Like many realtors, John Brittle is always working on raising his profile in town. For the amicable Nashville man, this has typically involved tapping into his ample whiskey collection. The only problem: He didn’t exactly like bringing potential clients over to his family’s home and cracking open bottles in the middle of the day. So he came up with a better idea.
“I was already using whiskey to get my name in front of people,” explains Brittle. “So renting a house for it seemed like a natural progression—certainly better than paying for bus benches with my ugly mug on them.”
In early 2015, the perfect place fell into his lap. Brittle had recently sold a mixed-use fixer-upper in Germantown—a historic neighborhood north of downtown—to a friend. Knowing it would take nearly a year to procure permits before the buyer would be able to renovate the historic 100-year-old home, Brittle asked if he could rent it during the interim. His friend agreed, and Brittle moved several hundred bottles of whiskey from his collection into the house. Before long, those in the know bestowed a nickname on the place: JB’s Whiskey House.
It was around this time that I first began seeing cryptic pictures of it on social media depicting row after row of the most sought-after bottles, well before anyone else had landed them. Its unique location in Nashville—many Southerners pass through the city en route to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail—and Brittle’s longtime prominence in online whiskey groups quickly made the Whiskey House a whiskey-geek attraction. Brittle would always oblige, generously sharing rare bottles from the collection with visitors. In fact, it’s where many whiskey collectors first got a taste of California Gold, the homemade blend that became a household name.
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After a year, the original buyer’s permits were approved and Brittle was forced to find a more permanent residence for his whiskey house. “I finally called five of my best friends,” explains Brittle. “I said, ‘Hey let’s lease something together, make it more formalized, organized.’”
The small crew found an “unassuming duplex from the 1970s” in a recently gentrified neighborhood for $1500 a month; their landlord is a nearby church. Though Brittle doesn’t wish to reveal the neighborhood for obvious reasons, he claims you’d never even know the Whiskey House was there if you didn’t already know it existed.
When a member is drinking in the house they simply put an “Evan Williams/Elijah Craig—Make America Thirsty Again” spoof election sign on the lawn, to alert any members that might be passing by. The house also has camera systems installed in every room so that members can check what’s going on remotely via their phones. Though no one lives in the house, the choice decor—numerous couches, fully stocked kitchen, robust cocktail book library, taxidermy—gives the place a homey feel.
“People like bringing a date or significant other over before dinner,” explains Brittle. “We can’t have it looking like a frat house.”
Indeed, even in a house with over 1,500 bottles of open whiskey—an inventory that would put it in on par with just about any legitimate bar in America—the drinking at the Whiskey House is less Greek life and more refined private club. Members are only allowed to drink a quarter-ounce from each bottle ever. To dole out such a minuscule amount, measuring cups are placed all around the house. That means a coveted bottle of, say, William Larue Weller, might have enough pours it in for 100 different people to taste—though that rarely occurs.
“One of my core principles of the house is we don’t ever want to empty a bottle,” explains Brittle. “We’re trying to build a library of bottles. Typically, when they get under a quarter [full], they then go into the library and we won’t drink from them again.”
Though the core of the collection is still comprised of Brittle’s acquisitions, a good 20 to 30 bottles are now being added every single month from members’ dues, though Brittle still acts as, what he calls, the “procurement department.” Stickers are affixed to each bottle denoting the date it was opened and who donated it, while color-coded yarn tied to bottlenecks alert members and guests to the value of each bottle. For instance, green yarn indicates a $25 to $50 bottle, which anyone can pour for themselves; black yarn signifies a $100 bottle, which only members can pour; purple means it’s a bottle from Brittle’s personal collection—hands off.
“The pride every member takes in maintaining the collection means drinking is self-policing,” says Brittle.
Today there are around 30 official members (“donors” as Brittle calls them) of the Whiskey House, each of whom chips in $100 a month for rent and maintenance fees. Donors all have a set of keys, the security code and their own private locker inside the house for personal bottles. Members range in age from their early 20s to late 50s. There are no female members, “but we are desperately trying to change that,” says Brittle, before noting, “We’ve got a couple members’ wives who are whiskey freaks, and regularly have ladies drinking with us.” The same goes for industry luminaries, like Bruce Russell (national brand ambassador, Wild Turkey), Fred Noe (master distiller, Jim Beam) and Marianne Eaves (master distiller, Castle & Key), all of whom have been to the house in recent months.
As far as legalities go, according to Brittle, everything they do is above board since they’re private and don’t ever sell anything. (If guests want to make a donation before they leave, commensurate to what they drank, they are allowed to.) There’s even a lawyer on the house’s “board” and, remarkably, they have 501(c)(3) federal tax exemption status for being a non-profit. That’s because one of the key tenets of the house is raising money for charity, both in donating bottles and in hosting guests at the house for private tastings. Brittle claims the house donated over $75,000 to charity in 2018 alone.
This year, Brittle plans to up that to $100,000 and has even loftier goals beyond that—not just for charitable donations. “We’re going to buy a house someday,” he tells me. “A nice place with some bedrooms and bathrooms, maybe a private area we could use as an Airbnb situation for the community. Because for a whiskey lover, this place is pure Candyland.”