Interview #2: The Whiskey Whisperer
John Sinclair was a coworker of mine at a bar in New Orleans. The bar is called Barrel Proof. He’s still there too. Some nights, I still wish I was. No shit, it was one of the best places I’ve ever worked in my life, and for a lot of reasons. One of them was getting to meet guys like John. I’ve met a lot of “specialists” in my life. In fact, I relish in meeting them. As much as I consider myself a renaissance man, knowing a bit about everything, enough to kill a Trivia Night anyway, I never really had a desire to master a whole bunch of these things. Reason being, I like meeting masters. I like listening to them talk. Learning from them. I like putting myself in their hands. It’s an extension of the escapism you are already pursuing, in my opinion. I’ve prided myself on having a “guy” or a “girl” for just about any category you can have them in, and this was never more prevalent than when I lived in New Orleans. It made me feel like I was more a part of the community. Like my name was in the streets. People had my back. I had a bike guy for my bike, I had a bank girl, a banh mi lady, a shoe guy, a deli lady, I had bartenders all over, I had a couple karaoke guys, I even had a chicken tender guy. They all took good care of me. So in addition to being a really good friend and a badass coworker, John is also a master in whiskey, in my eyes. This dude was the first guy I ever meant that actually really collected whiskey. I don’t mean saving it for a special occasion or a single expensive bottle for bragging rights or even just having it because you don’t really drink that much, because John can drink with the best of them. At that damn bar, we all could. It was one of the requirements of the job. And while all our heads were floating towards the ceiling and our chests were full of fire, he could tell you some obscure fact about a bourbon, point out a tasting note you could have never came up with a word to describe, and do all of it without sounding like a snobby jerk off. He sounded like a guy that you wanted to be good friends with. A guy you want to be your whiskey guy.
The Wolf: My motherfucker. Thank you for doing this with me. How are you tonight, John Sinclair?
John: Excellent. Glad to talk with you.
The Wolf: You are sitting in New Orleans with a beer and a whiskey. What beer and whiskey do you have?
John: Lagunitas 12th of Never Ale and a High West Rendezvous Rye.
The Wolf: Wow.
John: Special Rendezvous Rye of course, haha. Cask strength, 127 proof. Only two barrels in the world like it.
The Wolf: What the fuck. How’d you get that?
John: The barrel picking group that I’m in. We bought two barrels of High West a couple years ago, similar to the ones we had at Barrel Proof. They take 16 year old Barton Rye and mix it with 6 year old LDI rye, then re-barrel it into used barrels. We bought one that was finished in a Four Roses bourbon barrel and one that was finished in a smokey/peaty scotch barrel. Well, they sent us the wrong scotch finished barrel. So as an apology they said they would do something special for us. This is it. Normally when they make the 16/6 blend they proof the whiskey down to 100 proof before re-barreling. This time they didn’t cut it with any water. It’s great. It tastes like a sandwich, tons of rye bread and dill pickles.
The Wolf: Wow. That sounds fucking awesome. I’m just sitting here with a glass of Early Times and gingerale.
John: ET&G ain’t bad either.
The Wolf: Hell no, it ain’t. I love listening to you guys talk about whiskey but I ain’t gonna lie, and I’ve said this to you before, but it just got to be whiskey being whiskey to me, for the most part, at the end of my days at BP (Barrel Proof). Don’t get me wrong, whiskey is definitely my spirit of choice for what I drink the most… being a beer and a shot kind of guy when I’m at the bar. But I just never had as many levels to what I liked or preferred as I do with say wine or sake.
John: It’s come full circle for us now. We nerded out on stuff and got excited and tried crazy shit and now we all just mostly shrug and say yup, bourbon tastes like bourbon. It’s still really great when you taste something that is crazy good but I’ve tried so much at this point I mostly just remember the people I was drinking with more than the tasting notes.
The Wolf: I feel like that’s important though. But still, I find it fascinating to hear you say this as you are one of the most educated people I know regarding whiskey.
