One Last Bourbon, With a Fellow Named Pappy

by Daren Wang


Sometime in the early 19th century, a former slave made his way to the Buffalo, New York, waterfront and opened a bar in a dank cellar. No one knows if Dug was a runaway or a freedman, but they knew he came up from the South.

The place was a warren of businesses both legal and illegal — flophouse, gin mill, underground-railroad stop, brothel, tavern. The steps down to the front door were always wet — from rain, snow, or just from being built into the side of the Erie Canal. The mule drivers and hoggees slipped on their way down and dove head first through the front door so often that the place became famous for those painful entrances. Dug’s Dive was the very first dive bar, and the literal end of the line for the Erie Canal.

I, too, am at the end of my line. Fifty book events in a little over two months.

I think of Dug’s as I look at a sad, little, store-bought, wooden sign that says, “Dive Bar” hanging on the wall in a place called Ole Hookers Bait & Tackle in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s 1 in the morning.

We’re there because my friend peered in past the closed sign in their front window that afternoon, only to have the locked door open beside him.

“You open?” he asked.

“We can be,” the bartender said.

“Let’s have a drink,” Joe said.

“I knew right then it was the perfect bar-bar,” he told me later. “They have $30 pours of Pappy.”

Sixty dollars. Seventy dollars. A hundred dollars. Those are reasonable prices for a glass of Pappy Van Winkle in Georgia. Thirty dollars makes Ole Hookers a destination.

I am in town for the Kentucky Book Fair, the last stop on my book tour. My friends Joe Borzynski and Joe Gilani have come down to drink bourbon and wish me a better “end of the tour” than David Foster Wallace got. Jamie Ford, with just one more tour stop on his own book tour after this, is also ready to toast to the end of his months on the road. Brooke Raby, manager of the fair, is out as well, because one always needs to drink after running a book festival. 

We had started many hours earlier at Belle’s Cocktail House. 

It was early when we got there. The place is big, two stories with high ceilings. A wall of the best bourbon Kentucky has to offer loomed behind the bar, and Jill made us several rounds of very fine cocktails. We started basic, with Old-Fashioneds. Then, there was gin. Then, there was chartreuse, I believe. I should have taken notes. 

The place got crowded. It became a scene. Beautiful people meeting other beautiful people to negotiate possible late-night activities. We bolted and somehow found ourselves at Ole Hookers again.

Maybe eight stools in the place, three tables, and a couch. All of Ole Hookers would fit in a forgotten corner of Belle’s.

“I hear you have $30 pours of Pappy,“ I say to Mary Beth, the bartender.

“No,” she replies. “We have $25 pours.”

“Five, please.”

She needs a step stool to get to the top shelf behind the bar.

Jamie talks about how proud he is of his new novel, “Love and Other Consolation Prizes.” It’s a fantastic read, but still, he acknowledges he will always be known best as the author of the sales phenomenon “The House at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”

You don’t get to complain about these things, and certainly Jamie doesn’t. But life-changing success brings its own challenges, and it’s hard to overlook the expectations weighing on him.

I tell him that when I was about to start this tour, a good friend told me, “I wish you lots of success, but not too much.”

I’ve emailed with Brooke for months, but we met for the first time that day. She is in her own post-festival daze, and I know it well after my own years running the Decatur Book Festival in my hometown. We talk about the challenges of that gig — something I’ve done for 12 years. She seems laser-focused on making her own festival better. I feel a kinship with her.

Good friends new and old. Check.

A bar that feels like a quirky friend’s living room. Check.

Pappy Van Winkle. Check.

In some ways, ending the night and the book-and-bourbon tour with a neat glass of one of the finest bourbons in the world is the good and right thing to do.

On the other hand, it’s hard to savor the subtleties of such a thing after hours of cocktails and so on. It turns into a checklist item. It’s everything you want, but it also seems to go too quickly.

Tomorrow, I’ll be home from the road, and I’ll be glad to be there. But I’ll wish for that simple pour of good whiskey. I have some fine bourbon in my little stash, but it won’t be as good.