By Austin Horn
Like many Kentuckians, Charlie Jones loves bourbon.
But very few can boast a collection like Jones’.
Having taken up the habit before the most recent bourbon boom and hailing from a bourbon destination such as Frankfort most all his life, Jones has amassed an impressive amount of the state’s famous distilled spirit.
So large that of the entire collection, he said that he only plans to taste 10% to 15% of it in his lifetime.
Jones has practiced law in Frankfort for about 30 years, and started his own practice in 1996. He said his farm in the Bald Knob area sits not too far from where he grew up.
His collection has grown some acclaim through various charity events, parties with tastings from his stash and his status as the president of the Frankfort Bourbon Society.
As an early adoptee of the spirit, of which there are now more than two aging barrels for each person in the state, Jones said he’s enjoyed converting others into enjoyers and hobbyists such as himself.
“I’ve got several friends that have blamed me for their bourbon habit,” Jones joked. “In the ‘90s it wasn’t as popular, and I’ve got quite a few friends who enjoy bourbon now along with me that probably wouldn’t have started drinking it otherwise.
“It’s easy to convert people when there’s quality bourbon such as that.”
How it began
When Jones was studying, either at Centre College for an undergraduate degree or the University of Kentucky College of Law, he never got into beer-drinking.
Jones guessed that his first sip of bourbon was from the Loretto, Kentucky-based distiller Maker’s Mark.
“When everybody else was drinking beer or mixed drinks, I would typically have a bourbon on the rocks,” Jones said. “I just didn’t get into beer in college. I never was a beer drinker, still not a beer drinker.”
Once he graduated law school, Jones returned to Frankfort and began buying nicer bourbons here and there, he said. His favorite back then was a hometown special of Buffalo Trace — Elmer T. Lee.
“We used to drink Elmer T. Lee all the time before that got impossible to buy any longer,” Jones said. “That was kind of a go-to bourbon. But it just really wasn’t, per se, collecting in the early ‘90s.”
Once the early 2000s came along, Jones said that he had already started holding back a few bourbons that he enjoyed — the famous Pappy Van Winkle, Old Forester’s birthday bourbon and 18-year-old Elijah Craig came to mind.
He credits a good chunk of his ability to collect bourbon at the time to Rachel Peake, the owner of Capital Cellars in downtown Frankfort who is also on the board of the Frankfort Bourbon Society.
“I was lucky enough to buy quite a bit down there from her,” Jones recalled. “People weren’t buying the upper-end bourbons in great quantity, nobody was out standing in line looking for them. I was a little bit ahead of the the curve, so I was able to buy the antique collection off the shelf. I remember buying a 20-year-old Pappy off the shelf there. You’d never see that these days.”
Then, he said, “everything started to hit” around 2006 or 2007.
According to Google trends, “bourbon” as a search term in the U.S. has nearly tripled since 2004.
And prices for the top-shelf bourbons have skyrocketed since then, Jones said.
Still, collecting is more of a hobby than an investment for Jones.
“I don’t consider it an investment,” Jones said. “I have no intention of selling it, though I could certainly bring in good value from the secondary market.”
Though only a sliver of his collection will end up consumed, Jones did say he had some favorites to sip on. The popular William Larue Weller, which can cost up to $1,000 a bottle, came to mind.
“I don’t know if I have a best one,” Jones said. “I’ve certainly always enjoyed opening up a bottle of William Larue Weller from the antique collection. I think it’s a really great bourbon. And at the right time, if it’s snowing or if you’ve got a bonfire outside, an 18-year-old Elijah Craig is awfully good.”
In terms of value and rarity, Jones pointed to other bourbons from his prime collecting days that stand out.
Among them is the famed Col. E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon, which was almost a victim of a 2006 tornado that ripped through the Buffalo Trace grounds.
Buffalo Trace says that the gust ripped through its gounds, damaging the roof and wall of the warehouse erected in 1881. Surprisingly, the exposure to the elements altered the taste for the better.
“That summer, the exposed barrels waited patiently while the roof and walls were repaired, meanwhile being exposed to the Central Kentucky climate,” the distillery’s website profile of the bourbon reads. “When these barrels were tasted years later, it was discovered that the sun, wind and elements they had experienced created a bourbon rich in flavors that was unmatched.”
Bottles of that bourbon are on the market for as high as $14,000.
Other prized bourbons in Jones’ collection include a 16-year-old A.H. Hirsch and a Rittenhouse 20 year old straight rye.
He said that since the recent bourbon boom, he’s stopped keeping up with the latest trends as much.
“It’s a lot more difficult to like bourbon now because it’s gotten so pricey and so sought after,” Jones said. “Nowadays, you can’t compete with some of the money that’s out there. And I don’t try to compete with it.”
From its beginning in 2017, the Frankfort Bourbon Society has grown to nearly 300 members.
The society hosts events, often highlighting local businesses and charities.
A major event this year is coming up on June 25. The society, in conjunction with Bourbon on the Banks and the City of Frankfort, is kicking off the city’s Entertainment Destination Center, a zone in which patrons can open carry alcoholic beverages on certain dates and times.
The Frankfort Bourbon Society has even made its own bourbon, and more is in the works.
Jones said that the group is contracting with Three Boys Farm Distillery in Franklin County — which makes Whiskey Thief bourbon — to create its own product.
“We’ve experimented using a two-char barrel instead of a three or four char,” Jones said. “We’ve also switched up some grain percentages and we’re going to grow a half acre of Cherokee gourd seed to see if they can make some proprietary bourbon that way.”
The society — and Jones’ collection in general — has used its expertise to help raise funds for a variety of charitable causes such as Liberty Hall, Woods and Waters Land Trust, Bourbon on the Banks and the Franklin County Humane Society.
One emphasis of the society’s events thus far has been a friendly atmosphere.
When asked how a greenhorn might approach getting into bourbon, Jones said that comfort was an essential part of approaching the spirit to start with.
“First of all, it has to be with friends,” Jones said. “And if someone is new to it, I don’t have any problem with adding a little water or a few cubes of ice.
“I probably am offended if it’s mixed with Coke,” he joked.