Entrepreneurs usually create a business and then build a customer base.
Brian Shemwell and Tom “Fish” Adams are doing it in reverse.
This fall, the pair and their silent investors will open Barrel & Bond in Paducah, Ky., a small western Kentucky city of 30,000. On its shelves will be 1,200 to 1,600 unique American whiskey labels ranging from unicorns to dusties to modern rarities and value pours.
“It’ll kind of have it all, but only good stuff,” says Fish Adams. “We’re not getting into business to sell a bunch of crap.”
Of course not, because their ready-to-drink customer base, the 475-member Paducah Bourbon Society, has educated palates. About half of PBS members are locals; the other half drive to monthly meetings from surrounding counties in Kentucky, southern Illinois and nearby Tennessee.
“Drinking alone isn’t any fun, so we got our friends involved,” says Shemwell. “We always thought it would be 30 or so of us sitting around sharing our whiskey. We had no idea the bourbon society would ever get this big.”
Adams and Shemwell met five years ago and formed PBS a year later. As membership rolls swelled, they began plans for a serious whiskey-centric bar.
“The discussion began with, ‘What if the Paducah Bourbon Society had its own home?’ and the talk turned to how we could make that happen,” Adams says.
Currently, PBS gathers at freight house, a nationally regarded farm-to-table restaurant owned and operated by chef Sara Bradley, runner-up finisher in Top Chef 2019. The restaurant serves a menu of snacks and staffs its solid cocktail bar, which boasts about 200 bourbons. Attendance at some meetings fill all of freight house’s 175 seats.
“Find me better market analysis than four years of a bourbon society that’s grown to the size of this one,” Shemwell says.
Longtime whiskey collectors, Shemwell and Adams searched the shelves and stock rooms of stores in any town they visited. Early on, it took little persuasion to get retailers “to get rid of shit that’s been sitting around too long,” Shemwell says. Some were clueless as to why the men wanted long-neglected pints and spider-webbed bottles others ignored.
Between them, “we have thousands of bottles, which is all we’ll say,” says Adams. “The real numbers might anger our wives, too, so we’ll keep it a secret. Now we’re in the process of inventorying all of it.”
Since Kentucky allows for vintage whiskey owned by consumers to be sold to retail establishments, Shemwell’s and Adams’ bottles will be purchased by Barrel & Bond to stock its shelves.
“That’s what we’re bringing to the business: bottles, knowledge and sweat equity,” Shemwell says. Their investors are funding Barrel & Bond’s buildout in an historic 1890s building along Paducah’s reemerging downtown riverfront. “We’ve not even connected with distributors yet to start getting current releases.”
“But we’ve already got pretty good relationships with distributors,” Adams adds.
That’s because both are longtime private barrel pickers who, according to Adams’ estimate, “have been on at least 200 picks.” Though frequently invited by many to lend their palates and opinions, neither is paid for the work.
“That’s going to become another thing Barrel & Bond is known for: our picks,” Adams continues. The bar will have a package license for selling private picks and other bottles. “We’ve done those for a long time for others. Now it’s going to be just for us.”
The Barrel & Bond experience
While traveling for employers, Shemwell visited bars in search of ideas of what he wanted to implement at Barrel & Bond. Mostly, he says, he and Adams want “a great bourbon bar that has to be for the people who know bourbon, love it and want to engage you in conversation about it. That’s our goal. It also has to be fun; we won’t be dicks about it. That’s why the Paducah Bourbon Society is so fun: we’re not dicks about it.”
Adams says it’s also about pride in Kentucky and its whiskeys.
“I want them to understand the craftsmanship of it, to appreciate a product that’s world renowned, the best of its kind and made in Kentucky,” he says. “I want people who’ve never experienced it to slow down, sip it and take notice of all those really great flavors in bourbon.”
Barrel & Bond feature two large rooms: the bar, and a separate event space. They say to expect lots of brick, wood concrete and steel used in its construction to create an industrial look, but the walls, as expected, will be covered with bottles.
Shemwell says, “It’ll be a whiskey library with a rolling ladder, pretty similar to Jack Rose (Dining Saloon),” referring to the legendary Washington, D.C. spot. “The other side will be for private parties, events, rehearsal dinners and such. … All of it will be well lit. We’re too old for dark bars.”
A small bites menu of foods that pair well with whiskeys will be offered.
“Down the road we want to have a whiskey menu on a (mobile) tablet, and maybe (a database) one you could link with your phone,” Shemwell says. “We want them to have all the information available: distillery, flavor profile, whether its sweet or spicy … and to be able to tag those whiskeys and organize them by brand or era or price. We want people to walk away knowing more about bourbon than when they came in.”
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....