Perhaps the most exclusive social institution in Charleston since St. Cecilia formed in 1766, is the Charleston Brown Water Society (CBWS) which makes its big debut at this year's Charleston Wine + Food Festival. And these debs won't be wearing white. More likely, they'll be holding something brown in their hands and trying to get you to accept the spirit of good bourbon in your heart.
The idea for CBWS started fermenting for somewhat selfish reasons. A couple of guys from Husk, which has the best bourbon selection in the city, wanted to drink some of that most excellent brown water but couldn't because of company policy. Then one day, their friend Greg "Bear" Barrow, a local tour guide, came in to shoot the shit after a trip to New Orleans and bemoaned that inferior city's bourbon club. "I was disappointed in their selection, and I thought Charleston could something like it and do it better."
The guys at Husk liked the idea too, because they saw it as a way to improve the bourbon choices in Charleston's other bars since Husk's selection was off-limits. As Dan Latimer so officially puts it: "The goal is to further the enjoyment and education of the public in regards to brown water and to facilitate better brown water in drinking establishments — especially in the airport." Apparently for Latimer, manager of Husk in both Charleston and Nashville, flying on a plane requires a stiff drink, and he prefers to drink the good stuff.
Thus, the four founding fathers — Latimer, Bear, Roderick Hale Weaver, and Darryl Csicsila — set upon selecting members for their new club in hopes of spreading the good word far and wide.
"It was a long process," says Latimer. "We basically got drunk on Black Maple Hill and started picking friends."
"Yeah," says Weaver. "The four of us just wanted to drink."
"And then people started clamoring for it," says Latimer.
"And we were blown away by the idea that anyone would want to join us," jokes Bear.
It took several meetings, but the four founders finally started reaching out to others they felt would be comfortable in the role of evangelical bourbonistas. Eight more — the Original 8 as they are officially called — were inducted, meetings commenced, proclamations were signed, and sacred decrees made. But first bourbon barrel staves were branded with 4F or 8, depending on status, and handed out to the members as a symbol of their bona fides. The eight includes two City Paper food writers, a bar owner, some bartenders, a Garden & Gun editor, a liquor seller, and a rickshaw driver. Sadly, an original member — Christopher "Fish" West — passed away suddenly a few months ago, but his brothers in bourbon have reserved an honorary place for him at the table in perpetuity.
Those early meetings were heady affairs that focused on tastings, with four members bringing a bottle to share with the group. Needless to say, they found communion in those first bottles of brown water.
At a recent Gathering of the 12, the members were all business. "We had to reduce the amount of whiskey so we could increase the amount of business we can do," said Weaver, who presided over the meeting, hammering his bespoke gavel — a double jigger fitted with a wooden handle — to get the disorderly crew back on the agenda. And the agenda was pretty serious, leaning toward world domination with talk of brown water societies spreading from New York to Tokyo.
When word leaked about CBWS via social media, an editor at a national magazine prophesied the spread of brown water societies everywhere. "A Saveur editor asked, 'Can I join? If not, can I start one?'" says Latimer, with zeal in his eyes.
From there, the discussion turned to their big debut at Charleston Wine + Food, a first communion that would be sandwiched between the Pappy Van Winkle wine and food festival event at Proof and the private Billy Reid party. Would they wear white? How about mariachi costumes? Would it be open to the public or just members and invitees? And who would be getting the ice?
As these questions were being hashed out in the upstairs room at McCrady's, a waiter poured tastes of High West Whiskey's Rendezvous Rye and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. At Fish's empty seat, glasses were filled in his honor.
Earlier in the evening, before the meeting was opened to my intrusive presence, the 12 had voted on new members. Each was allowed two nominations, and they consulted with Fish's girlfriend to include his choices. A lucky 24 were collectively chosen and for now, they've decided the society will be open to new members just once a year to keep it from getting too big too fast. "And it's not going to be a sausage fest for long," joked one of the founding fathers. "We've got at least one or two women now."
A week later, old and new members of CBWS, gathered at the Husk bar for a meet and greet with Trey Zoeller of Jefferson's Bourbon, who was sharing a taste of Ocean II, which had been aged in barrels on a boat as it traveled the high seas. CBWS is already impressing industry connections in the bourbon world with the seriousness of their approach. They're attracting heavyweights for future events in town geared toward their mission of educating and evangelizing. For the party this week, they'll be joined by Sam and Charles Medley of the Charles Medley Distillers in Kentucky. The last time the Medleys came to town, they brought a bottle of 1970s Old Charter for the CBWS to drink. This time around, not only are they bringing some more good brown water, but they're also bringing a bourbon blogger. Expect the word to be spread. Perhaps world domination isn't so far-fetched.