Bourbon Beyond the Strip

The best Las Vegas has to offer, at least concerning bourbon, is not to be found on the world-renowned Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard South). Unexpectedly, the city’s largest collection of bourbon sits on the second floor of the Freakin’ Frog, a local public house located across the street from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).

As soon as you enter this bohemian pub, you realize you are in a dark bar: vision momentarily fades until your rods respond to the lack of light. The scene is fairly unassuming. There is a plain bar with beer pumps, slat-back chairs dark wood tables, and vinyl booths along the wall; there are no suits, stilettos, designer jeans, gaudy diamond rings, or gluts of slot machines. According to Tommy Marth, director of marketing for the Freakin’ Frog, patrons encompass the social spectrum, from the most tattooed and feared, to the oldest and most docile.

It is a weekday and most people are still at work. A smattering of patrons (locals, not tourists) sit and sip one or more of the 720 beers available while watching a cult classic on the flat screens perched high on the walls—reading a book, talking to a fellow publican, surfing the Internet, playing a board game, or just quaffing an atypical beer.

Promptly, at 4:00, a bartender (during my visits, it is usually Lisa Platt) flicks on the cooler light, marking the start of happy hour. You get two bottles for the price of one for beers from this cooler, and some of them are pricey.

Newcomers to the Freakin’ Frog may wonder where the single flight of stairs near the bar leads—I did. Ask Lisa, and she will matter-of-factly tell you, “We have the largest whiskey collection outside of Scotland.” She is referring to the Whisky Attic on the other side of the frosted glass door at the top of the stairs. A $200 annual membership grants you access to the collection, and includes invitations to whiskey tastings and dinners, guest visits for friends (up to four without a reservation), lounge rental for private functions, game time with 50+ games, and browsing rights to 100-plus books on whiskey.

Of course, members can also drink from the (approximately) 600 whiskeys. Prices vary, but the most expensive, according to proprietor Adam Carmer, is Charbay, a hard-to-find Napa Valley whiskey that fetches $65 per dram (1/8 of a fluid ounce or 3.70 milliliters). A handful of other whiskeys cost as much as $50 a dram. The most sought-after bottles of bourbon are Pappy Van Winkle (13-Year-Old Rye), Noah’s Mill, Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece and A. H. Hirsch (21-Year-Old Rye), according to Carmer.

On the shelves at the Whisky Attic (which opened two years ago) sits an enormous sampling of bourbon. In addition to Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, Jim Beam Black (8-Year-Old), Knob Creek (Small-Batch, 9-Year-Old), Knob Creek Booker’s, and Maker’s Mark, there are plenty of others. Charbay (California), McKendric Western Style (Abilene, Texas), Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack (Tennessee), McCarthy’s Single Malt (Oregon), Old Potrero (California), McCormick Distiller’s (Missouri), Benjamin Prichard’s Double Barreled (Kelso, Tennessee), Peregrine Rock (California) and Virginia Gentleman (Virginia) are the only bourbons presently served at the Whisky Attic that are not made in Kentucky.

Excepting a few, the rest of the bourbon here qualifies as Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, which means that it is not blended with neutral spirits. And they include the following: American Biker, Ancient Age, Baker’s Ancient Age (10-Year-Old), Beam’s Eight Star, Bellows, Basil Hayden’s, Blanton’s Bernheim Original, Black Maple Hill (Single-Barrel), Booker’s Reserve, Bourbon Deluxe, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit Bourbon, Cabin Still, Classic Cask (15, 17 and 21-Year-Old), Corner Creek, Eagle Rare (10-Year-Old), Early Times, Elijah Craig (12-Year-Old), Elijah Craig (Single-Barrel, 18-Year-Old), Elmer T. Lee, Evan Williams (Single-Barrel), Evan Williams (7-Year-Old), Ezra Brooks Sour Mash, Ezra Brooks (101 Proof, 7-Year-Old), Four Roses, Fighting Cock (6-Year-Old), George Dickel (No. 8 and No. 12), George T. Stagg, Hancock’s President Reserve (Single Barrel), Heaven Hill, Henry McKenna (Special Reserve), Hill and Hill, Jack Daniel’s (No. 7), Jack Daniel’s (Single-Barrel), Jacob’s Well, Jefferson’s, Jefferson’s Reserve (Very Old, Very Small Batch), Jeremiah Weed, Joshua Brooks (8-Year-Old), Kentucky Gentleman, Kentucky Vintage, Kessler, Michter’s (Unblended), Michter’s (Straight Rye), Michter’s Straight Rye (10-Year-Old), Old Bardstown, Old Crow (supposedly former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite), Old Fitzgerald’s, Old Forester, Old Forester (Birthday Bourbon), Old Grand-Dad, Old Grand-Dad (Bonded), 114 Old Grand-Dad, Old Pogue, Old Rip Van Winkle, Old Taylor, Old Weller Antique (Original 107 Brand), Old Whiskey River (6-Year-Old), Old Williamsburg, Platte Valley (100% Straight Corn Whiskey), Rebel Yell, Ridgemont Reserve 1792 (Barrel Select), St. George, Sazerac, Shine on Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey (actually comes in a jar), Strong, Ten High, Thedford (Colonial Style), Van Winkle’s Family Reserve (15-, 20- and 23-Year-Old), Vintage Bourbon (17, 21 and 23-Year-Old), Vintage Rye (23-Year-Old), Walker’s Deluxe, Wathen’s Kentucky Bourbon (Single-Barrel), Wild Turkey (American Honey, 71-Proof), Wild Turkey (Rye, 80 and 101-Proof), Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve (10-Year-Old), Wild Turkey (Kentucky Spirit), Wild Turkey Rare Breed (Single-Barrel), William LaRue Weller Reserve, William LaRue Weller (12-Year-Old), Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, and Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection.

“It took me a long time to figure out why people like whiskey [bourbon],” admits Ashley Tribulato, another bartender at the Freakin’ Frog. “I’ve grown to love it!” When asked to explain why, Ms. Tribulato responded, “They’re normally sweeter.” Of course, she is referring to the caramel and vanilla flavors that result from the charred oak barrels.

Ms. Platt insists that, “There’s a bourbon or whiskey for every single person… it’s about someone helping you to find it.” Platt will tell you that her favorite bourbon is Knob Creek (Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey). She will also inform you that Abraham Lincoln spent part of his childhood on a Knob Creek farm. As a matter of fact, Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s father, worked part of his time at a small distillery nearby, probably as a cooper and carpenter.

Platt and others at the Freakin’ Frog do not subscribe to drinking bourbon in mixed drinks. “I drink my bourbon straight. I want to taste the whiskey,” she affirms unapologetically. When it comes to her Knob Creek, Ms. Platt sips it. “It’s something I really want to savor,” she explains.

And she is right, as any bourbon aficionado will confirm. In the words of Mr. Carmer, “Bourbon is rich and varied, with flavors beyond Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. Extraordinary examples of American whiskey are available and to be savored—not shot. Like all aspects of alcoholic beverages, there are low-end and high-end products. Be adventurous in the bourbon category, for it represents the best value within the world of great spirits.”

– Corey Edward Olds