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    By Tom Johnson
     

    In his ground-floor office in Norton Commons, just a few blocks from home, Fred Minnick selects two bourbons. The whiskey writer, critic and entrepreneur is highlighting a small point in his never-ending conversation about American whiskey. But mostly he’s just being hospitable. It’s afternoon, and in Fred Minnick’s world, when afternoon arrives, one tastes whiskey.

    The first bottle is 15-year-old cask-strength (i.e., high-in-alcohol) Barrell Bourbon, a blend of Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana spirits that retails north of $250 a bottle. But since Minnick named it American Whiskey of the Year in 2018, in most places it’s only available on the quasi-legal secondary market for $300 or more. He spills generous pours into two of the dozens of tasting glasses he keeps in his office, a bright and compact space lined floor to ceiling with bottles displayed like museum pieces. “The thing I look for in whiskey is the way it feels in the mouth,” he says. “In blind tastings, you need something that can entertain your tongue in different spots.”

    The second bottle is “basically extinct” six-year-old Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, which sells for $12 — or more precisely, which used to sell for $12 a bottle. Like a lot of the high-quality, low-price brands that once defined Kentucky whiskey, it was discontinued as a victim of bourbon’s worldwide success. Whiskeys like Heaven Hill are more profitably blended into brands that collectors — some as far away as China — fight over at 10 times the price. (Heaven Hill recently brought back Bottled-in-Bond, but at three times the price.)


    “He always needs more. More research, more knowledge. He’s always more, more, more.”

    Minnick is stingy with the $12 bourbon after his open-handed pour from the $150 bottle. He laughs when I point this out, an explosion of delight that pops out of him suddenly, like a hiccup. It’s surprising because he is generally more earnest than jovial. He regains his composure and explains that his frugality is a function of rarity, not price. Anyone willing to spend the money can drink the American Whiskey of the Year.

    Minnick waves the expensive whiskey under his nose and inhales gently, detecting layers of aroma most drinkers can’t — marzipan, coconut, caramel. The offhand tone of his observations belies the fact that his assessment of a bourbon shapes consumer demand. If Minnick says good things about a whiskey, its sales blossom. If he finds a whiskey uninteresting or unpleasant, blood pressures rise in distilleries where thousands or even millions of cases await sale.

     

    Minnick, at 41, dismisses his power. Yet without question he has become an invaluable cog in the Big Bourbon Machine. “I think he influences markets,” says Peggy Noe Stevens, an industry consultant and the founder of Bourbon Women, a nonprofit with chapters all over the country. “He has a tremendous following of consumers who want to know his thoughts, his opinions and his take on the stories of the distilleries. He is also a reporter on the industry side and has an impact as well on legislative issues like the tariffs.”

    He has written with admirable clarity about the technical and aesthetic obscurities of spirits for every major whiskey magazine and a long list of general interest publications, including Parade, the New York Times and Scientific American. He has a regular column in Forbes, where he recently speculated on a theoretical end of the bourbon renaissance. “The greatest threat to the bourbon industry is bourbon itself,” he wrote. “If and when bourbon brands stop working together for the greater good, fighting over a piece of the pie versus making the pie bigger, other spirits categories will seize the opportunity to steal their customers.”

    He has written seven books and contributed to several others. (A sign on Minnick’s glass office door announces he’s a Wall Street Journal bestselling author.) His third book, Whiskey Women, published in 2013, changed the way the industry thinks about half of the population. “For a business steeped in tradition and history,” he wrote, “whiskey has forgotten its better half. Women have always been part of whiskey history; they’ve just never received credit.”

    With partners, he produces an elegant quarterly magazine, Bourbon+, and anchors the Amazon Prime series Bourbon Up, on which he interviews not just distillers and executives but also chefs, musicians, actors and other interesting bourbon drinkers. He is co-founder of this month’s annual Bourbon & Beyond, a music festival intended to help turn Louisville into the Napa Valley of American whiskey. He is a speaker in high demand, an emcee of events that have raised millions for charity and a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Conference, one of the most prestigious whiskey competitions in the world. When he hurries through these events, people recognize him — often by his signature ascot. He does not stop for chitchat, instead pressing on to a tasting he’s leading or a panel he’s moderating, or sometimes rushing to catch every word of a talk by someone else with something interesting to say about whiskey.