John: If you’re writing 500 words about all the different baking spices you pick up on the finish you are kinda missing the point entirely.
The Wolf: Hahahaha, nice. So how did you get into joining this whiskey illuminati group? Or is that classified?
John: There are a bunch of groups out there, most of them designed so that you can buy entire barrels of bourbon and everyone in the group gets between 1 and 12 or so bottles. I started on a forum and a guy who was semi local to me helped me out and then I went to see him when he was bartending one night. And then another guy was about 4 hours away from me, I can’t remember if we first started talking because of the forum or Instagram, but I mentioned I was passing through his area one time and he told me to stop by. I showed up at like midnight on a Sunday and we just drank whiskey and shot the shit while Naked and Afraid was on the TV. It sounds super awkward and weird but he’s a really good friend. We have hung out all over the country now, just because, or at bourbon themed charity events he does. We are planning one in New Orleans this fall you should come out for. Most groups you have to have a member nominate you to get in and making those two connections were my in for this particular group.
The Wolf: I see. OK. But before ever coming to Barrel Proof and before whiskey and getting behind the bar, you wanted to be a cook right? You went to school and everything. You’ve been a chef. You are a chef. You run the kitchen. You’ve ran kitchens in the past.
John: Yes, I only pretend to be a bartender. I have only ever had two front of the house jobs, both of them at bourbon bars. I went to culinary school right of high school, took 1.5 years off in my early 20’s, but other than that I have always cooked. If I had to talk about wine or run food and deal with weird customers and their families I’d be exposed for the fraud that I am.
The Wolf: Hahaha. How did you know you wanted to go the cooking route so early?
John: I knew I didn’t want to go to regular college. I was a terrible student. I just never functioned well in that environment. So I thought it would be a waste of money. I had never worked in a kitchen before culinary school. I was interested in cooking because of Boy Scouts actually. I was in a group that did a lot of very adventurous or challenging cooking and we would do demonstrations so that other groups didn’t have to eat like hot dogs and beans every weekend.
The Wolf: Oh wow, that’s cool.
John: This was like during Emeril’s heyday on The Food Network and people starting to care again about food and restaurants. So I just said why not. It wasn’t until I came back from my break that it really clicked for me though.
The Wolf: Alright. So going back to the bar, what I always admired you or Brett was that even though you guys knew so goddamn much about whiskey, you were still always super un-pretentious about how you talked about it, like you were talking about it because you were genuinely interested and not because it was just some knowledge you’d acquired for the sake of being superior. What do you think it is that makes that difference? Between that shitty bartender and the one who gets you stoked?
John: Letting the customer dictate their experience. If you learned it because it was cool or want to sound cool, you’ll give the same speech every time to every customer, regardless if they want to hear it or not. If I start to get nerdy and their eyes glaze over or wander around the bar, I know they don’t want to hear the whole spiel. I tend to be wordy as it is, so instead, just work on what they want. If they start to get excited then I do as well because I love talking about it. I’ve learned so much from a lot of different people. They were nice enough to share that information with me, I’m glad to share it with others when they are receptive to hearing it. Also, I find that a lot of people who aren’t really passionate about it tend to fudge details or gloss over things. Just like I would do with wine if I had to talk about wine. If you don’t know, it all sounds legit to you as the customer. But I can spot it pretty easily when someone is just regurgitating stuff they have heard.
The Wolf: Hahaha. Fudge the details. I remember times I’ve been at a table and just made some shit up and turned around and saw a coworker watching me. I’d just wink.
John: There are always lapses in memory. People who were habitual with it drove me crazy. Servers who wouldn’t be bothered to learn anything about the menu. I worked at a place that had a lot of part time servers, most of them were stay at home moms who would work maybe 1 or 2 shifts a week, or sometimes not at all for a month. It was easy for them to pick up shifts or get coverage. They didn’t care. One of the owners told me that it wasn’t even a job to them. It was an ATM that took them 4 hours to withdraw $200.
The Wolf: Damn. Isn’t that wild?
John: That didn’t make me any happier at the time. I was there like 60 hours a week and my paycheck was like $600.
