Monday, September 22, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 1

A few months ago I wrote about Randy Blank and his legendary Van Blankle private bottling of Van Winkle Lot B.  Just as legendary are a series of rye whiskeys bottled for Doug Philips (aka Doug Dog) a few years later.  Unlike Randy Blank, Doug Philips kept buying barrels and recently bought a private barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon distilled at MGP.  For folks who have only heard the legend of Doug, I thought it would be fun to tell his story, so I chatted with Doug about his life in whiskey.

People come to whiskey from all different directions, but Doug Philips may be the only person who came to it through bonsai trees.  Yes you read that correctly, bonsai trees.  In the late '80s, Philips was a Northern California glazier whose hobby was bonsai trees. Doug was quite well known in that field, teaching classes and giving lectures around the world. One of his fellow bonsai enthusiasts was a single malt aficionado who turned Doug on to the world of Scotch.

For the next decade, Doug became entranced with single malt, tasting everything he could.  One day, while perusing the Scotch shelves around 2002, he happened upon a bottle of Joseph Finch bourbon, a brand he'd never seen at a price point that was more similar to Scotch.  Intrigued, he started learning about American whiskeys, formed a tasting group and, around 2005, joined the forum.

He was one of a small group of early dusty hunters, pledging to visit each one of California's nearly 6,000 liquor stores, though he only made it to about 3,400 of them before he moved out of state. Those were the salad days of dusty hunting; Doug remembers picking up A.H. Hirsch 16 year old with the blue wax cap for $45 a bottle when they were five deep on the shelves.

As he got to know American whiskey, Doug developed a taste for big, bold, oaky, cask strength bourbons, but in those days, there were very few American whiskeys on the market fitting that description.  He knew about Randy Blank's Van Blankle and decided that he too should buy his own barrel.  But it wasn't that easy.  He couldn't find anyone who was willing to work with him on an uncut, unfiltered bourbon.

One night when Doug was in Kentucky for the 2006 Kentucky Bourbon Festival Bardstown Sampler, he was hanging out with Randy Blank, Willett's Drew Kulsveen and LeNell Smothers, proprietor of a much loved but now defunct Brooklyn liquor store.  He overheard Kulsveen and Smothers talking about tasting some ryes for a private barrel for LeNell's (what would later become the famous LeNell's Red Hook Ryes).  Doug told Kulsveen he was trying to find a good barrel of uncut, unfiltered whiskey and wondered if Willett could help him out.

At 10:30 the next morning, Kulsveen picked Doug up at his hotel and took him to the Willett warehouse for a tasting of some rye whiskeys from the old Bernheim Distillery. Philips remembers very distinctly the second barrel of rye they opened. As soon as Drew knocked off the bung, the aroma of rye filled the entire warehouse. Doug sensed immediately that this was exactly what he had been searching for and that barrel was his first pick.  Back home, he put it in a blind tasting for his whiskey group with George T. Stagg and some other high proof whiskeys, and that cask of rye was the unanimous choice as the best of the bunch.

That cask became the legendary "green ink" bottling of Doug's rye, so named only because Drew Kulsveen's sister, who was labeling the bottles, happened to grab a green pen on the day she filled out the labels.  Doug would select a second barrel based on samples Drew sent him that would become the "black ink."

While he was waiting for Kulsveen to bottle his whiskey, Doug was surprised to see that Malt Advocate magazine (now Whisky Advocate) had rated his rye, a private barrel he had purchased, and awarded it 96 points.  Worried that someone had absconded with his barrel, Doug immediately called Drew Kulsveen who told him that the Malt Advocate crew had been in the warehouse while they were bottling Doug's rye, and Drew had poured them a sample...and so the legend began. [NOTE: See the comments for Whisky Advocate editor John Hansell's version of these events].

Over the next years, Doug bought a total of seven barrels from Willett:

1.  Kentucky Straight Rye, 22yo (Green Ink), Barrel 618, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 263 bottles.  Labeled: Ed Ledger's Liquors or Doug Philips.

2. Kentucky Straight Rye, 22 yrs-11months-3weeks (Black Ink), Barrel 8, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 216 bottles. Labeled: Neal & Dougz.

3. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 4yo (Doug's Gold Wax), Barrel 2, 125.4 proof, distilled 5-21-03, 216 bottles. Labeled: Toddy's & Dugz Fall Festival 2007.

4.  Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1564, 148.4 proof, distilled 4-30-91,71 bottles.  Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

5. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1605, 145.8 proof, distilled 4-30-91, 98 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

6. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8550, 118.4 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 147 bottles. Labeled: Dougz&Willyz.

7. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8551, 117.2 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 99 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

Doug's taste is very specific.  He likes big, bold, woody whiskeys.  He loves whiskeys that fill the room with their aroma, just like that first barrel of rye, and he enjoys a long, dry finish.  While he has high standards, he doesn't just drink his own stuff.  Among recent releases, he's been impressed with the Elijah Craig 12 year Barrel Proof bourbons.

In part 2 of this story, we will learn about and taste the newest Doug Dog whiskey.


John Hansell said...

One small clarification. Drew and I were hanging out at our hotel pool one evening during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. He told me about this new rye he had, brought out a bottle and we drank some together. It BLEW ME AWAY! It was the best rye whiskey I had ever tasted.

He gave me a review sample, which led to the 96 rating. (I never went to the warehouse.) He also sent me a bottle from that same barrel, which I still have.

sku said...

Thanks for the clarification John.

Josh Peters said...

Thanks for another fascinating read. I love learning more about folks like this. Cheers!

My Annoying Opinions said...

These stories, are great. Keep them coming, Sku!

My Annoying Opinions said...

Also, please, put, more commas, where, they don't, belong.

Anonymous said...

Doug may not be the Dos Equis "World's Most Interesting Man" , but he is in the conversation. Quite a character with widely divergent interests.

Chuck Cowdery said...

And also one of the kindest, most generous humans you will ever know.

David J. Montgomery said...

I only saw one comma that was iffy. But I saw a couple places where I'd add one. :)

Good story. Sounds like a fascinating guy.

My Annoying Opinions said...

(The comma dig was at myself.)

Anonymous said...

And for a mere $200 you can pick up a bottle of 8 year old Doug Dog Old Scout bourbon, or was it Green Ink Hummingbird Bourbon? I can't remember.

Unknown said...

Great article and even a better story. Love hearing about other persons whiskey adventures. Good Stuff.

Matt L said...

Fantastic story Sku, and great to see that the more exposure your blog has, the more access to people and info like this you are able to get.

morlock said...

As a private individual wishing to purchase casks, please assist me by indicating how Mr. DDP resolved distribution concerns in order to take delivery of one or more pallets of case bottles from a manufacturer.

sku said...

Morlock, the purchase works the same way it works for any liquor purchase and all the relevant laws apply. You can pick out a barrel that will be bottled specially for you, but the distillery has to turn it over to a distributor, who has to in turn send it to a retailer who will sell it to you.