Front Street Brewery (FSB) is best known for heaping plates of delicious pulled chicken nachos and for being “Wilmington’s Original Brewery.” They’re celebrating their 25th anniversary next year, after all. What Wilmingtonians might be missing out on is the thoughtfully curated, carefully designed whiskey selection. For three years running, Front Street Brewery has received recognition as one of America’s best bourbon bars according to The Bourbon Review. The publication works with Buffalo Trace to review, promote, and report about the native Kentucky liquid and the culture that surrounds it. This year only one other North Carolina establishment received such an accolade: The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill.
I got the chance to sit down with FSB’s sales, marketing, and public relations manager Ellie Craig and brewmaster Christopher McGarvey to chat all things whiskey (full disclosure: maybe even sample a few). The first thing Craig did was plunk down the new, massive drink menu the brewery is offering. I remember the old one from my days as a FSB cellar operator, and while the selection was impressive, it was intimidating because the literature itself lacked direction.
The new menu is a beautifully organized book that’s split up into three sections of whiskey: corn-based, rye-based and barley-based. Then the subsections are plentiful. The bite-sized pieces of information make it seem much more manageable. Not a fan of scotch? Well, Craig might disagree, but just skip over all of it and head straight to the barrel-proof rye. Unsure what that means? The menu spells it out.
“Christopher has done an absolutely tremendous job,” Craig gushes. She explains when he was on the West Coast he spent a lot of his time working at a high-volume liquor store, where he did a lot of tasting and note-taking.
“I started doing what I’d been doing with beers for years,” McGarvey explains. “I just took tasting notes on stuff I had and reviewed them. I probably tasted around 100 different whiskeys. My wife and I even did a March Madness-style bracket to figure out which ones were our favorites.
Thus a passion was born.
But the birth of the FSB whiskey program predates McGarvey’s employment at the microbrewery. It all started in 2010 when former brewmaster Kevin Kozak approached Craig about his desire to age his proprietary brews in bourbon barrels.
“I called some contacts that we had,” Craig reminisces. “I was able to eventually work my way up to the marketing director for Jim Beam distilling. I told him our plan to create a bourbon bar in North Carolina and they were thrilled, so they immediately shipped us four empty bourbon barrels. That was the beginning of our relationship with Fred Noe.”
Noe is a seventh-generation master distiller from Jim Beam. He came down to Wilmington to participate in a pairing dinner at the brewery. The friendship led to adding FSB’s third floor, The Beam Room. From there the whiskey program took off. Representatives from famous distilleries, such as Old Rip Van Winkel, Heaven Hill, Michter’s and Russell’s Reserve have traveled to Wilmington to pay their respects to and host events at the brewery.
During Cape Fear Craft Beer Week this year, I had the pleasure of attending their beer, bourbon, and bacon pairing event in The Beam Room. It was magical. Sweet and spicy bacon graced tables filled with delicious boozy pairings. My favorite was the Dram Tree Scottish Ale paired with Stranahan’s yellow label Colorado whiskey. The best thing is curious sippers can find the booze-on-booze pairings conveniently located on both the drink and beer menus. All five FSB flagship beers (and a sixth bonus elixir) are matched with their distilled complements.
“I view whiskey as beer’s big brother,” McGarvey notes. “It’s taking some form of beer—some sort of grain fermentation—and concentrating everything that’s great about it.”
The pairings were a no-brainer to the brewmaster, but he notes FSB is one of the only breweries in the country doing what they’re doing. Even though it was obvious to create the marriages, the process of doing it took months. McGarvey narrowed down what he thought would work best and then called in his tasting panel to choose the winners. The panel included Craig, general manager Josh Cranford, and operations manager Sam Sumner. The perfect pairs were crystal clear to the drinkers. Craig mentions all of the pairings were great, but the better of the two remained obvious.
The brewery now boasts a staggering 436 different bottles of whiskey (and sippers can be staggering too, after too many half pours). Cocktail options abound too for folks who don’t want it neat or on the rocks. FSB also has their own house single barrel selections for seekers of the rare. Whiskey flights are available for the curious consumer, who can choose their own adventure or go with something chosen for them. The options are endless, so luckily the bartenders are armed with knowledge to help folks find their way—and likely their new favorite whiskey.