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Bourbon With Friends ‘There will always be more whiskey…’

Paul is the driving force behind Bourbon and Friends, a podcast which, it’s safe to say, has been a phenomenon not just in the US but around the world. From the  first episode in June 2020, it has enjoyed  stelar growth. The debut podcast got several hundred downloads straight away. And for context, for a new podcast, fifty downloads is enough to get you into the top fifty worldwide. 

Bourbon with Friends is the no 1 whisky podcast on Apple currently and is picked up in 64 countries. When we spoke Paul from BWF was in London, on his way to Edinburgh and points North. Business. Obviously. Well, up to a point. ‘It’s business this time,’ says Paul. ‘But I’m in the UK 4-5 times a year. I love the culture , the country. And I’m a huge fan of Manchester United. Plus, Ronaldo is my favourite player in the world, so when he signed then I’ve been over here as often as I can.’

That’s a lot of air miles, which took us on the  vital topic of booze and travel: I like to set off without a bottle. Because I find its much more fun to see what’s available when I get there. I’m also not so enthusiastic about drinking on planes – less fun than you think it’s going to be. Some red wine as a tranquiliser and a good long sleep is preferable.’

We begged to differ on that one, as sleeping wastes valuable drinking time on aircraft, in my opinion. But we moved on to talk about the origins of the podcast, a story that suggests that its only on aircraft where Paul is naturally temperate in his attitude to booze consumption. ‘Well, you know, in the early stages of the pandemic I was so bored. And one evening my good friends AJ and JC and I sat around a wood fire and opened a few bottles and had some fun. In fact, we decided we were so funny that we should preserve it on a podcast. And that’s basically where it came from. A big night on bourbon and scotch. And let me tell you we learned that evening that bourbon and scotch is not a good mix. But even with that spectacular hangover, we still thought we had something worth listening to.’

Thousands have agreed and in the fast-moving world of digital Paul, AJ and JC quickly became go-to people for smart and funny chat on whiskey. ‘Connor has come on board too since then. And, while we take our whiskey seriously, we continue to believe that having fun is what should be at the core of what we do with the podcast.’The fun element has also brought in a sparking array of industry guests, including Michael Paladini from Penelope Bourbon. Great minds – for Michael features in this very issue. But guests have come from the world of entertainment as much as the world of whisky. How does Paul attract such big stars? ‘I’m not shy. I ask. What are they going to say? No?  I’m a big Outlander fan so I contacted Graham McTavish – just asked if he’d like to talk about whisky. We had him on live, post the tornado which hit Kentucky, and we raised $30,000 in fifteen minutes on air. Then we got Sam Heughan. There’s a lot of Outlander followers out there and so that helped build our following too. 

‘We also got Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder on the show. They, famously, took their roles as  vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries as a lunch for their whiskey brand Brothers Bond. These are real whiskey enthusiasts, with plans for their own distillery. It was great to have them talk about their passion.‘Then we were approached by Warner Music in Nashville and wondered if we’d like to speak with Michael Ray. He’s been No 1 in the US with Whiskey and Rain.  So, yes, you bet we would. ‘Just ask. It’s my style. And the whole approach of the programme is unfiltered, fun, non-pretentions.’

As if to underline this point Paul is wearing a T-shirt which says – ‘Shut the f?!k up, we’re doing a podcast.’ The very words spoken by a podcast guest to quell some noisy revellers in the background. Which isn’t to say that the podcast isn’t a professional operation.‘I’ve learned fast how to improve sound quality, how to cut extraneous words from introductions, how to ask the best questions.’There are lots of plans for Series Two this year. But not too many: ‘We’ve got plans through to July. But not beyond that.  We want to always leave the door open. That’s the joy of this world there’s always something new over the horizon we don’t know about  yet. ‘We have some good things in the diary though. We have a charity event in April for Codes of Honour  –  an organisation that helps families of fallen and wounded service personnel. We are great supporters of our military and veterans. ‘We’ve also got tasting festivals in New Orleans and in Colorado. And we have a thing brewing away with Yellowstone – currently one of the biggest shows on US TV.’

Not unsurprisingly for someone dedicated to the message that good whisky is for everyone, Paul  has strong views on pricing and controls over stock allocation that distort the market for whiskey in the US. ‘A $1000 bottle is not ten times better than a £100 bottle. I’ve made my own blend for my son for when he’s twenty-one. But that’s to be drunk. And I’ve no argument against collecting and using whisky as an investment. But ultimately it’s there to be drunk.’ 

It’s a debate as old as the hills and Paul and I shoot the breeze for some time about questions of pricing and investment. Personally, I think environmental issues adds another dimension to collecting. Perhaps we are custodians of whiskies that will be very different in the future due to climate change. But Paul returns to his core belief – that whisky is for drinking.  ‘My favourite whiskey ever I probably an Old Elk, sour mash, a limited edition, maybe thirty barrels but it cost $90. It’s not about labels and price tags. ‘Drink, don’t save! In football season we have great tailgate parties. We keep the best bottles for that. To share with our friends. Even the rare ones. I always think about the film of Gray Johnson of Buffalo Trace, he’s maybe third generation with that whiskey. He speaks of drinking a Pappy twenty-year-old with his father and his brother. He made to put the cap back on and his father says: “No stop. There will always be more whiskey; there isn’t always going to be more moments.” Grey goes on to say that within six months the other two were no longer with us. 

‘There will always be more whiskey.’

It’s a good philosophy for a podcast and for life.