Interview: Edmond Kubein / Bourbon County

I first met Edmond Kubein in early 2018, when I wandered into his San Francisco store, Bourbon County, on Clement Street near 23rd Avenue. He was seated in the front corner window behind the counter, reading a paperback book.

We chatted for a while about his concise but impressive bourbon selection, featuring a number of store picks he’d selected, often picked in conjunction with another store, Fred’s Liquors, downtown on Sixth Street. Tall, hair cropped close to the skull, and with two arms sheathed at length in ornate tattoos, Edmond was friendly and straightforward. His genuine, no-nonsense enthusiasm for bourbon was clear. I have been a regular customer ever since.

Edmond was the first person I thought of when I hatched this blog and wanted to include interviews with not-the-usual suspects. He has a life-long history in San Francisco, and nearly as long a history in the liquor store business.

When he agreed to meet up for an interview, he proposed we do it at the Giants/Mets game, to which he had an extra ticket. But I couldn’t make the date. So the following week we met at Pacific Cocktail Haven on Sutter Street. Great selection, but too loud for an interview. So we hopped across the corner to The White Horse, a classic old school tavern with a basic selection and a kitchen serving pub grub. Edmond ordered a Manhattan, I had a shot of Knob Creek neat, and we got to it…

EDMOND KUBEIN: There are a lot of blogs out there, you know. I mean, I find hundreds of whiskey blogs.

MARK J: I know. I was leery of adding another to the pile. My day jobs are in theater. So what made me decide to do this was noticing a lot of parallels between whiskey and theater. The way a performance of a play evolves is like an open bottle of whiskey. In the same way the performance, by closing night, has continued to open up, that last shot in a bottle has had time to air out and develop since the uncorking. And there are a lot of strong traditions in theater and whiskey. 

And then I had an experience in a convenience store on Geary Street that really struck me—a class collision that got me thinking about why different people drink. So I’m curious about how whiskey impacts us and our American culture. Whiskey seems to draw stories out of us. Maybe this blog will be a way to explore those.

Geary Street, huh? Where exactly do you live?

Hayes Street, out by the panhandle.

Oh. You know my old business was at the foot of Hayes, near Market.

Right, Civic Center. What got you started in this business?

My father. We owned Holloway Market out in the Ingleside, from the mid-1950s to 1968. Before that we owned Marina Super. 

So you’re a local local.

Oh yeah. Then we bought the Civic Center store in 1968. I was about ten years old then, worked with my dad in the store for, I don’t know, ten years and into college. After college I worked the corporate world—construction projects for the US Army in the Far East, South Korea. Then a plumbing house in Oakland and an HVAC company—for about ten years. And in the late Eighties my Dad said, I’m going to retire, so come back and start working. And I said, Mmm I don’t know… So, it was a decision. I went back in 1986 and he retired in 1988.

So you were hesitant to get into the corner store business. But it seems to have stuck.

Well, Market Street and Ninth, it was crazy business and money just poured in. It was a convenience store—liquor and groceries.

I started getting bored with it, so around the mid-Nineties I started specializing in bourbon.

And what triggered that?

My dad. He brought me up on bourbon. He was a Jack Daniels drinker from day one, until the day he died. And he lived a ripe old age, ninety-two. After he retired he kept telling me, I need this bottle, I need that bottle, for my collection. Actually it was wine. So I spent maybe four years learning wines, how to taste wines, learning about the different wines. And I had no interest in wines whatsoever. But I established a bunch of relationships with the high-end wineries and spent a couple years acquiring a lot. When I was done I said, I don’t like wine, I want to get educated in bourbon.

What was the wine world missing, that the bourbon world had?

Wine is good and I can appreciate it, but it doesn’t interest me. Number one, the taste profile is not strong enough. And number two it makes me sleepy. So bourbon is—again, since I was fifteen I’d been drinking it with my dad. Then a friend of mine, Titus Pierce—he’s the statistician for the public library, and we’re about the same age and good friends—he had a desire to acquire some bourbons. So he said, Ed, you’ve got to get into this whole bourbon thing. And I said, I’ve been thinking the same thing. So he sent me out to find products and I started educating myself in bourbon. This was 1996 or so, still well ahead of the craze. So we were buying Pappy Van Winkle and everything Buffalo Trace made at the time, which, you know, sat on the shelf for years. 

When Pappy Van Winkle was sitting on the shelves, was it something only folks who were into it knew about?

Only. They had to have knowledge of Buffalo Trace’s products, which didn’t even include the Buffalo Trace namesake bourbon yet. It was the parent corporation, Sazerac, then. And they acquired stills—Buffalo Trace, Elmer T. Lee. And when I started tasting those products, I mean, I never touched a bottle of Jack Daniels again. 

