I first learned that the Cleveland Bourbon Club existed a year and a half ago, and I've been trying to worm my way into a meeting ever since. The club, launched three years ago by a trio of attorneys, is one of the most exclusive organizations in town, limited to just 25 members — one for every ounce in a bottle of bourbon. Members include lawyers and chefs, but also a pharmacist, film producer, wine importer and spirits distiller. Once a month on a Monday night, the members drop everything to gather around one very long table and dissect bourbon and the occasional rye.
"We drink bourbon and rye for the same reason we listen to jazz — because we're American, goddammit!" says founding member David Brown.
The genesis of the club can be traced back to the bottom of a cocktail glass. A shared love of fine cocktails, specifically Manhattans at the Velvet Tango Room, led to an obsessive quest to find the best bourbon for the task. Before long, the founding members were beating a path to a spirits retailer across state lines to load up on hard-to-find hootch.
Like beer, the ingredients that make up bourbon are few. But many are the differences when it comes to matters of appearance, aroma and taste. It is precisely those distinctions that are the raison d'être of the Cleveland Bourbon Club.
"You can have two barrels of the same bourbon right fucking next to each other in the rick house and they'll taste completely different," explains Mathew T., the club's information officer.
With hundreds of bourbons on the market, the early years of the club were all about building a knowledge base, says founding member Edwin Vargas. "For the first two years we were all about tasting everything — the wider variety the better," he says. "You taste, you come to your own evaluations and then you compare those observations against reviewers you trust."
Members have been added slowly and cautiously since the start. Potential candidates must be nominated by an existing member and then voted in by the entire club. Only recently did the club welcome its first — and only — female member.
"We're seeking people who will be fun to drink with, but also will take things seriously at the tastings," notes founding member Nicholas Panagopoulos. Adds Mathew T., "The important thing is that you care about drinking American spirits, you want to see your palate develop and you want to contribute to and learn from the group."
Membership dues "are less than $500 per year," which includes the right to taste two bourbons at each meeting. That might sound steep, but when you consider the cost-prohibitive nature of some of the bourbons in the line-up, you quickly see the rationale behind the club. In three years of tastings, no bourbon has been repeated. The 25-member cap is in place so that each member will receive a one-ounce pour from each 750 ml (approximately 25 ounces) bottle. Members with more than two or three unexcused absences in a year are kindly shown the door.
At 7 p.m., the members gather around one long table in a private space. In accordance with the rules and recommendations of the club, nobody is wearing strong aftershave or cologne. One-ounce samples of two different bourbons are placed in front of each member, along with an official score sheet and a pen. There are jugs of water and water glasses, but no ice and zero food.
The noses go first, plunged deep into the glass to receive the aromas. Next come the sips — chews, really — to distribute the booze all over the mouth to better experience it. There's a lot of note taking, some pleasant chatter. Everybody manages to make their pours last much (much) longer than mine. When everybody finishes evaluating both samples, the presentations begin.
One by one, members offer up their personal assessment of both bourbons, using descriptors like tobacco, black pepper, clove, cooked sugar, butterscotch, cedar and circus peanuts for aroma and maple syrup, cinnamon, clove, oak, orange peel and leather for flavor. Finishes are debated and scores are given. Members are quiet and respectful throughout, and a round of applause follows each and every presentation.
As one of the newest members — and the club's only female member — Rockefeller's chef Jill Vedaa admitted that she was a tad nervous before her first meeting. "When you think of bourbon, you think it's a man's drink," she says. "But I've always loved bourbon and cigars." Vedaa found that not only was she welcome, but that she brought value to the proceedings. "As a chef, I might be able to recognize certain flavors and tastes that others might not be able to pinpoint."
In the coming year, the club hopes to raise its visibility and utility through a public website. "We want to be taken seriously," says Vargas. "We want a level of responsibility so that we can help others make the right decisions with regards to bourbon."