Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

What Does It Take to Become a Whiskey Master?

Wes Duvall

Whiskey has never been more popular among the general drinking population than it is today. That means more bottles crowding the shelves of your local liquor store and more lining the backbar of your favorite watering holes.

This unprecedented inventory can be overwhelming. With so many products to sift through, a full understanding of the category is a dizzying task. Chris Elford knows the drill. He cut his teeth as a distillery man for Kings County whiskey in Brooklyn, before heading to Seattle to work at Canon, where he oversaw a cocktail lounge that holds one of the world’s largest collections of brown spirits. Along the way, he slowly amassed expertise the old-fashioned way—through experience and education.

“I was first drawn to whiskey while working at a barbecue joint in Richmond, Va.,” says Elford. “And it was probably bourbon that did it.” Back in those days, barely old enough to legally consume, no more than a dozen bottles constituted a “huge selection.”

Compelled to encounter something larger, he moved to the big city, landing gigs behind the bar at several New York venues. A chance encounter with the owners of Kings County Distillery led to an improbable career shift: assisting in whiskey making at the acclaimed Brooklyn facility. “That’s where I fell in love with the process and mystery of distilling and aging whiskey,” he says.

While few get the opportunity to actually work inside the barrelhouse, Elford’s immersion was aided almost as much by thumbing pages as it was by tinkering with stills. “On the trains to and from work, I read some pretty incredible books on whiskey and distillation.” Elford recommends a few titles in particular: “Chasing the White Dog” by Max Watman, “Boozehound” by Jason Wilson, “The Complete Book of Spirits” by Anthony Dias Blue, and, of course, the works of the late British writer Michael Jackson.

A masterclass in whiskey, says Elford, is equal parts reading and sipping. Learn what you like, empirically, through tasting. But follow that up with the research to ascertain why you like what you like. “I moved to Seattle and had the privilege of working at Canon,” says Elford. “And I have to say, you find out a lot about how much you have to learn when you stand in front of thousands upon thousands of expressions.”

Rather than succumbing to a paralysis of choice, Elford says it’s best to pare things down to a manageable scope. Isolate the individual aspects of whiskey production, and you’ll find that there’s typically a common thread running through your preferences.

Begin with mash bill. Do you enjoy malt? High rye? Corn? Wheat? Then move on to the cooperage, and ask yourself how much of the wood you want to taste and what you want from that wood. “At the end of the day, keep in mind that most whiskeys are made from the same raw ingredients that are grown and sold as commodities,” says Elford. “So pay a little extra attention to where they were aged, what kind of wood they were aged in and what strength they were bottled at.”

Chris Elford. Tim Nusog

The most accomplished of whiskey experts can, at best, be a guide to facilitate the process of self-realization. Nobody knows your palate as well as you do. “It’s like Marge Simpson says when she’s reminded she can’t get a second job teaching piano lessons because she, in fact, does not play the piano,” says Elford, quoting, “‘You just have to stay one lesson ahead of the students.’”

With the launching of his own Seattle bar, No Anchor, in late 2016, Elford embraced the robust craft beer scene that has come to define the city. At the same time, his approach to whiskey migrated from quantity to quality. “We only carry eight spirits at a time, curated on a backbar-mounted optic system, which we rotate like a draft list,” he says.

“I like this technique, enabling staff and regulars alike to discover one spirit at a time and really enjoy the one that’s in their glass at the moment without overwhelming them with options. For me, the important thing as a bar owner is to pay a bit of attention to what the whiskey is and ignore the spin, marketing and image.”

When stocking his own shelves, Elford avoids those whiskeys that lean heavily on the romantic storyline, masculine bravado and ham-handed mythology that belies many a liquids true provenance—sourced from an industrial facility in Indiana.

“If you can just learn to ask yourself what each whiskey is and who made it—as in, Google ‘who owns it and where it was distilled’—and give a basic judgment on what the level of honesty is, your whiskey knowledge will bloom like the mold on the side of a rickhouse.”

T.S. Eliot wrote: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Today, Elford has returned to the simplicity that set his career path in motion. But he sees it all from an evolved vantage point.

“I know to question what’s in the glass,” he says. “And to me, that makes me as much of an expert as I’ll ever need to be. At the end of the day, I could probably just go back to the eight or nine we had at the barbecue joint, and I’d be happy as can be.”