What made the Van Winkles a thing, before all the articles and hype?

The taste profile. Good, sweet, rich bourbon. And plus, they were aging longer than anybody—the 15-year, 23-year. Nobody in the entire industry was aging like that. In 1999 the oldest bourbon on the market probably was Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve. And Jim Russell himself has told me many a time, I don’t think any bourbon should go over 10 years. He was so upset when they created the 15-year tribute to him. He was like, Why would they make a 15-year-old bottle a tribute to me? I’m a 10-year guy!

So anyway I think the Pappy Van Winkle was ahead of the game in aging. And you could taste it. The robust molasses and wood, everything you want to say, comes out in those products.

So you explored wine because your dad asked you to, then your friend suggested getting into bourbon and you started exploring that more. Was there a moment, or some aspect, that was the hook, and you were on your journey with it, or…?

Yeah, what was the hook? I don’t know, I’d have to think about that.

My first memory of you, the first time I went into your store, in the middle of our conversation you said pretty simply, I love bourbon. Very straightforward.

That’s truly it. I think the biggest hook, so to speak, was maybe 2001. I made my first trip to Kentucky and spent three weeks at Buffalo Trace. They were just starting the barrel programs at that time. Nobody in San Francisco had bought a barrel of bourbon. And it was just enthralling to watch three warehouse men move six barrels off a rick to get at one in the middle. And then the next day they get it down to the tasting room and thieve it out of the barrel, and you taste it. And that whole process was so incredible. I think that was the hook. And then my first store pick was in 2002, and that was a Pappy 15-Year.

Really?

A single barrel, yeah. I’m still sitting on six of those bottles. When I was moving the store from Civic Center to Clement, money was really tight, and I had about forty bottles left and I think I let maybe three go? For $4000 a bottle. The barrel had yielded about 180 bottles in 2002, and they sat for so long on the shelf. And then the craze came and people started coming out of the woodwork searching for them. But I plan to have the last six buried with me in my coffin. My son asked me, Am I going to get all your whiskey when you go? I said, No, you’re going to bring it to the hospital, wherever I’m dying, and I’m gonna down it all and leave two bottles to bury with me for the next world.

Why did you move the store from Civic Center to Clement?

Landlord at Civic Center wanted to do something else with the building, so in 2015 when my lease was up, that was it. And my partner wanted me out of downtown. Civic Center was—I mean, I can’t count the shootings and stabbings that happened in our store. I think maybe five people must have died in our store over the twenty-five years I was there. But I never would have left that location, ever. The money was so good. You look at it today, oh my god, there are hundreds of thousands of people walking by all day.

What are your intentions and hopes for the new store?

I think I will go with the normal American method of retiring at sixty-six and a half, and sell the store. Business has been increasing. I reinvest almost everything back into stock to increase my brands. I love single barrels. First off, you get to taste a bunch of barrels. At Civic Center I was probably about thirty single barrels in. I did about eleven barrels of Elmer T. Lee before they cut the program. And about three different barrels of Evan Williams when they still had the 10-year age statement on it. 

What have been some favorites?

Well nothing stands out better than that Pappy Van Winkle 15-year single barrel. After that, maybe the Eagle Rare I did in 2017. Did you pick up one of those?

An Eagle Rare? No.

They made a mistake on it, and were furious. But I was loving life. Eagle Rare is supposed to be Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #1. But I received the barrel, and I’m looking at it, and I said, Oh my god, this says mash bill #2. It was mash bill #2, which is Blanton’s. And the rep came and said, You know, we accidentally sold you a barrel of Blanton’s. And I said, Oh well! I sold it for $30 a bottle. That Eagle Rare was phenomenal. I actually have another Eagle Rare coming soon.

And you’ll see what’s actually in it, when it comes!

Right. No, this one is actually Eagle Rare. But when Ed—my buddy Ed, at Fred’s Liquors on Sixth, we always say, Two Eds are better than one—we’re splitting this barrel. But in the sampling of that 2017 barrel, it was distinctive. You could tell. I think we tried six different barrels? As soon as we hit that sample we thought, God, this is it.

Not knowing at that point it was Blanton’s.

Not knowing at all. But when you taste numerous barrels, the differences are incredible. It’s due to the warehousing. The Buffalo Trace barrel men always say to me, You must have good taste, because you’re always picking the high floors. But see they never tell you where the barrels come from when you taste them, so that it doesn’t influence you. You pick blind. And then once you pick they tell you the location. And I always manage to pick out the top floors.

And what’s the impact up there?

The heat up there means the bourbon is going in and out of the wood more often. And then there are other factors—the walls and what they’re made of, whether there’s temperature control or not. That barrel of Four Roses I have from 2017, that was actually buried in the dirt on the floor. So it yielded many more bottles, about 200, because there was less evaporation from less heat. Then the 2018 barrel yielded 140 bottles. They’re both the OESV recipe. But the difference is dramatic. The 2017 is dry but you don’t feel the heat of the proof. The 2018 is fruity and you get a good burn off it.