    “Voracious,” is how Colleen Thomas of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association describes him. “He always needs more. More research, more knowledge. He’s always more, more, more.”

    In a whiskey world overrun with wannabes and pompous, self-declared “experts,” Minnick’s growing prominence generates resentment. Some sneer at his success, referring to him as “Famous Fred” and scoffing at his energetic self-promotion. They joke about his ascot — a sartorial affectation he insists is a fashion preference and not an act of personal branding. They hint that he may be corrupt, in the pockets of the big distillers — something both Minnick and everyone who knows him vehemently deny. “Pure sour grapes,” is how one observer explains it. “Goes with the territory.”

    Minnick himself is visibly discomfited by the thought that anyone would question his integrity, even as he understands it is inevitable. He seems on a constant search for the public eye — not because he is an egotist but because he thinks big about the future. Visibility and hard work are the pixie dust that turns ideas into actualities. He promotes himself because, as one friend puts it, “Who else is going to?” He’s building a small empire doing what he loves in what is, at the moment, one of the most exciting and competitive industries in the world. Jealousy is a predictable side effect.

    “He has a really wide scope and an enormous curiosity,” says Bill Samuels Jr., chairman emeritus of Maker’s Mark, which did more to put the boom into bourbon than any other brand. “He’s a fine craftsman, but what he really is is a business builder. I think he’s just getting started.”

    People who know Minnick brag they knew him before he was Famous Fred. His growing stature is proof of what they understood all along: He is destined for big things. If his growing portfolio of enterprises validates their confidence, it is interesting that very few understand the reality of his tie to whiskey. There’s a piece of the Fred Minnick story even the self-promoter doesn’t often tell. He is not just a guy who takes his drinking seriously, not someone who decided bourbon was the Next Big Thing and climbed aboard for the ride. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when his biggest concern was keeping himself together, when he felt the need to flee his life and job in Milwaukee to hole-up in the Wisconsin north woods, hoping to escape the angry, near-suicidal combat veteran he’d become.

    Fate — some might call it grace — led him to bourbon. And salvation.

     

    Minnick grew up in Jones, Oklahoma, a small town about 30 miles from Oklahoma City. His father worked for the Federal Aviation Administration studying potential passenger injuries in crash simulations and his mother was an X-ray tech. When he was a teen, his parents became born-again Christians and banned alcohol from the house.

    Minnick was a member of a Future Farmers of America chapter known for raising prize-winning hogs. His wife, Jaclyn, says he is never happier than when he is in the hog shed at the Kentucky State Fair. He wanders from pen to pen, breathing the dusty air. “It’s a riot,” Jacyln says, laughing at the thought of someone who wears ascots and spends his days judging $300 bottles of whiskey applying his critical aptitude in a hot, smelly hog shed. “He tells us why this one is going to get first place, why this one isn't. It’s like going to school.”

    Minnick’s career as a writer is directly traceable to his time in the world of competitive pig husbandry. He thought his town’s award-winning FFA chapter didn’t get the attention it deserved. At his teacher’s suggestion, he wrote an article about the chapter’s successes and sent it to the local paper. “I saw my name in the paper, and I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be a writer.’ I couldn’t tell you what kind of writer I wanted to be. I just wanted to be a writer,” Minnick says.

    When a terrorist blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, Minnick was close enough to feel the ground shake. He volunteered to help dig through the wreckage but as a teen was instead put to work making biscuits for the firefighters. Partly out of a sense of duty born that day, he enlisted in the National Guard when he enrolled at Oklahoma State University. He told the recruiter he wanted to be an Army journalist. The recruiter told Minnick there was no such thing, even though there is. He went in as a plain-vanilla infantryman.

