Bootlegging stories are a dime a dozen in the craft spirits industry. But let’s be honest, many of them are a little…stale. It’s neat when a distiller’s great-great-grandpa was running whisky across Lake Michigan or smuggling rum from the Caribbean to Miami, but come on guys: It’s been almost a century since Prohibition.
But for James Thornett, founder and CEO of Buckshee Bourbon, smuggling booze isn’t a tongue-in-cheek nod to history—it’s a real line on his CV. “I inadvertently became the biggest smuggler of alcohol in Iraq in 2004,” says James, in the same tone you might use to describe how you’d stopped at the store to pick up some milk on the way home from work. “I used to smuggle millions of dollars of liquor down the most dangerous road in the world at the time.” Contemporary bootlegger? It’s true. We sat down with James to hear more about his adventurous past, his love of bourbon, and how a chance meeting led to a new career in the spirits industry.
From Smuggler to Entrepreneur
A former paratrooper in the British military, James had been working as a contractor in Baghdad after his service ended. In 2004, there was very little booze anywhere in the country. Many of the religious militias were fervently anti-alcohol, effectively squashing the drinks industry entirely.
One day at the airport, James met a man who owned the duty-free rights to Iraq. “There wasn’t any decent liquor in the country,” says James. “So I asked, can you get some in? He said he could, but he’d need a partner.”
James couldn’t resist. He knew the international crew of soldiers, contractors, diplomats, and government workers in the Green Zone would love to be able to buy the same tipples they loved drinking at home. Plus, James knew he had the experience they needed to safely transport booze from the airport to the green zone, a fifteen-minute drive through the harrowing cityscape of wartime Baghdad. “It’s a life and death run up and down that road,” says James.
Fortunately, his first run went smoothly, and he found people lining up around the block to get their hands on a bottle of Jack Daniels or a case of French wine. Buoyed, he reinvested the proceeds in more inventory, signed a lease on a derelict villa in the Green Zone, and opened the doors to the only international bar in Baghdad at the time: the Baghdad Country Club.
It was a little different than you might imagine a country club to be. No golf course, no pool, no polo night, no initiation dues. Instead, there was a reasonably safe place to sit down, order a martini, enjoy a bite to eat, and maybe light up a cigar or two—for James and others like him, a haven in a hostile world—and one of the most unusual entries to the drinks business we’ve ever heard of.
Keeping Spirits Up Stateside
The Baghdad Country Club is closed now, but James’ first foray into the world of spirits was a formative one. Several years later, he began to scheme about starting a spirits brand. “I wanted to make a great everyday sipping whiskey and cocktail base,” says James. He reached out to J.P. Fetherston, a friend and award-winning bartender who owns the Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., and asked him if he’d help develop a truly great product. “The caveat was, he had to be prepared to put his name to it and put it behind his bar,” says James.
Dozens of experimental batches and blends later, the team came up with formulas for two robust, easy-drinking, flavorful whiskeys—a bourbon and a rye—that performed just as well in cocktails as they did on their own. The Buckshee Straight Rye mash bill is 95% rye and 5% malted barley, while the Buckshee Straight Bourbon mash bill is 36% rye, 60% corn, and 4% malted barley. Both are aged in casks charred a little more deeply than the industry standard, then bottled at a cocktail-friendly 90 proof. “We loved the taste of the 36% rye mash bill for the bourbon” says James. “For me, it’s an easier approach—it almost makes it a bit smoother—with notes of vanilla and pineapple.”
With the whiskey sorted, all that remained now was a name.
Through a mutual friend, James was introduced to Steve Grasse, spirits industry entrepreneur and marketing powerhouse behind brands like Sailor Jerry’s and Hendricks Gin. James told Steve his story and asked if he might be interested in partnering on the project.
“Steve doesn’t pull any punches,” laughs James. “He said, that’s a fabulous story, but under no circumstances can we call it Baghdad Country Club bourbon.” The whiskey needed a name that would work around the world, but still hinted at the adventurous life that brought it into being. The team settled on Buckshee, which is a riff on baksheesh, an Arabic word that means “little bribe.” It’s a nod to the spirit’s roots in the Middle East without making the connection too obvious.
“Bourbon is a vehicle for bringing people together, whether it’s around a campfire in the middle of Kabul or sitting at the bar in New York,” says James. “You get together, you share a drink, you tell some great stories. That’s what Bourbon represents to me, and that’s what I want Buckshee to be.”
We’re thrilled to be shipping a bottle of Buckshee Straight Bourbon to club members this month for several reasons. First, it’s a delicious spirit, lively yet easy-going, perfect for winter Old Fashioneds or sharing around the fireplace. Second, club members are among the first in the nation to get their hands on this remarkable whiskey. Buckshee officially launched on January 1, 2019, and so far it’s only in limited distribution in major East Coast markets.
But finally, and maybe most importantly, we can’t think of a story more inspiring for the New Year than the adventure and fearlessness behind Buckshee. James’ friend Josh describes James’ personality as “two parts Indiana Jones, one part Han Solo, with a twist of Keith Richards”—talk about somebody who sounds like a blast to share a drink with. And while not everyone can be a famous adventurer, with the launch of Buckshee Bourbon and Buckshee Rye, at least we can all drink like one.