I’d keep buying it and trying different things, and trying new lines, trying aged, finished bourbons,” says Barbera, who now has 125 bottles of bourbon since starting his collection in earnest just over two years ago. Richard and Barbera’s bourbon lust took them to the front lines for Jordan’s bachelor party; that’s when they ventured to the Bluegrass State for a trip along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Even today, when the two speak about the trip, it’s with all the reverence of a religious experience. “At Buffalo Trace, they gave us Freddie [Johnson] as our tour guide, and that dude blew my mind,” says Richard of Johnson, who can trace his connection to Buffalo Trace back three generations. “I mean, he was hands-down the best tour guide. He was also just inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame last year. It was just an incredible experience to go behind the scenes — we even got to cork our own barrel.” And, as you might imagine, there was also a little friendly back- and-forth between the two as to which distillery gave a more engaging tour. (I’ll let you determine who sided where.) But at the end of the day, the faux-competitive nature of Richard and Barbera’s bourbon collecting is a clear reflection of the strength of their friendship. “Of course, it’s all just jokes,” says Richard. “Jordan and I have a bourbon night once or twice a week, and we talk to each other every single day. I even have a bottle of bourbon that I won’t drink with anyone else except Jordan: An Old Forester 1924 that’s been laser- engraved, from our trip to the Bourbon Trail.” Similarly, Barbera says




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