    After a turn as a sportswriter for the Daily Oklahoman, the agricultural communications major gravitated back to writing about farmers helplessly trapped between unpredictable weather and an emerging agribusiness model making it difficult for them to survive. He also encountered bourbon for the first time. “My first legal drink was tilting up a bottle of Jim Beam on the balcony of the Delta Kappa fraternity house,” he says. “Everyone would always drink Keystone Light, but I would always prefer bourbon. I didn’t know what I was drinking. I wasn’t assessing it. It was not like I was developing my palate.”

    When he graduated, he got a job writing about forestry in Milwaukee. “I didn’t know it, but I was really training myself to do what I do today. I’m just fascinated with processes and applied science. I spent a couple of years following things like how to eradicate kudzu in pine forests,” he says. “I would find historical connections to kudzu entering the U.S. from the Japanese, which is touching a little history, a little science.”

    He transferred to the Wisconsin National Guard and again asked for a job as a journalist. His clips from Oklahoma convinced them he would make a fine addition to the public-affairs unit. His military future looked like it would be packaging harmless puff pieces about Army activities and showing the occasional reporter around the base. It was early September 2001. The era of the military puff piece was about to end.

     

    Minnick got his orders to deploy to Iraq on Valentine’s Day 2003. After intensive training, his unit, the 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, arrived in Iraq in 2004. They joined a convoy north to Mosul, a battleground that coalition commander Gen. David Petraeus called “the most complex human terrain in all of Iraq.” It was a chaotic, deadly, densely populated city divided by religion, ethnicity and tribal loyalties. They set up a base of operations in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces and went out to do a job they were barely prepared for. “Those type units weren’t really meant to be in the thick of the combat operation,” says Command Sgt. Maj. Josh Reed who, in his third combat deployment, was assigned to train the “pretty eclectic” group of part-time soldiers to survive in battle. “Fred had some infantry training in his background, and I leaned on him. He was my number-one sergeant, my number-one soldier. You notice right away when you meet him: He can be trusted to do what needs to be done.”

    As a combat photojournalist, Minnick’s subject matter ranged from ribbon-cuttings at newly opened elementary schools to horrifying, sprawling firefights. Reed says Minnick volunteered for some of the unit’s hardest missions and was one of the few in the unit who would put down his camera and notebook to pick up a rifle. He worked in an environment where his allies — the barely trained Iraqi forces — were as likely to shoot at friend as foe when under fire. Minnick returned to base each day with photos, sometimes of visiting politicians happily greeting soldiers from their home state and sometimes of blood and brains splattered across the walls of the destroyed city. “We were spread pretty thin, and this is sustained combat, going out night after night, 14 days straight,” Reed says. “Part of your job as a leader is to watch your soldiers for breaking points. There was more than once we had to pull (Minnick) out.”


    Minnick (right) and his camera in Mosul, on “one of the most dangerous streets in the world,” he says.

    June 24, 2004, was a particularly bad day in Mosul. Insurgents mounted a series of attacks designed to rattle coalition confidence, setting off bombs at the local police academy, police stations and the hospital where the wounded were taken. They harassed rescuers with hit-and-run attacks from what seemed like every direction. Minnick says he was in the middle of the chaos, with bullets passing inches from his head and a rocket-propelled grenade landing at his feet — a dud that would have otherwise killed him. Sixty-two people died that day and more than 200 were wounded. “I had to go in and photograph that shit,” he says. “I go back to a couple of firefights we were in, and the bodies were laying around, and seeing our own people…. Those are just — those are visions I can’t get out of my head.”

    He closes his eyes and taps five fingers on his forehead three times, as if knocking the memories back into safe storage.

    “It was fuckin’ awful.”

     

    After a year in combat, Minnick returned to Milwaukee to write about forestry. His friends and co-workers did everything they could to help him readjust. “They had this big office homecoming; they couldn’t have been better,” he says. “It just wasn’t the same. I felt that I would never be understood, unless it was someone else who was in Iraq with me.”

    He was plagued by the anger and depression of post-traumatic stress disorder, which sent him into sulky silences or blinding rage for little or no apparent reason. Attending a party with an Army friend, he encountered a group of recent ROTC graduates talking about how to avoid service in Iraq. Minnick doesn’t remember the event, but his friend told him it took three people to keep him from attacking a dozen second lieutenants. “You come home and you’re feeling that war every single day,” Minnick says. “You don’t understand. You’re so clouded and pained and hurt.”

