“There are only two bottles known in existence, and we actually have both of them,” says Justin Sloan, the co-owner, along with friend Justin Thompson, of Lexington, Ky.’s year-and-a-half-old specialty American whiskey store-slash-museum, Justins’ House of Bourbon. And despite the shop’s staggering inventory of elusive, rare and vintage bourbons and ryes amassed over the last decade, Sloan was specifically referencing Old Taylor 101 Proof from 1979, one of his favorite bottles and a selection that, unsurprisingly, he says is “very hard” to find.
But one need not drop a car payment to shop at Justins’, which is split between two rooms: one dedicated to brag-worthy bottles and a main space proffering mostly American whiskeys that start at $12 a pop. After Kentucky passed a key piece of legislation (HB100) in 2017, the duo’s dream of opening an educational spirits shop became a reality.
“The idea of experiential retail was one we had from the beginning,” says Sloan, explaining that he and Thompson wanted to open a whiskey store but also a place where customers could learn about spirits. The two are whiskey collectors. Thompson also serves as the co-founder of The Bourbon Review, while Sloan is the magazine’s publisher. When Kentucky legalized the retail sale of privately purchased vintage and rare spirits (as long as the bottle was closed, not owned by a distillery and no longer sold by a distributor), their decade-old collection finally hit the market. “We opened a month after the law went into effect,” says Sloan.
Patrons enter Justins’ through a main door that leads into a room decked out with affordably priced local whiskeys. The team hired a craftsman to fashion shelves from old wooden floorboards from the Maker’s Mark distillery. They also sourced the wooden panels that decorate Justins’ checkout counter podium from a barn that once housed iconic American racehorse War Admiral, known as the fourth winner of the American Triple Crown in 1937. “The design elements in the shop all tell the story of Kentucky and bourbon,” says Sloan.
Justins’ is equipped with a full bar where customers can sign up to try spirits before committing to a purchase. And it’s not just the wallet-friendly stuff. While they do offer vintage Four Roses limited editions in the $25 to $40 range, those looking for a richer taste of history can opt for a 1978 release from the same distillery at $75 a pour.
About one third of Justins’ 1,500 square feet is dedicated to a private tasting room that customers can reserve for a bespoke staff-lead tasting with a minimum spend of $500. That could include pours of Old Crow from the 1960s and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year-old.
“We’re confident that we offer the largest and most diversified bourbon collection in the world,” says Sloan. “Not only do we carry almost all of the bourbon released in the last few years, but we also have a museum of bourbons and other American whiskeys that date back more than 100 years.” Think pre-Prohibition bottles like Echo Spring 1916 and Pfeiffer Brothers Old Cork 1896 Brand.
As for why they decided to open the shop in Lexington, Sloan says it made sense to drop stakes in Bourbon Country because of the close proximity to distilleries and all their visitors. Less than two years since Justins’ debuted, the team is already poised to launch their second outlet a block away from Whiskey Row in Louisville this month. The new establishment will be larger than the original, counting approximately 2,000 square feet, with a more spacious speakeasy-style tasting room and larger bar.
With the backdrop of a whiskey education, Sloan and Thompson hope to provide both the neophyte and expert bourbon drinker with the opportunity to experience something new. That could be a bottle of Blanton’s straight from the barrel or a more elusive expression that runs upward of $10,000. But ultimately, says Sloan, “The biggest thing we want people to take away from our shop is a new love for bourbon.”