What do you think are the positive and negative aspects of the current whiskey boom?

Well, I think the positive aspect is that it’s great to see American whiskey achieving again. Scotch whisky is worried. Irish whisky is worried. Because Americans are buying more American whiskey than they’ve ever bought since the late Sixties, when American whiskey ruled. Then it died out. Four Roses Yellow Label wasn’t even sold in the United States anymore, it went to the Asian market. So I think it’s great. 

And look at the range now. It’s crazy. And it’s fun. We get to taste so many different profiles, and they are so distinctly different. It’s kind of like scotch, where you have your Speysides, your Islays, your Highlands, your Lowlands. I think bourbon has matured to that point now. The Bay Area has a number of distilleries—Home Base. The American Northwest is crazy—Woodinville, Westward, you could go on.

And then the downside?

Price. The demand is so high, it’s forced the price up. That’s unfortunate. I really have trouble even drinking a bottle myself that costs $100. Even though I’m paying the wholesale price. That’s where scotch was. Not bourbon. And bourbon should be cheap. That Pappy Van Winkle single barrel? I sold it at $40 a bottle, and that was expensive then! 

I remember the first $100 bottle of bourbon I bought was the Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, in 2006 I think. That was phenomenal. The taste, oh my god it was just incredible. But $100 for a bottle of bourbon? And today, that Kentucky Owl? That Cream of Kentucky? They’re ridiculous. Those shouldn’t be $150. 

Do you think the bubble will burst and prices will come down? There’s so much being produced now. How many $150 bottles can you sell?

Do I think the bubble will burst? Logic says yes. Probably eight years ago the distilleries started working twenty-four hours. When all that product starts to mature, well, your guess is as good as mine. But the customer now is a Millennial with a cell phone, looking at the bottle on the screen. And they don’t want Jim Beam White Label. I get phone calls constantly, and they’re only asking for the pick of the litter. This is the downside. I don’t like that the prices have been forced up, I really don’t. I’d much rather make my 30% on a $40 bottle than on a $100 bottle.

Why?

Well, one reason is that me buying 400 of the $40 bottles will allow me to get something else. The more numbers you accumulate, unfortunately, you get things. So for example I just received my first 10-Year Michter’s Rye recently. It’s been a decade since I had one. They used to send me cases of it, and back then it was $80. But when I opened the new store I had to start from scratch. So now after I’ve finally accumulated enough points, I guess, they’ve allowed me one bottle of Michter’s. One bottle. That’s ridiculous. 

When the 13-year Bottled in Bond George Dickel came out recently, priced around $40, I wondered if that might be a sign that things were reaching a point where the prices for well-aged products might start coming down.

I think we’re a few years off. Whiskey is almost as valuable as real-estate in San Francisco. So, they’re not going to cut prices until they have a surplus and they have to. And let’s hope they do have to. Then us whiskey drinkers will be able to acquire better bottles at a better price. These guys now, twenty-five to thirty-five years old? They won’t touch anything that’s not in that high price range. You have your blue-collar customer who’ll pick up a Bulleitt. But those with the disposable income? They want to pay those higher prices. It’s a badge of honor of some kind. 

Although, back when I was at Civic Center, I can’t count the people who would buy good bottles of bourbon and a two-liter of Coke to mix it with. And you just want to cry when you see that. Now at Bourbon County, I don’t see that at all. If they’re buying Coke they’re buying Bulleitt or Jim Beam or Buffalo Trace with it.

You, to my surprise, actually talked me out of buying that Old Fitzgerald 9-year Bottled in Bond when I came in asking about it. It’s not often a shopkeeper talks you out of buying a more expensive bottle.

Well I try to talk people out of buying expensive bottles all the time. I want to sell the lower priced products, and rather let those more expensive bottles sit.

Why?

Why. That’s a good question… Because I don’t think people should be paying $150 for a bottle of rye or bourbon. I think it’s wrong that companies are putting these products out at those prices.

Why have them in stock at all then?

Well you’ve got to have them. Because you’re going to get that person with the cell phone who’s only looking for that product. My friends in the business chide me about selling them near the list price. But I want to be known for not gouging people. 

That causes a domino effect, though. You sell it cheap, you’re going to have these customers coming out of the woodwork to get it. But I want that bottle for the customer who will buy a normal bottle of whiskey, and then treat themselves once or twice a year to that good bottle. That’s why I want to keep those bottles at list price. It drives me up the wall to sell them to that guy who read online that this is the bottle to own, and he wants it to take a picture and post it and say, I have this bottle now. That just doesn’t make sense to me, as opposed to selling it to a person who would truly appreciate that bottle. Because I love a good whiskey, and I want my customers to love a good whiskey, and to cherish it, not just own it for posting how many unopened bottles of BTAC they have lined up.