    He was also lonely, so he signed-up on eHarmony, thinking it would be easier to communicate with someone over the Internet than in person. He met a nursing student in Louisville named Jaclyn Engelsher. The dating service has a getting-to-know-you protocol nearly as regimented as Army life, with “stages of communication” that gently bring people together while protecting both parties’ security. Minnick blew past that, coming out of his shell after only a few contacts. He asked Jaclyn to throw out the eHarmony rulebook and communicate directly. She agreed, and they began to talk on the phone. A few weeks later, they met in person at the airport in Milwaukee. “She had a track record of breaking men’s hearts,” Minnick says. “I nicknamed her the Manbreaker, so I was holding a sign at the airport that said ‘Manbreaker.’” She laughed when she saw it. It broke the ice, and Minnick relaxed a little. They talked about his feelings about the war, and Minnick believes his openness was one of the things she liked about him. “I saw tiny things (in his behavior), but nothing major,” she says. “He was funny. It was easy conversation.”

    Just before Memorial Day 2005, Minnick wrote a couple of heartfelt paragraphs about the sacrifices made by people in the military, to remind everyone the holiday was about more than grilled hamburgers and mattress sales. He sent it out on his employer’s companywide email list. Soon after, one of his supervisors reprimanded him for inappropriate use of office email to broadcast his political views. “It’s 14 years since I sent that email, and it still pisses me off,” Minnick says. “It’s a good thing the guy who delivered that to me was bigger than me and could whip my ass. If I didn’t have that reservation, I probably would have attacked him.”

    Minnick was having a rough time. Being around people made him intensely uncomfortable. Crowds were beyond oppressive. Little things seemed threatening. “I could see a piece of garbage on the ground and I’d think it was a bomb,” he says. Even today, part of his brain scans rooftops for snipers. But in Milwaukee it was nonstop, too much. “Was I suicidal?” he says. “I never acted on it, but it was definitely a thought.”

    He decided to get out. He’d go to a cabin in Barnes, Wisconsin, not far from Lake Superior on the state’s northern edge, and write his war memoir — later published as Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq. “I had it in my head that writers had to write books in cabins,” he says. “Maybe it’s a Stephen King thing, I don’t know. I just had this vision that you write books in a cabin.”

    It was exactly the kind of isolation PTSD sufferers are told to avoid. “At the time, it sounded reasonable,” says Jaclyn, who, after observing Minnick’s experience with PTSD, became a specialist in counseling veterans and is now chief of mental health and behavioral science services at the Louisville VA Medical Center. “But now, if I had a patient’s wife come to me with this kind of behavior, I’d be like, ‘Oh, my God! I’m worried about his safety, about suicide.’”

    In retrospect, he knows the cabin was risky, and if he hadn’t been able to talk to Jaclyn every day, driving down a long gravel road until his Nokia cell phone with the pull-up antenna caught a single bar of service, he wouldn’t have made it. But there was something therapeutic about the trip just the same. “It wasn’t a wilderness cabin,” he says. “I was on a lake. I saw other boats, but when the sun was down and the stars were out, it was pretty much me.” Life came down to writing, reading and fishing. And an occasional pizza at a restaurant up the hill. If it wasn’t a cure for PTSD, it was a step toward healing. “It’s where I learned how to think for myself. I had to cook my own food, do my own laundry. I had to take care of myself,” Minnick says. “But we’re talking about a very long journey. When you’re battling war demons, there’s not a single moment, a turning point. But I would say the cabin was a starting point.”


    Minnick at the Wisconsin cabin that he says helped him heal.

    At dawn, he paddled in his kayak, and when he tired of fishing, he went back to the cabin to write. He stayed through the summer, then watched the leaves change and considered what he might do when he finished the book. Milwaukee was over for him. He had no reason to return to Oklahoma. He contemplated re-enlistment and even tried to get a job reporting on the war. He says newspaper chain Gannett and the AP told him he was “too close to it” to report objectively. The best prospect seemed to be Albuquerque, where a friend from high school offered couch space and a blank slate.

