by Eric Barton | October 19, 2020

How a Dock Builder Became the Bourbon Enthusiast

One diaper bash later and James Ashcraft became the No. 1 bourbon reviewer online.

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James Ashcraft selects a bourbon for his private barrel club at Rickhouse A of Wild Turkey Distillery. Photography courtesy of the Bourbon Enthusiast.

Things started getting serious when it took over his dining room.

Five years later, James Ashcraft doesn’t really even have a dining room. He has a storage space where his formal dining room once was, now full of 10-foot-tall shelves. Eventually even they weren’t big enough, so he started spreading things throughout the rest of the house.

He hit a milestone in January, when Ashcraft guessed he had acquired his 500th bottle of whiskey. By the time you read this, he has likely topped 600.

“My house is flooded,” Ashcraft says.

It all started innocently enough. Just before the birth of his daughter in 2015, Ashcraft and his wife, Jessica Ashcraft, held a baby shower at their home in Jacksonville. Guests brought diapers for the baby and, because everyone knew James was into whiskey, 20 of them also brought a bottle of bourbon.

He had so many good bottles of whiskey (Knob Creek Single Barrel, Palm Ridge Reserve, Buffalo Trace and three bottles of Blanton’s) that he started homing in on what he liked and didn’t like. Then he started posting his thoughts on Instagram under the handle @bourbonenthusiast. It grew quickly, in a way that completely stunned him.

What started as a casual hobby exploded into an Instagram page with more than 100,000 followers. Photography courtesy of the Bourbon Enthusiast.

Now, Ashcraft guesses he’s the No. 1 bourbon reviewer on social media, with more than 100,000 followers. What came next was a website and a club in which his 500 members pay for access to exclusive bottles and distillery tours —and he says it might soon turn into a full-time gig.

If he does give his career over to whiskey, it would be a major change. At 36 years old, Ashcraft has literally spent his lifetime in the family business, Ashcraft Marine Construction, which builds docks, bulkheads and boathouses. He’s the vice president, heading up proposals and site meetings, and it’s not a job he could walk away from lightly; business is booming, and it’s a legacy company, having been started by his parents, James Ashcraft II and Victoria Ashcraft, in 1981.

But it’s undeniable that The Bourbon Enthusiast is calling for more of his time, and he’s had to limit membership simply because he only has time to fulfill so many orders. It’s sheer luck, he says.

“Um, gosh, yeah, it really was organic,” Ashcraft says. “But once I saw the interaction and engagement needed and the good and bad of writing reviews, I really started getting into it and posting on a daily basis, much to the chagrin of my wife.”

Back when it all began, he was really just developing a palate for bourbon. After that first real whiskey collection resulting from the diaper bash, Ashcraft would hold tastings for friends, and they’d try to pick apart the flavors in each glass. Once he had the Instagram page set up, he started testing himself by doing blind tastings, trying to identify the brands without looking. Now, he says he’s “pretty good” at picking up on the flavors, and he can generally say what people are going to like or not be fond of. For instance, a lot of rye whiskey can have mint or dill flavors that some people just won’t enjoy.

Ashcraft honed his skills by doing blind tastings. Photography courtesy of the Bourbon Enthusiast.

That first year on Instagram, Ashcraft says he added 25,000 followers, putting him among the most-viewed bourbon review sites. With his fast-growing flock of enthusiasts, Ashcraft says distilleries like Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, 1792, Woodford Reserve and Bulleit started sending him bottles. These days he receives about five new ones a week. He says he tells them that there are “no strings attached”—he will post his thoughts, good or bad, whether they send him freebies or not. Five days a week, Ashcraft samples an ounce or two of new bottles, usually late in the evenings, in an effort to get new content daily on Instagram and his Facebook page.

In July 2018, he started a private barrel club. He makes monthly trips to distilleries, mostly in Kentucky but sometimes lesser-known bourbon makers like one in Las Vegas, to buy two or three barrels. Ashcraft then has the bourbon from the barrels bottled and sells them to his members. Some of them even accompany him on barrel-tasting trips. “It’s really fun to take the new people to see how much they enjoy it,” Ashcraft says.

The best find Ashcraft says he’s discovered so far has to be an 11-year-old barrel he stumbled upon at Russell’s Reserve in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The distillery’s owner, Eddie Russell, didn’t want to let the barrel go, having picked it out for himself. But the deal is that Ashcraft gets to pick any barrel he wants, so he went home toting an extra 500 pounds. It tasted like chocolate-covered cherries, and Ashcraft says his members still talk about it.

Ashcraft visits distilleries all over the country, like Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, pictured above. Photography courtesy of the Bourbon Enthusiast.

Those moments at the distilleries are his favorite, and he’d say his most cherished memory is going to the historic rickhouse at Wild Turkey. It’s maybe the oldest in Kentucky, spider webs everywhere, no heat or AC, just nature filling the space with the hot or cold that’ll help impart flavors into the bourbon, the sunlight from the windows leaving it full of shadows.

“You’re left to the elements, just like the barrels are, and you’re walking through thousands and thousands of barrels over your head. And then we’re tasting the whiskey straight from the barrel, tapping them open. I don’t think there’s anything that competes with that experience.”

Bourbon sales were already thriving before the pandemic, and 2020 has only increased interest, Ashcraft says, with virtual tastings and happy hours drawing more people to the spirit. He thinks it might be time to take the leap.

“It’s definitely a quitting-my-job opportunity. It’s growing at a rate that I can’t neglect. We’re seeing a bourbon boom, and there’s really no end in sight.” But Ashcraft says it really is a job that feels more like a hobby. “When I’m doing bourbon, anything bourbon, it’s not work for me.”


THE BOURBON ENTHUSIAST’S SECRETS

In the five years James Ashcraft has been reviewing whiskey, he’s developed some solid advice:

Basics: As they say, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. To be called bourbon, the grains used to make it must be at least 51 percent corn.

Favorite: Ashcraft says he’s lucky to have tasted a “unicorn,” the Michter’s 20-year, a bottle that’ll fetch thousands on the market.

Overrated: Any bourbon fan knows the name Pappy Van Winkle, but Ashcraft says it simply doesn’t live up to the hype. “I consider myself lucky in not having to chase and do what’s necessary nowadays to get a bottle of Pappy.”

Undervalued: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series and Russell’s Reserve from Wild Turkey are bottles that Ashcraft says could, and maybe should, cost more than their reasonable retail prices.

If you find yourself in Kentucky, Ashcraft recommends making a pit stop at this castle-turned-distillery, Castle & Key. Photography courtesy of the Bourbon Enthusiast.

Distilleries not to miss: Maker’s Mark remains a distillery paradise, but Ashcraft says the Kentucky-bound should also hit the newly renovated Castle & Key, an actual castle built by the founder of Buffalo Trace.

Advice for the newbie: Start at a lower proof, like Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig or the yellow label from Four Roses, all whiskeys with a classic bourbon profile, smooth sipping and more fruity notes.

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