Now, I do gouge on certain things, like those older BTAC bottles I have. I don’t mind selling those to the collector who wants that vertical collection. If he wants to pay $1500 for that old bottle, fine. But I can’t bring myself to do it on all the other products, like that Old Fitz or the new BTAC bottles when they come out. I want the customer who really appreciates those to have them. It’s the love of the product that matters to me, not bragging rights. 

There’s something about whiskey—for some people—that seems to embody some set of values and ethics having something to do with family, friends, history, integrity. What do you think about that?

I don’t know. I’d have think about that for a minute… 

American whiskey is truly an American product, from Jefferson and Washington establishing land grants for corn growth and whiskey production from the late 1700s into the 1800s. And I think that’s cool. I hate to sound patriotic because I’m not a very patriotic person, I mean, my politics are very left of center. But when you look at the history of the United States—slavery, all the bad things we’ve done—I think whiskey is one of the right moves we made. I love England. But our rebel attitude, that’s what whiskey is all about. It was a rebel spirit. The forefathers of whiskey were all fleeing their oppressive countries—Scotland, Ireland. And then even here, they rebelled against the whiskey taxes, and there was the Whiskey Rebellion.

Maybe for me it was watching Westerns as a kid, and you have your cowboy moseying up to the bar and he has his shot. It may be childlike, but I thought that was cool, and I still think that’s cool. Even though I don’t like the rough and ready products—like Old Potrero’s 18th Century Whiskey that Fritz Maytag at Anchor made to emulate that old rough style. But he wanted to make it the way it used to be made, and I think there’s something in that.

Whiskey, more so than wine, seems to draw stories out of people. Time stands still in the bottle, whereas wine keeps aging in the bottle and can go bad. Is it that physical aspect of whiskey that somehow compels us?

I get your point, but I don’t think about it that way. In my hard-drinking years—those are done, now I have maybe one glass—I’d sit down with a bottle of bourbon on my table and a glass, and you’re pouring yourself shots. That’s all I needed to be happy, for many years. And that still sits with me. I liked that. Even though it wasn’t cool what I was doing to my liver. But I couldn’t imagine doing that with a cognac, or a scotch even. It was the hard drinking, and cheap. That was it.

Today, I never order whiskey in a bar, ever. Not even whiskey cocktails. Only very few places, where I know they know how to mix a drink. Why would I go to a bar to have a really good whiskey and pay $15 or $30 a shot when I have my bottles at home?

Do you have a favorite whiskey moment? Whether a drinking moment, or selling someone a bottle, or…?

…Well I have one favorite moment that I’m so embarrassed about, I never told my son even. I’m sure he’s heard it from his Mom by now. His name is Daniel Jacob, the reverse of Jack Daniels. So when my wife was pregnant we were sitting in Ernie’s—do you know Ernie’s? It was one of San Francisco’s early four-star restaurants, right off Broadway on the hill. White table cloths, very famous for many years. We were sitting at the bar and had our baby name list out—my wife wasn’t drinking of course, she was about eight months in. And I was still drinking Jack Daniels in those days. And I said, If it’s a boy, how about Jack Daniels? I like that name. And I thought, wait, that’s too obvious, let’s reverse it. Daniel Jacob. And she liked that. And so that was it, that night, we picked that name. It was Jack Daniels fueled.

And your son doesn’t know that’s how you named him?

I never told him.

Is it okay that I include that?

Oh yeah. I’m sure his mother has told him by now. So, as whiskey relates, that’s a pretty important one I would say. And Ernie’s was such a beautiful place to eat dinner. So that night really sticks in my mind.

As far as a true whiskey moment, related strictly to whiskey… I cannot think of one, to be honest. I can pick a dozen, probably. And most of them would be in Kentucky, at the stills. You’re on a tour, for example, and you’re pulled off the tour because you’re buying a barrel. And everybody’s wondering, Where’s that guy going? That first barrel pick at Buffalo Trace will always be a favorite.

And then I think another really important one was in Kentucky having mint julips at Churchill Downs. That’s unique. I don’t like a mint julip. But at Churchill Downs? Sitting there having a tin cup of mint julip?

And one more might be in Frankfort, near Buffalo Trace, when you’re downtown, the aroma of the whole city is cinnamon buns. Just cinnamon buns, permeating the air. And you know that’s alcohol sugar being cooked. That’s a smell I’ll always cherish and remember.

Yeah. That’s it…

…Well thank you.

You get anything good out of all that?

Oh yeah. This has been great.

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