The Wolf: Oh yeah. I know all about it. Why I made the switch to the dark side, man. Killed me to see a bimbo walk in the back to count a stack.
John: Now you are the bimbo. Not as nice hair though.
The Wolf: I know. God, I know. I used to have the most luscious locks, John. I’m serious. You still like cooking as much now that you are bartending more?
John: I like having the variety. I miss being in the kitchen full time. It’s more difficult doing both and not being able to concentrate on food full time. If it was a more in depth menu and schedule I probably couldn’t do it for very long. But doing both breaks up the week and lets me exercise different muscles. Plus, I get to work next to the Rain a lot.
The Wolf: The motherfucking Rain. Is he playing the best music at BP right now? Or did someone else step up?
John: Rain and Lo. Bert plays good stuff in the kitchen but he doesn’t get on the PA like you did.
The Wolf: God dang, those were fun nights. I still remember that time you came in after you were done cooking at Coquette (a pretty good restaurant down the street) when you texted me do y’all need help. We were balls to the wall. That was crazy and wild and fun as hell. Something I love about the industry, when it just seems so fucking crazy and everyone is losing their mind but you are there and you can’t go anywhere so you just kind of embrace the chaos and you are there with your brothers and sisters and you just have to laugh or give a Ric Flair woo and go for it. Just do the damn thing.
John: Yeah, I like to let myself get angry in the kitchen and use that to power through. You need love in your cooking if you are romanticizing it; you need anger to power through all those tickets when you are getting fucked. I have caught myself several times “why am i still angry about that tiny thing that happened? I don’t know, it feels good, just use it.”
The Wolf: Interesting method. Listen, I wanted to tell you, I still haven’t drunk that mini bottle of wolf whiskey you got me. I don’t think I ever will. I’ve always thought it was pretty cool too; you go digging for rare whiskeys and shit. That’s like Indiana Jones shit. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever found on one of those adventures?
John: Hmmm. I have had some really good days. Some dudes have some crazy stories. Three of mine jump to mind right away. One is from a little store back in Connecticut, owner inherited the store from her father and she was slowly letting things go that he had collected. I got a bunch of cool stuff from her but my favorite is a bottle of Fernet from the 1950s. Second is less than a year ago, a bunch of us went to check out a store in DC that a local at tipped us off too. It’s a bulletproof, so everything is behind the counter and the glass. We ended up talking our way behind the glass and into the basement, ended up with 101 bottles from the early 1980s. Just a quick little dusty hunt to kill time between lunch and the charity dinner we were going to. But my favorite is still the first full day I committed to looking for old bottles. It was in Bristol, CT, one of the first stores I went to I bought a bottle of Old Grand Dad that looked older than the current stuff. After buying it I did some research on my phone, it was old but not quite old enough. I think the next place I went to though had exactly what I was looking for. And then another store later in the day had some more. 1980’s National Distillers Old Grand Dad became my first huge dusty score and my first love. It is and always will be favorite bourbon. Sentimental and its delicious. Also the first night I hung out with my girlfriend we drank a bunch and the rest is history, so that doesn’t hurt either. It has skyrocketed in value of late which is nice but I will never sell any that I have. I can’t afford to replace it. It is also why I felt so at home at Barrel Proof right away. House pour is OGD BIB? Sold.
The Wolf: What’s your favorite bottle at the bar right now?
John: Smooth Ambler 10 year old Cask Strength.
The Wolf: Most overrated bottle at the bar right now?
John: Bulleit. Rye or bourbon.
The Wolf: Favorite restaurant in NOLA right now?
John: Sneaky Pickle. It’s so good every time we go, ridiculously consistent. Ben is doing a great job there. It’s a little out of everyone’s way but I always recommend it.
The Wolf: Lo loves that place too. Has anyone arm wrestled at the bar recently?
John: I think we retired that out of respect to you leaving. Either that or you were the only one ever challenging people.
The Wolf: Are you ever going to get a tattoo?
John: Probably not.