Saturday, December 9, 2023
The quality of an event is directly proportional to the disaster you wake up to the next day. The best ones mean you wake up to a sink full of dishes, because who had time to wash them? And you probably came home and scarfed down a snack while you relived the fun you just had.
The best ones mean you wake up to a pile of clothes on the floor, because that’s where you flung them before getting into bed and passing out. One sock is in the hallway. One is in the bathroom. One shoe is in front of the door and the other is… well, gone.
The best ones mean you have no idea why there is a bath towel on the kitchen counter or why there is a picture of a toe on your camera.
If you use that criteria, the first meeting of the Hillsboro Whiskey Society was a worthy event.
It’s been so long since I had to leave the house in much more than sweatpants that I caught the heel of my new shoes on the stairs on the way down, almost fell, twisted my ankle, limped around for the next twenty minutes, wondered why I thought it was a good idea not to wear sneakers, then decided that bourbon would make it feel better.
We aren’t always the most punctual people. If there’s a 5:00 movie we leave the house at 4:58. But we arrived for this event on the dot.
And we were greeted with this sign…
It’s the kind of sign you see when you decide one afternoon, hey, let’s take a drive down to the distillery and chill out! And you put pants on and everything, and then you get there and it has a sign that says Private Event. And all the clowns get very sad.
But this time it was for us!
We were also greeted by a beautiful light display. The fat pine trees out front were wrapped top to bottom in lights. The whiskey barrels were all lit up red and green. Strings of lights adorned the buildings, were hung between them, and decked out the porches and driveway.
I can only imagine that hanging that amount of lights was a 10-thousand-curse event. You know at least one of those strings didn’t light up the first time, right?
The inside of the front building was just lovely. It’s gorgeous on a normal day, all natural wood and rustic charm with a big stone fireplace. It’s an original 1800s log cabin, taken down from one place and rebuilt log by log in another to serve as the retail shop and tasting room. Not a single nail or screw was used.
During Christmas it begs to be decked out in pine boughs and red bows. The effect is dazzling and magical. If I had to choose a home décor style, it would be Rustic Distillery Log Cabin. I just want to bring a sleeping bag and camp out there. A wall full of bourbon doesn’t hurt.
When we arrived we were given two tags that looked like the kind you’d find on a gift box, black to match the invitations, tied with little red and green ribbons. We could redeem those at the bar for cocktails. I mention this because their attention to detail was sublime. They could very easily have torn off a couple of those carnival tickets from the giant perforated rolls that everyone uses at every event ever. But they didn’t.
Someone thought about this. Someone did all the thinking-planning-figuring so none of us had to, and so we could enjoy every moment of it.
They told us to take our tags out back to the outdoor bar. I didn’t even know there was an outdoor bar, but there it was, on the side of the building in a big gravel yard.
It was 5PM on a Friday in December, where my idea of “cold” is “anything below 80 degrees” so spending two hours outside might not sound like my cup of whiskey. But the yard was surrounded by lights and potted Christmas trees and giant ornaments on top of empty whiskey barrels. They had roaring fires going in big copper fire pits. It was so charming and cozy that I could have stayed there all night.
After two cocktails, if you had given me a blanket I probably would have stayed there all night.
The fire popped and crackled and sparked and toasted us nicely. It smelled divine. Even Hemingway, the resident distillery cat, made the rounds to greet each of us with a little tilt of the head and a swish of his tail around your legs, as if even he had been given a role to play that night.
As we chatted with the other members I noticed a few things, namely that there were two kinds of people: the kind who were born and raised and will die in Tennessee, and the kind who are from anywhere-but-Tennessee. This is a place of transplants if nothing else, and you often get the sense that the locals don’t like the foreign invasion too much. If you are from New York or California, they like you even less.
But everyone we met, even the die hard southerners, were wholly amicable. I suspect that beyond our ability to breathe we have nothing in common, but that did not stop us from talking about fishing and families, jobs and hobbies, travel and traditions.
I think bourbon does that to people. It’s the bond you share, even if you don’t like the same kind, even if you drink it full to the top of the glass with ice cubes like a crazy person. Even if – god forbid – you pour a can of Coke over it.
I met people from Ohio and Michigan, Sacramento and the Florida Keys. I chatted with men and women, with people 30 years old and 80 years old. Bourbon is the great equalizer.
I noticed, also, that there was a complete lack of drama.
From what I saw and heard, the membership consists of about 50 people. I don’t know how they selected the inaugural guest list but someone did their job very well.
Ralph and I have a theory. The theory goes something like this: the higher the cost of admission, the higher the quality of the people. This probably sounds snooty and elitist but we’ve been to enough events to know that the free ones and the ones with a $30 price tag attract an entirely different caliber of human being. That’s not to say they’re bad people, nor to suggest that any substantial number of them are anything but regular everyday people. But there are always the few nut jobs who make things unpleasant or difficult for the rest.
I’m sure if we spend enough time at these events we’ll run into even the well-dressed nut job, but for now it was low key and drama-free.
Afterwards we gathered in the distillery for dinner and a tasting. I’ll tell you what. There are worse things than sitting next to a big copper still eating filet mignon and broccoli cranberry salad, drinking wine and bourbon and listening to stories about the town and the distillery and the family who runs it.
I learned that Leiper’s Fork used to be called Hillsboro, until some wealthy guy showed up, bought up a lot of land, opened some businesses, developed the town a bit and renamed it to suit himself. The born-and-die-in-Tennessee people still call it Hillsboro.
It is, comparatively, still fairly idyllic and they want to keep it that way. I can’t say I disagree.
With so many small craft distilleries getting bought up by big brands, it’s nice to be connected with one that is still family-run, by people who still hand-write every single label that goes on their bottles.
In the end we came home with four new bottles, one of which was a brand new expression distilled and blended exclusively for members. It’s called Heart and Soul, exactly what goes into their work. And we are the only ones who will ever get to taste it.
Unless you’re very, very good and you don’t mind sitting in front of a Yule Log on TV instead of a fire pit, then I might just share one with you.
Photo: one of the porches decked out in full Christmas attire.