    That was Jaclyn’s signal. “The one thing he knew was that he was never going move to Louisville,” she says. “And that’s when I knew he was moving to Louisville.” She put it to him plainly: If he moved to Albuquerque, he’d be saying their relationship had no value. She would say goodbye. It took him maybe 30 minutes to change his mind. “I couldn’t imagine my life without her,” he says. “So I packed up all my stuff in my Nissan Altima and drove down here and moved in with her.”

     

    He found a job in Anchorage at NetWorld Alliance (now NetWorld Media Group), writing about fast-casual restaurants. Covering obscure details of the business may seem unimportant, but Minnick believed his work would make a significant difference in the lives of oft-abused franchisees of multinational corporations. “Think about yourself as the pizza store owner,” he says. “You’re mortgaging your house to do your dream of owning a pizza store. That is your life. That is your everything. I saw this as an opportunity to help people like that. People would write me thanking me for my coverage, and it was very, very satisfying.”

    Still, he carried Mosul with him. In his apartment upstairs from the Spaghetti Factory downtown, he shuddered every time a helicopter flew over. The celebration of Thunder Over Louisville was “the absolute worst. We got up on the roof to watch the planes and the helicopters. I had a flashback, the Blackhawks coming around, and most of my time I’m hoping a sniper didn’t get me.” He thought he could watch fireworks. “I had to sprint back. I was running and I was crying. There were mortars flying at me.”

    Small things continued to trigger him, sending him into a funk or rage that could last for days. Something overheard in a restaurant could bring him to an instant boil. He stewed over imagined slights at work and would stop his car and run onto lawns to tear up anti-war signs. As bad as it got, both Minnick and Jaclyn say, he never used alcohol to self-medicate. In search of peace, he eventually sought therapy at the Louisville VA Medical Center, enrolling in a cognitive behavioral-therapy and other treatment techniques. This is a sometimes-intense self-examination designed to give someone with PTSD a sense of control. When Minnick felt fear or anger, his therapy was to write, tying facts to the feelings and facing what therapists call the “trauma narrative” head-on.

    It was tough going, Jaclyn says. “He had these work sheets about how he’s acting,” she says. “He was doing those all the time, examining the automatic, snappy answers he had to everything, the triggers, all the behaviors and your own beliefs. He would get snappy, get withdrawn. You have to relive things you don’t want to relive. You have to examine your pattern of thinking. You have to dig into your soul.”

    In that period of constant self-analysis, he turned to whiskey — not for its dulling effect but for its complexity. He used the development of his palate as a point of focus to distract himself from his feelings. “It’s ironic, I know,” he acknowledges.

    “It gave me something to put a lot of energy toward learning,” he says. “It allowed me to keep my focus on what’s happening inside my mouth instead of on a jet that is about to drop a bomb or something. It kind of changed everything for me. It’s why I can taste all kinds of random stuff other people can’t taste.”

    Jaclyn wouldn’t recommend concentrated engagement with alcohol as a type of PTSD therapy, but she saw how he made it work for him. “He focused on bourbon as a substance, not a lifestyle thing,” she says. “With his ability to focus, it worked. Not everybody could do that.”

    Mostly, Minnick spent those months digging into his memories of the war. The more he traced his angry impulses back to their source, the more he loosened the war’s grip. “You realize you’re not stuck on June 24th in Mosul anymore,” he says.

    Minnick and Jaclyn were married at St. Louis Bertrand Church on South Sixth Street. “Jaclyn was walking down the aisle wearing a white dress. The incense was going,” he says. “That was the moment of, like, this woman has been with me for everything, the hardest moments of my life. There’s still bumpy roads ahead, but that’s when I knew I had this.”

     

    It was a restaurant-writing assignment that put him on the road to covering alcohol. He slapped together an article about a test of wine sales conducted by Panera Bread. It was just another 250 words posted to the web, but it fascinated him. “It was, like, a regurgitated press release, and the numbers on it were off the charts,” he says.

