Carey Bringle, AKA The Peg Leg Porker, is more than a mere man. He has become a lifestyle brand through his years as a competitive barbecue cooker, television personality, restaurant owner, custom smoker designer, QVC television pitchman and, now, whiskey magnate. Currently preparing to release the third edition of his Peg Leg Porker whiskey, Bringle has bold plans to expand his empire even further in the future.
The basis and name of his brand comes from the fact that Bringle lost a leg to cancer while still in high school, but he has never let this slow him down. A serial entrepreneur, Bringle’s first love has always been barbecue, stretching back to when previous generations of his family cooked pigs in West Tennessee. But whiskey also flows in his family’s blood.
“My grandfather was friends with Lem and Hap Motlow [of Jack Daniel’s]. Growing up, there was always whiskey around the house, including cases of minis,” recalls Bringle. “The whiskey business has always been intriguing to me and a part of my family history.”
But in college, Bringle was more of a Jim Beam white label fan, saying he never cared much for Jack Daniel’s because “the Lincoln County process makes Tennessee whiskey a little bit more harsh.”
After graduating, Bringle expanded his whiskey horizons further, switching to Maker’s Mark, and “drinking Van Winkle 12-year-old Lot B when you could still just walk into a liquor store and buy it off the shelf.”
After years of cooking with a friend’s barbecue team at competitions around the region, Bringle split off to form his own team as The Peg Leg Porkers. In search of a liquor sponsor for his new venture, he shared his dream of landing a bourbon brand benefactor with a buddy who worked for Beam.
“He hooked me up with Jim Beam Black. I had never even tried it, so I went out and bought some and loved it!” he says. “They’ve been my team’s Memphis in May sponsor for 13 years now.”
Through his connection with Jim Beam and its distributors in Nashville and Memphis, Bringle learned a lot about the liquor business and branding, and he was intrigued. In the meantime, he stayed busy opening his first restaurant, the eponymous Peg Leg Porker BBQ Restaurant in Nashville’s burgeoning Gulch neighborhood. From the day he opened, Bringle has received local, regional and national praise for his Memphis-style dry ribs, smoked wings and pulled pork, and the bar at the restaurant is a favorite gathering spot for barbecue aficionados visiting the area.
“Bourbon is an integral part of the lifestyle brand,” explains Bringle. “We always drink bourbon when we’re cooking competitively, and many barbecue fans are also bourbon fans.”
As the first barbecue pitmaster to release a brand of whiskey, Bringle decided that it was important that the product and label not fall victim to kitschiness. “I knew the identity had to be more highbrow than the restaurant, and I wanted folks to learn our story through the whiskey.”
The rise of Peg Leg Porker whiskey
Bringle blended his first lot of Peg Leg Porker Straight Tennessee Bourbon from 25 barrels to produce around 1,000 six-pack cases of 90 proof spirit, a proof level “of bourbon lovers’ bourbons, so that’s where we went with it.”
Selling at a price approaching the premium levels, Peg Leg Porker Bourbon’s reputation spread primarily by word of mouth and on a minimal marketing budget. The product also won awards at spirits competitions in Denver and San Francisco. Still, Bringle wasn’t completely satisfied. For his second batch, he was able to purchase all eight-year-old whiskey, two to four years older than his first lot.
“At that point we decided to put an age statement on the label, but I still wanted to put more of my signature on and in the bottle,” he says.
He came up with the novel idea to emphasize his background as a pitmaster by filtering the aged whiskey through hickory charcoal he had burned down in the same smoker where he cooks whole hogs.
“I’ve never had a smoked liquor that I thought really worked,” shares Bringle. “But hickory is an important part of barbecue cooking. I thought about just adding hickory staves to the barrels, but we began to experiment with filtering the whiskey through a column of charcoal and then running it through a sock filter to remove any impurities.”
This is different from the traditional Lincoln County process that sets Tennessee Whiskey apart from bourbon. In Bringle’s process, filtration occurs after aging and prior bottling. At Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, whiskey flows off the still and through charcoal before aging. Plus, Bringle’s use of hickory differentiates the product from the sugar maple charcoal required by the Tennessee whiskey definition.
Bringle worried that running his whiskey through charcoal at this point in the process might strip away some of the color from his lovely aged spirit, but he was pleasantly surprised. “It maintained the color and the charcoal gave it a softer finish and a small hint of sweet hickory flavor.”
As much as Bringle liked his new bourbon, consumers and spirits judges preferred it even more. Since he was using older whiskey in the bottle, Bringle had to bump up the price significantly to the mid- to high $40’s, but the product continued to sell well as he expanded distribution. At the prestigious 2016 San Francisco Spirits Competition, Peg Leg Porker Straight Tennessee Bourbon won a coveted gold medal in the special barrel finished bourbon category.
However, even with his success and this recognition, Bringle has faced detractors for his position as a non-distilling producer. “Some people called me a rectifier with all the bad former connotations that go along with that. One guy even called me a faker because I didn’t own a distillery!”
Not one to shy away from such criticism, his take on the subject is frank: “I say, ‘Hey you wanna start a new whiskey brand from scratch? You go ahead! You’d better have big balls and deep pockets, because that’s what it takes to get into this industry.’”
He has turned down multiple offers from outside investors wanting to take the brand nationwide because he’s in it for the long haul.
“For us, it would be very difficult to separate the bourbon from the restaurant brand, and right now my family and I are the only investors,” he says. “If you’re building a brand to flip it in a few years, good, take on investors. But if you’re looking to build a legacy brand like we are, it’ll be a long time to see any return on your investment. You’d better have a second source of income like I fortunately do with the restaurant.”
Bringle is planning to bottle and release his third lot of Peg Leg Porker Straight Tennessee Bourbon by the end of the year, plus he’s got another surprise in store for his fans.
“I got ahold of some 12-year-old stock of the same mash bill which I’m planning to release as a limited edition,” he says. He is still trying to decide whether he’ll offer it at barrel proof or drop it to his preferred 90. “I’m not a big fan of barrel strength whiskeys. It’s just so hot, but a lot of people love it.”
Whatever comes next, Bringle plans to stay the course with his Peg Leg Bourbon products.
“We are serious about staying in the spirits business for the long term. We’d like to eventually have our own distillery, and if I had the capital, I’d do it right now,” he says. “I could lay down whiskey for four years here in Tennessee right now for a reasonable cost, and we’d have our own aged product to sell. That is probably the next step in the process.”