Every bar has a head bartender, perhaps a food and beverage director, and nowadays a "mixologist" or two.
How many employ a bourbon master?
When the Loews Philadelphia hotel redid its ground-floor restaurant recently at 12th and Market Streets, management decided to devote considerable space and energy to bourbon: not only to a solid list, but an ambitious barrel-aging program that would allow customers to rent a barrel, fill it with the spirit or spirits of their choice, and visit periodically to taste the beverage as it ages. It also created a tiny tasting room tucked behind a fake bookshelf.
The guy in front of this program at the aptly named Bank & Bourbon is Brian Bevilacqua, who grew up in Medford. While underage, he said he learned about Sazerac from his brother-in-law, who is from New Orleans. Also underage, he bought his first cocktail book, Cocktail by Paul Harrington, and became a sucker for the stories behind drinks.
Bevilacqua migrated to California after high school and worked there and later in Lake Tahoe before returning to the Philly area three years ago. Locally, he's worked behind the bar at Talula's Garden and Jamonera.
Why bourbon? "I've always been a spirits and cocktail nerd," he said. "It appeals to me."
Earlier this spring, Bevilacqua took the Bourbon Tour run by the Kentucky Distillers Association. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon.
The trip was a trip in itself. He drove into Bardstown to check into his hotel and decided to visit Old Talbott’s Tavern, where he sampled Pappy 20, the Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon that scored was rated a 99 by the Beverage Tasting Institute.
His bartender, Angie, recommended that he try the Rickhouse, another town staple. At the door, "I ran into a guy named Big John, who asked, 'What are you here for?' and I said, 'To drink some whiskey.' "
Big John straightened up and bellowed: "Whiskey?!"
Bevilacqua corrected himself. "I mean bourbon."
Big John, clearly serious about his bourbon, relaxed and said, “All right! Now you can have a seat.”
At the Rickhouse, he tasted Evan Williams 23.
The next day, Bevilacqua visited Jim Beam, where three barrels of Knob Creek 136 proof, 130 proof, 129 proof were waiting. Bevilacqua was there to taste and select one for Bank & Bourbon. He picked the 136 proof. "It was very smooth and gave mellow aromas and notes of an already proofed [lower proof] bourbon," he said.
Next, he toured Heaven Hill Distillery and moved on to Whillet Distillery, where he tasted a 24-year-old rye.
The next day brought him to a VIP tour of Cooperage, which makes barrels. There, he ran into Bill Samuels, who owns Maker's Mark. Samuels allowed Bevilacqua to sample Maker’s 46 straight from the barrel.
A manager at Maker's Mark got him into Limestone Branch, whose moonshine-loving owners are related to Jim Beam.
See the video below for a look at his trip.
Though Bank & Bourbon is barrel-aging with bourbon, other local bars have gotten into the act by barrel-aging cocktails, including The Fat Ham in University City and Serrano in Old City.
Five questions with bourbon master Brian Bevilacqua
1. I'm a rookie to bourbons. What should I try first?
I would go with a wheated bourbon: W.L. Weller or Maker’s Mark.
2. What's your top seller so far?
The Secret Knock (house-aged whiskey, green tea, lemon, and clarif)
3. Rocks or straight up?
Neat with rocks on the side. I taste, then add ice.
4. What are you drinking right now?
Everything. I like to try anything I see that I haven’t had.
5. I have an unlimited budget. What's your favorite bourbon on your shelf?
I Like the Booker’s 25th anniversary and only have few left. When that’s gone, Blanton’s. You don’t need a big budget for great bourbon.