As Washington, D.C.’s Jack Rose Dining Saloon has become one of the country’s preeminent whiskey destinations, its proprietor, Bill Thomas, has become one of the country’s foremost whiskey collectors. The bar currently houses approximately 2,700 different bottles of whiskey. Their awe-inspiring lineup is due largely to the enthusiasm/obsession that Thomas and his partners have for whiskey collecting.
“There are plenty of people across this country who are bigger collectors, older collectors … we just went obsessive,” says Thomas. His collecting is fueled by his personal drive, but for Thomas, it was first and foremost about serving the customer.
“It was only important to us to get product for the consumer, which is still our philosophy today,” says Thomas.
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT
Every state (and even some counties) have their own laws that regulate what products bars can and can’t sell. The same is the case for the nation’s capital. It was actually Thomas who fought for regulations to allow D.C. bars to bring in bottles from personal collections for on-premise usage. It was something he says French and Italian restaurants had long been doing for wine. After initially being barred from doing so, he eventually won the battle.
Now, his home stash has between five and six thousand bottles. This includes likely between two and two and a half thousand unique labels. Of those, he estimates that there are 700 bottles at home which Jack Rose does not currently have on its shelves; ammunition for future reloads of the bar’s lineup, which rapidly fluctuates.
Surprisingly, he didn’t begin collecting until he began work on his first bar, Bourbon, in 2002. “My knowledge was zero,” Thomas readily admits. “My knowledge was blended scotch and Maker’s Mark.”
It’s been a wild decade and a half since. “It’s been a quick journey, it’s been unbelievable.”
Jack Rose Saloon Owner, Bill Thomas (Can you spot anyone else?)
TALES OF WHISKEY COLLECTING
Thomas says that the most thriving area of the secondary market today is Facebook and its private groups, although he’s constantly busy with online whiskey auctions. When a private collection does come up for sale, Thomas knows he’s only a single connection away from hearing about it. Often, he’s the top call. “Our chain, from the person that owns it, to us, is normally only one person,” he says. “It’s not even a 1-2-3 … we know people across the country so we are the top of the list.”
Today, when a large personal collector is selling, it’s often because he’s looking for cash infusion on a major scale. “The collections that go on sale now are because somebody wants to buy a house, somebody wants to buy a vacation home,” says Thomas. He recalls a recent purchase where the seller quickly needed a down payment on an apartment. Thomas cut him a check for $18,000 that night for the purchase.
A day prior to this meeting with Thomas though, he was sorting through the spoils of a significantly larger purchase—an undisclosed six figure sum for at least several hundred bottles. “Some iconic bottles,” he says, with the stash largely consisting of Stitzel-produced juice from the ’70s and ’80s.
“A lot of them came out in the ’90s, and you wouldn’t think that the ’90s were a big deal, but that’s when Julian [Van Winkle] was doing a lot of independent bottles,” Thomas says. “He was putting it out to everyone, when nobody cared. So there’s a lot of great Stitzel stuff out from there the early ’90s.”
THE DUST HUNTER
In his earlier collecting days, long before online groups, Thomas was a dedicated dusty hunter. He’d visit liquor stores searching their shelves for ignored bottles which just may be vintage gems. As that grew in popularity though, the dusties have in many cases become extinct.
“Yea, there’s no sustained hunting anymore,” Thomas says. “But it isn’t dead, either.” That’s due in part to today’s climate where age statements are being removed from popular brands left and right.
“There are dusties out there, and I plan to do a scorched earth policy in the next month or two,” Thomas says. New targets include recently bygone labels such as Elijah Craig 12 Year old, and Basil Hayden 8 Year.
Photo Credit: Veronica Sequeira / Shelves at Jack Rose Saloon
THE WHITE WHALES
Of course, when you have the reputation that Thomas now enjoys, you get afforded certain opportunities that other collectors aren’t. “I got a call from a guy who said there’s a guy selling this particular bottle of whiskey and he’s taking offers, but because I’m a known quantity in the whiskey business, I was able to get it,” says Thomas of the deal. He proceeded to fly to Wisconsin with an empty suitcase, meet the seller in the airport and chat whiskey for an hour. Then he packed up the new acquisition, checked his bag, and hopped on the return flight.
That bottle was one of Thomas’s remaining white whales, a private label Old Rip Van Winkle 20 Year cask-strength release distilled in 1982. A few months prior, Thomas acquired another one of his other remaining white whales, a Stitzel from 1935. “That could be the only one of its kind, maybe there could be five, maybe,” says Thomas. “That was an exciting one, and it needs to be drunk, there’s no doubt about it. It needs to be opened.” He’ll likely include it in a future high-end tasting event.
There’s always another white whale though, always another project. He’s currently working on completing the series of Buffalo Trace O.F.C. Bourbon releases, of which the entire collection went to charity auctions. “There’s an ’80, an ’82, and an ’83, and I would like to get one of each of those.” He currently has one of the 1980 bottles, and recently missed out on a few more, as he watched an online auction spiral out of control in the final 30 minutes, pricing him out.
“Too many people have too much money now,” says Thomas. “If I was buying for myself, not knowing that it was going to eventually turn back to cash, I couldn’t mentally do what these guys do. It’s crazy.”
NO BACKROOM DEALS
It has created a highly competitive landscape. “There are too many guys trying to throw their money around,” says Thomas. He avoids backroom deals which could theoretically help keep prices down, as in, I’ll avoid bidding on this bottle if you avoid bidding on that one.
“Nobody likes each other that much, and the problem is, if you say ‘hey do me a favor stay away from that bottle’ there are still two other guys,” says Thomas. “So we’ve taken the approach that we make no deals with anyone, and if you want it, just go for it, and if we want it, we’ll just go for it.”
But again, Thomas gets chances other guys just don’t. His phone rings. “Hold on,” he says, picking up the phone, hoping it’s a call he had been expecting. He gives a thumbs up. “Some super rare stuff,” he says of the just-now acquired collection from Kentucky after ending the call. Another deal closed. Another day in the life.
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