“Brown Water,” also known as whiskey, bourbon, rye, scotch and rum is popular in the South and there’s not a better city than Charleston to enjoy all the favors. Stephanie Burt has written an excellent piece on the subject for Southern Foodways Alliance. Enjoy.
Let’s start with a Venn diagram, shall we? Not all brown water is bourbon, but all bourbon is brown water. How about another? The Charleston Brown Water Society doesn’t only drink bourbon, but they do drink more bourbon than the other brown waters. Still with me? Then class is over, and let’s toast to that.
The Charleston Brown Water Society formed in 2013 to foster the knowledge and appreciation of whiskey among its members and to promote the availability of good whiskey in Charleston, South Carolina, and beyond. Through well-connected culinary members and its bi-annual events—Bourbon Hour during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and the Annual BBQ Invitational—the society has gained a bit of a reputation through the years as wild whiskey-drinking men who throw epic parties. But it’s not all about whiskey, and its membership isn’t all men.
“Sure, we certainly can sit around and drink some whiskey,” said Roderick Weaver, one of the founding fathers of the society, the former director of cocktail and spirits at Husk Restaurant and now spirits advisor for the newly opened Lewis Barbecue. “But when we formed, we really wanted to educate people (and ourselves), and not a lot of people knew a lot about whiskey.”
Weaver explains that “brown water” refers not only to bourbon, but to whiskey, rye, scotch, and rum, and that the focus is to explore those cultures, production methods, good vintages and bad, and generally develop a palate beyond a favorite brand.
Each member in CBWS, now 90 plus strong with about 10 percent female membership, receives a special branded whiskey barrel stave originally designed by Weaver and branded with letters and numbers denoting the induction class. Sit at any of the craft cocktail bars in town long enough or often enough and you’ll more than likely see one of these staves brought out for show and tell.
Bob Cook, chef de cuisine of Artisan Meat Share, is a member, and he explains that he learned a lot at the beginning from just meeting, where everybody would bring bottles from their collections and share. He has around 100 bottles of brown water in his personal collection — most in the the $60-$100 range, he stresses — and so it was fun to taste bottles and brands he didn’t own or know.
“Brown water has these multiple layers of flavor once you get into it, and it can really help develop your palate to pick those out. It’s even more helpful when you can sit around in groups and talk about what you’re tasting,” he says.
The society holds special tasting events throughout the year as well as their Bourbon Hour and BBQ Invitational, and they attract some heavy hitters as special guests, including Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, IL.
“I came to the inaugural CBWS Invitational to help Rodney Scott, and I had such a great time that we were excited to bring the 17th Street show to the second one,” she says. “The intimate size and pace is a real plus and gave us the opportunity to meet and visit with the attendees and the other pitmasters. I love being about the CBWS gang — they bring the party wherever they are, and I always know it’s going to be a good time.”
And barbecue and brown water go together famously, in case you have never sipped and supped.
While all these events are fun, they also raise money, and through that CBWS has transformed into a 501(c) non-profit. Although the society started without any real model, they are now “getting more goal focused, directional,” says CBWS Minister of Information Robert Donovan.
There is talk of developing a scholarship at the College of Charleston in honor of Christopher West, a CBWS who passed away. There’s also discussion of possibly using funds to help those in need in the community’s food and beverage industry. Whatever the form it takes, it’s still at its heart about the camaraderie of a culture — the brown water culture.
“We are spreading the gospel of whiskey,” Weaver says with a wry smile. “Whiskey brings out the best and worst in people. But if we’re drinking it all in good fun and everybody is taking care of each other, then that’s what I think we’re supposed to do.”