    Sensing opportunity, he looked at the market for wine writing and found no one drilling into the science and personalities of the wine business. Curious about freelancing, he talked to one of his colleagues who wrote for dozens of magazines. Minnick asked her how much she made. “My jaw dropped,” he says. “I’m making, like, $32,000 a year here. She’s making way more than that. I think, ‘I’m going to go.’”

    Magazines in the NetWorld Alliance waiting room were his guidebooks. He studied them the way salesmen study hot prospects. He quietly contacted a few editors and found them receptive. One, a direct competitor of the publication he worked for, offered him a 12-month contributor contract. He told his employer he was leaving to freelance and that his first client was their fierce rival. “I was very upfront,” he says. “But if you don’t sign a non-compete, you don’t owe your former employer shit.”

    While trying to ignite his freelance career, he sent more than 500 story pitches. In 2007, one landed on the desk of an editor at Successful Meetings, a magazine aimed at convention organizers. They needed someone in Kentucky to write a short piece about Louisville as a convention town. Minnick submitted a few hundred words covering the size of the convention center and listing successful big events that had visited the city. He ended the story with a things-to-do section that included a couple of paragraphs about the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It was his first published reference to bourbon. For the piece, he had interviewed Ed O’Daniel, head of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association at the time. “I remember just listening to his voice and thinking, Wow, this guy is cool,” Minnick says.


    People who have never read a word of Minnick’s writing know him by his signature ascot.

    Wine and bourbon became the two parallel thrusts of his work. He felt more at home with the whiskey makers, but there was a more developed market for wine writing, so he focused there. He traveled extensively, learning from European winemakers and sommeliers how to taste and take notes for reviews. When he came home, he applied that knowledge to bourbon.

    “If there was a neighborhood newsletter that would pay me to write about bourbon, I would write about bourbon,” he says. “That’s kind of how I went at it. I was going to freakin’ saturate the market with my writing.”

    Every whiskey writer loves interviewing master distillers, the stars of the bourbon world, but Minnick was just as happy passing time with the guys moving barrels around the rickhouses. He broke into the big time at Whiskey Advocate with an article about two guys who spend their days in the stifling heat, plugging leaks in barrels. “That was a story no one else was telling, a story that bridged generations in the industry,” says Lew Bryson, then-editor of Whiskey Advocate.

    Martin Duffy, the Chicago-based U.S. representative for the iconic Glencairn whiskey glass, says Minnick’s fascination with the business endeared him to a culture that was unsure of its sudden prominence in the world market, and at least a little bit insular. “I’m sure Fred has sat down with every master distiller at their home,” Duffy says. “He’s not just some guy who pops around and writes a little article. He has real relationships. He eats, breathes and obviously drinks bourbon. It’s something he can’t get enough of.”

    Writers can have fraught relationships with their subjects, but after Heaven Hill master distiller Parker Beam was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Minnick wrote about him on his blog. Josh Hafer, senior manager of corporate communications at Heaven Hill, calls the piece “frankly beautiful.” The 2016 column recounts Minnick’s visit with the master distiller.
     

    Hours before, Parker pedaled a Schwinn stationary bike for eleven miles, an everyday activity that sometimes requires two sweat bands. He can’t scratch his head, pull his bed sheets, feed himself or hold his head up for long periods of time. But there’s one thing he can do — and that’s pedal. In the times (his wife) Linda attempted to pull a struggling cyclist away, Parker fired back: “I’ve got to finish my bike!”

    It’s this bike, Linda, kids, grandkids, 400 head of cattle and, of course, the distillery that keep him going.

    Heaven Hill workers call three to five times a week. You might think they just want to hear his voice, but they’re really calling for his knowledge. Parker is still that important.


    In the piece, Minnick refers to Beam as “whiskey’s bravest soul,” and he still talks about the distiller with affection. Beam, who died in 2017, was one of the first bourbon royals to befriend him, to pat him on the back and call him by name. Several people in the industry say Minnick’s article about Beam was so heartfelt and emotional that Minnick stopped being just a reporter and became a member of the bourbon community.

