To acquire the hottest bottle of bourbon at the moment, you don’t go to a store. You don’t head to a distillery either. You don’t even put your name on some secret list or enter some special lottery. What you do is convince one of your whiskey-collecting Facebook friends to introduce you to a guy named Danny Strongwater (not his real name) from Southern California.
I first became aware of “California Gold” at a private whiskey tasting I attended this past November. All the big bottles were present—the full Van Winkle line, every Buffalo Trace Antique Collection offering, John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve and plenty of well-aged Willett ryes. What wowed everyone most, however, was a squat bottle with a white HP LaserJet label adorned with blurry clipart images of stars and arched olive branches and a sticker on the neck reading “CA Gold.” Extremely rich and complex, California Gold is a secret, homemade blend of commercially released whiskeys that has become an underground sensation.
“Well, it’s not a fair fight!” Strongwater tells me over the phone when I reveal what happened at that tasting. “You can’t compare a blend with a single-barrel bourbon from a single mash bill from a single distillery.” Still, Strongwater is perfectly aware that California Gold has been routinely winning taste-offs among whiskey drinkers over the past year.
A collector of high-end bourbons like George T. Stagg and William Larue Weller, Strongwater became enamored with older Willett Family Estate bottlings, loving their deep flavor profile, which is often described as showing singular notes of pine and cherries. Knowing that Willett sourced their older barrels from distilleries like Heaven Hill, he was flummoxed as to why Willett tasted so different. With quality Willett bottles becoming scarce and quite costly on the secondary market, Strongwater wanted to see if he could make his own similar blend that would offer a better “bang for the buck.”
“OK, so what other bourbons do people put out with these flavors. . .and how much would it take of each to show up in the background?” he wondered. “It’s like blending wine.”
It took him six months to figure out a recipe that worked, at first building blends in very minute amounts, measuring precisely. He claims as little as five milliliters of something can make a massive difference in a 750-milliliter bottle.
“That’s where everybody else gets it wrong,” he tells me. “They think they need to do 60/40 blends, or 60/20/20.” He also claims it’s crucial to shake all barrel-proof bottles in order to release all of the char flavor, something few drinkers do.
Amateurs like Strongwater making their own blends is nothing new in the whiskey community. A few years back, Blake Riber got a lot of attention on his Bourbonr blog for “Poor Man’s Pappy,” a supposedly thriftier way to simulate Pappy Van Winkle. Strongwater recently loved someone else’s blend of equal parts Michter’s barrel-proof bourbon and rye, along with Four Roses OBSQ Lincoln Road. And I’ve extensively detailed the emergence of personal infinity bottles. But no blend has garnered quite the underground attention that California Gold has, with serious whiskey geeks clamoring to acquire these uber-limited bottles.
How did it manage to break through?
In the deepest levels of whiskey geekdom, it’s not uncommon for strangers who only know each other online to meet up for a drink when they randomly find themselves in each other’s cities. Strongwater was friendly with a Nashville man with a large, at-home whiskey “reading room” that had become quite well known in the online community. That man has an impressive array of opened bottles—hundreds of Willetts—and is always willing to share with out-of-town visitors for free. Strongwater started sending him rare samples to help him build his library; in the box, he’d always include a small vial of early California Gold batches. Eventually, the Nashville man asked for two full bottles, which he began serving to guests who would visit. Instantly, the word began to spread online.
“So it became well-known in the community,” Strongwater explains. “And everybody likes to share. Especially something new and unique.”
Everyone who tried California Gold soon wanted to acquire their own bottle. Friendly guy that he is, Strongwater is always willing to accommodate a few random strangers, so long as they have someone to vouch that they intend to drink (and not sell) California Gold. (Strongwater declined to discuss details about how the bottles change hands.)
“It’s really become a pain in the ass, to be quite honest with you,” Strongwater tells me. He’ll make a batch of only five to ten bottles at a time, measuring meticulously. He’s around his 20th batch or so.
Clearly well-versed in other whiskeys on the market, Strongwater doesn’t even think it’s a “fair fight” pitting his California Gold against the big boys in tastings for one key reason: California Gold is whiskey that now has the complexities of a distilled cocktail—one bottled at barrel proof no less (California Gold has tested in the 110 to 125 proof range).
Actually, what Strongwater thinks California Gold most proves is that the big Kentucky distilleries should be collaborating more often, in the same way craft breweries do. Combining yeast strains, mash bills and each distillery’s unique “funk”—that is, the signature, one-of-a-kind notes produced from specific distilleries’ equipment and aging facilities.
“It’s sad multiple distilleries don’t collaborate,” he tells me. “‘Hey, you got this great product with strong barrel char; hey, you got this great syrupy product.’ If they’d just do that, they could really have something special.”
So what exactly is in California Gold’s blend? Strongwater won’t tell, though he hinted that the base is a barrel-proof Buffalo Trace product with strong oak character and that its spicy notes may come from a Four Roses Single Barrel offering. The caramel flavor he gets from another product, the espresso notes from yet another, and so on.
The only one who does know the exact blend is his long-suffering partner, who has the recipe written down somewhere. Strongwater has instructed her to pass it on to a friend of his should he die, so that that person can continue “producing” California Gold. Even so, Strongwater says that one of the components in his blend is not readily available anymore (he’s even scoured Europe looking for it) and, thus, California Gold’s days may be numbered.
“I’ve heard lots of guesses. Lots of people don’t like that I won’t share the recipe. But I don’t want to cause a scene,” Strongwater tells me, having instructed owners of bottles to please not post pictures of it on social media. “People who are just lovers of bourbon, though, they don’t care where it came from or what it is or who made it. It’s so non-commercial, so un-mainstream. What they all tell me is it’s just the best cost, best bourbon there is—period.”