Guthrie McKay at Toddy’s Liquors in Bardstown, Ky. (image: Sam Lacy)
As world capitals go, Toddy’s Liquors doesn’t look like much. It’s not that big. It can feel a little cluttered. It sits atop a square of asphalt with a basic drive-through window and a lonely half-barrel planter. Bud Light neon and Kentucky Wildcats flags appear in the windows, along with a simple sign on the low roof: “Toddy’s Liquors Cold Beer Whiskey Wine.” It maintains no marketing campaigns, no website, no answering machine.
Located at the crux of the Bourbon Trail, Toddy’s is not far from Louisville, Ky., in Bardstown, the Bourbon Capital of the World. According to locals, it’s the oldest such store in the Bluegrass State.
For the motivated palate, a tasting safari can consume several days. Visiting a handful is a rite of passage for bourbon pilgrims, but those with less time can make one stop and call it a win, as Toddy’s carries each of those distilleries’ products and many others.
Humble presentation and all, Toddy’s is the undisputed heart-within-the-heart of American whiskey. Better yet, what the store offers often comes at lower prices than can be found in the distillery tasting rooms. The encyclopedic shelves include as many as 115 different labels at any given time.
Guthrie McKay has owned Toddy’s for 33 years after buying it from original owner, Toddy Beam, who opened it in 1960. McKay knows everybody in town, and it can seem like he has known new customers forever too. He presides over the counter at Toddy’s with a vibe that’s neighborly, Southern, avuncular and sly. At any given moment, he’ll key clients into rarities, local stories, barrel philosophy or, more importantly, a swig from a treasure he has tucked behind the register.
McKay almost single-handedly supplied Jack Rose Dining Saloon, one of the largest whiskey bars in the world, with truckloads of bourbon when it first launched in Washington, D.C. The time he noticed Maker’s was cutting off its 101-proof in the 1990s (it has recently restored it), he bought all he could from distributors—slowly, week by week, five or seven cases at a time, to evade alerting sources or competitors—and sold it to grateful customers with a minimal markup.
“If these walls could talk, you’d have a hell of a book,” says McKay. Folks like Bourbon Pursuit podcast host and executive producer Kenny Coleman, where McKay is a contributor, has heard many of these stories.
“Toddy’s has seen it all, [including] the fall and rise of bourbon,” says Coleman. “Yet it has never been a pretentious place that fancies itself as a specialty bourbon outlet. It’s just a regular package store that has somehow become a must-do as you travel between distilleries.”
“I’m a big proponent of finding an inexpensive bourbon that you can take home to drink,” says McKay. For the record, his go-tos are Very Old Barton 90 proof and Evan Williams 1783 small batch. “You’d think I’d take home something fancy, but I don’t.”
A big part of the appeal here is the range from everyday to elusive. Kim Huston, the president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency, has a theory on how that happens. “[McKay] has formed personal relationships with lots of local bourbon distillers and carries some of the hard-to-find bottles that connoisseurs search all over for,” she says.
(image: Sam Lacy)
“For the bourbon enthusiast, Toddy’s is one of the most affluent private barrel selection stores out there,” says Coleman. “For years, you could always count on a Four Roses, Russell’s Reserve, or Willett private selection that blew your mind. To this day, if you can snag a private selection bottle, you can rest assured he was still picking from the finest barrels. The folks in the surrounding distilleries know how to take care of the guy that took them to the dance.”
McKay shrugs off the praise. “I was just ahead of the bourbon craze,” he says. If Toddy’s and Bardstown are synonymous, so are McKay and Toddy’s.
“Toddy’s is only a shell,” says Coleman. “Guthrie is the heart of the store, and you can’t appreciate the essence of the outdated decor or the allocated bourbon without hearing his stories.
“His life and stories are surrounded by bourbon,” says Coleman. “So there’s never a dull moment.” That includes McKay dishing a little extra sauce when the occasion calls for it. It may occur as he gets bombarded by calls from across the country from hunters seeking popular Pappy Van Winkle. “Come on down,” he’ll say. “You can have the whole lot!” Or when thirtysomethings claim they can find better deals.
“There’s always one in a group of buddies who smarts off and says he can get [a bourbon] cheaper someplace else,” says McKay, his Kentucky drawl easy and contagious. “Well, you go and call that someplace else.”
Which is precisely the point: There’s no other place like this.