    But wine writing continued to pull him away. There was simply more wine work available. Touring France for Sommelier Journal, he uncovered a scandal about wine classification — a big scoop in the wine world. It earned him a nomination for a Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Award. He and Jaclyn attended the awards ceremony in London. It was a regal affair, the wine world’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, with an everybody-who’s-anybody vibe and tastings of some of the world’s rarest wines.

    “I’m at the Four Seasons Hotel,” Minnick says, “and I’m in this room with the most legendary wine writers of all time. They’re all there. And all I can think about is, I want to be with bourbon people.”

    After the awards ceremony, he and his wife skipped the Champagne, ducking out of the party to search for bourbon in a city where it’s a rarity. They looked for a pub catering to Americans and finally found a bottle in a bar across the street from the American embassy.

     

    Arriving at a Saturday afternoon charity event to raise money for Crohn’s disease research, Minnick photographs the rare bourbon offered for bid in the silent auction before engaging with anyone. The event is sponsored by the Bourbon Crusaders, a Cincinnati group visiting Louisville for the auction, distillery tours and a tasting led by Minnick. He gives each photo a caption highlighting why it is significant and posts the photos to social media. The posts include a link to a bidding site, bringing thousands more people to the auction and, hopefully, driving up prices.

    Standing in a converted Butchertown warehouse, caterers hustling around him, he is dressed in a less-than-crisp seersucker sport coat, well-worn jeans and, as always, an ascot. His look falls somewhere between Southern-gentleman-at-a-garden party and elegant hobo. “Here’s the thing about the ascot,” he says. “People see the ascot and they don’t notice that I’m wearing jeans and shitty shoes. It’s a really good diversion from the rest of my attire.”

    People who have never read a word of Minnick’s writing know him by his neckwear. His ascot fixation is enough of a thing that a ritual of his TV show is choosing ascots for his guests to wear during their interviews. He insists he adopted his signature look purely because he grew up watching suave, European movie stars. He liked the look of ascots but, as a kid from Oklahoma, feared he would appear foppish. Then, while in Europe writing about wine, he met “this god of a wine writer” who wore an ascot every single day. “The thing about how he wore it,” Minnick says, “he wasn’t, like, douchey. He was revered. I was like, I want one of those.” He now has dozens and hunting for new ones is something he enjoys almost as much as he enjoys sampling new whiskeys.

    “I like finding things,” he says. “My entire career is built out of finding out stuff about pizza ovens or whatever, researching whiskey women. Go find an ascot in this town. They’re not easy to get. You know how I find them? Thrift stores when I’m in London. I have even stalked obituaries to see if a guy is wearing an ascot and then gone to estate sales to try to buy them. It is like I love the quest for finding them.”

    He takes the stage at the auction, like being the focus is in his DNA. He opens by asking if there’s anyone in the crowd who likes vodka. Minnick loathes the sameness of the stuff and its role in bourbon’s decline in popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. He frequently wears a baseball hat imprinted with “Vodka sucks.” When a few in the crowd raise their hands, Minnick points to the back of the room. “The exits are over there,” he says, drawing a laugh.

    For the first time in years, Minnick is not working on a book. But he’s busy with other things. His commentary on the Bourbon Pursuit podcast and taping his segments for Amazon Prime take big blocks of his time. (He recently traveled to Portugal to record a show about cork.) He still has reviews and columns to write, to say nothing of his time-consuming work on Bourbon+. He has an app, BRBN Library, in beta that will bring his writing to smartphones, and recently announced a partnership with a creator of radio content. It will, he said in a press release, “help accomplish my goal of having a hand in every media for spirits.” Also taking up time are preparations for Bourbon & Beyond, the three-day festival that would not be what it is without his involvement.

    In 2013, Mayor Fischer’s Bourbon and Local Food Work Group put together a plan to capitalize on bourbon’s rising popularity. Bourbon & Beyond is a critical part of that plan, a “destination festival” designed to draw people to what the report, with admirable boosterism, calls “the world’s greatest culinary and spirits city.”

    The mayor asked the Los Angeles-based producer of the Louder Than Life festival, Danny Wimmer Presents, to put something together. At first, Wimmer CEO Danny Hayes says, the bourbon industry wasn’t particularly interested. “There was this initial perception of: What do these LA guys know about bourbon?” he says. “We needed the bourbon industry to take ownership. We were getting lots of interest but no commitment, but when Minnick came onboard, the tone changed. He vouched for us, in a way. We could never have earned trust without him.”

    The “beyond” part of Bourbon & Beyond is a diverse lineup of more than 40 musical acts that this year includes the Foo Fighters, Robert Plant, the Zac Brown Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Around that, the “uniquely Louisville” activities are a bourbon Disneyland built to Minnick’s specifications: tasting rooms, pop-up speakeasies, bourbon-nerd panel discussions, standing-room-only seminars with master distillers and personalities who are, in the bourbon subculture, as important as the acts onstage. Minnick’s involvement has helped attract 30 bourbon brands to participate. He organized all the panels and will moderate one about the history of slavery in American bourbon. “Bourbon is its own celebrity,” Minnick says, “its own rock star. I believe that the populace is at a point for bourbon that they want to look at bourbon the way they look at their favorite sports team.”

    Minnick’s name is on the festival poster and in advertisements, right there with (though smaller than) all the other stars. When he is out in public, people stop him for selfies. At restaurants, they interrupt dinner with his wife to ask what bourbon they should buy. He has been parodied on social media. Distilleries get mad at him if he gives them a bad review — he recently described one whiskey as smelling like drywall — and brand managers corner him at social events to complain. Consumers get mad when he is complimentary, because a good review can increase demand, making a whiskey harder to find. He recently had his tires slashed — whether by someone angered by a compliment or an insult, he does not know. “Fred calls them like he sees them,” says John Thames, the co-founder and publisher of Bourbon+. “You get it through his lens.”


    “I love telling the stories. I love writing the reviews. I love tasting everything.”

    Now guiding the Bourbon Crusaders in Butchertown through several bourbon samples, Minnick is a little like Mick Jagger singing “Satisfaction” — something he’s done thousands of times but must somehow keep fresh. He notes aspects of the whiskey most people would never notice. He does so without self-importance and is supportive and encouraging when people don’t taste all the things he tastes. He makes a point of interacting with every table, joking a little but mostly talking about the whiskey and why it is wonderful.

    Minnick finishes the tasting and introduces the auctioneer. Before he gives up the mic, he runs through an impression of the auction patter used to spur bids. It is maybe 10 seconds of high-speed “We’ve got 40, now 40. Do I hear 45? Forty-five bargain at twice the price, 45….” It is a skill left over from the hog auctions of his youth, a well-practiced bit of show business that changes the momentum of the room from tasting to buying. “This is my element,” he says as the auctioneer gets to work. “I’m more relevant at something like this than I am at the office.”

    He settles into the kind of post-show decompression that would seem to require a dressing room. Minnick makes do with a bench half-hidden by the buffet and looks at the glass of whiskey in his hand.

    “The path to get here has not been one where doors were open to me,” he says. “I was always pushing to get something, even to get better from war. If I didn’t want to fight for that, I wouldn’t have gotten better.

    “There’s not a single thing I’m doing that I don’t enjoy,” he continues. “I love telling the stories. I love writing the reviews. I love tasting everything…and I love getting on camera and interviewing people and talking about the whiskeys. At the festival, my name is right there with Eddie Vedder and Sting and these incredibly famous musicians. I love all of it.”

    He rolls the glass of bourbon between his fingers and notes it is not in his preferred Glencairn glass. The top of this particular knockoff is taller and straighter, a stovepipe lacking the Glencairn’s elegant flare. That small difference, he explains, changes the tasting experience and makes it harder to detect nuance. “It shoots the whiskey onto the tongue,” he says. “That’s not what a glass should do.”

    He looks at his drink idly, then tastes it anyway. It may not be perfect, but it is afternoon, and in Fred Minnick’s world, when afternoon arrives, one tastes whiskey.

     

    This originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by William DeShazer, williamdeshazer.com

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