Time In A Bottle

Gentry Bourbon honors a life and a legacy, launching a new brand of history in the Lowcountry.

The liquid swirls with the fury of a tiny tornado as it fills containers riding a conveyor belt in John David (JD) Madison’s warehouse. Shards of amber light reflect off the square shoulders of signature bottles as they await their turn to be fixed with a label paying tribute to a life and a legacy. Once sealed with a wood-topped cork, and branded with the company’s polo helmet and mallet embossed red wax seal, the understated and elegant finished product will await distribution to an ever-growing list of Lowcountry restaurants, drinking establishments and retailers.

Gentry Bourbon, Charleston’s premier, uniquely crafted reserve batch bourbon whiskey, represents a two-year journey and a quest to honor the three things JD Madison holds dearest: family, horses and tradition. It does so with a poise and confidence born of love, careful research, and a determination to get it right.

The story of the bourbon began many years ago. From his ranch in Oklahoma, grandfather John Gentry Madison passed down his love of horses to his son, Gary, and traveled with him to Kentucky, in pursuit of his first racehorse. As the years passed, the elder Madison would retire as a real estate developer and politician, with a collection of thoroughbreds from across the nation.  But it would be one particular horse that the family would never forget; a horse with a bloodline leading back to Triple Crown winner, War Admiral, which would spark his hope of running in Kentucky’s big race; a horse he would name Gentry.

That spark was extinguished when John Gentry Madison passed away all too soon, never realizing his dream. But his grandson’s time on the family’s ranch begot in him an appreciation of everything having to do with horses, and the passion his father and grandfather passed along would lead him to equine endeavors ranging from breaking horses in the Colorado Rockies to playing polo in South Carolina, New York, and Florida.
Having become a successful restauranteur, entrepreneur, and real estate developer in Charleston, JD and his wife, Elizabeth, sought a lasting way to honor the family’s departed patriarch.  Knowing that his grandfather’s passing had intensely affected his father, it needed to be a fitting homage to the family and its traditions.

“Granddad was a special guy, and we felt like he was taken too early­—he was only in his early 60s, and there was so much more he wanted to do.”

It was with these values in mind that the Gentry brand was born. Remembering his grandfather to be a bourbon drinker, they thought the whiskey would offer the perfect vehicle for the sentiments they were looking to express, helping them to capture time and history in a bottle. They knew creating a new brand of an old favorite would carry a steep learning curve, but it was a roll of the dice they chose to take.  They also hoped they could keep it a surprise for JD’s dad until everything was in place.

Their choices on the bourbon scale were either a small pot still here in Charleston, producing single barrel, small batches, or a larger operation with coast-to-coast distribution possibilities. Confident that this endeavor had the potential for huge success, they worked with a local liquor platform to source their own bourbon, and made the decision to distill in Indiana and Kentucky. They would give this brand credibility, and a story and local character to appeal to a national audience.

Though there are many legends surrounding the traditional spirit, author Michael R. Veach’s authoritative Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey:  An American Heritage chronicles the facts surrounding bourbon production, explaining that though each company’s product is proprietary, the requirements for true bourbon are highly regulated.  It must be made in the USA, and consist of a 51% minimum of corn mash.  It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% alcohol by volume.  Once distilled, it may not be colored or flavored, and must enter new, charred-oak barrels for aging, at no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% alcohol by volume.

Since the bottling location determines from whence it comes, Gentry Bourbon is trucked to Charleston after distilling.  It was to his warehouse in Charleston that JD took his father, Gary, by surprise, when he and Elizabeth not only unveiled the project, but asked him to determine the taste profile for the unique brand.

“Pop was hit hard by Granddad’s passing, and absolutely blown away by this tribute,” JD beams at the memory, his face flushed with emotion.  “It honored Granddad, and it honored Pop to be made a part of the process. It truly made it a family business.”

Aging in wooden barrels allows the distilled liquid to come in contact with the charred wood of the barrels in which it is stored, collecting flavors and expanding and contracting with heat and cold during storage; a process that can take up to 20 years.  But time would be on the side of this new, ambitious bourbon.

“Gentry Bourbon is aged by a new technology that allows more of the distilled liquid to move in and out of the staves of the wood barrels, allowing it to age in a much shorter time,” JD says of the newly patented process. “It maintains the romance, but allows for a smoother tasting bourbon.  It also removes some of the heat, and some of the methanol, which is what does damage to the body.”

With his gravelly voice bringing to mind that of an old-time speakeasy proprietor, Madison adds, “We’re the healthier bourbon!”

It took two years from the start of the project until the final result was actually in bottles.  “My dad is a bourbon sipper, while I’m more of a mixed-drink guy.  It took tasting over 25 batches, but when Dad finally said we’d gotten it right, we knew we’d hit on just the right notes.”

The bourbon is complex, with notes of vanilla, caramel and mocha, with a delicate and delightful green apple finish.

“Boubon drinkers are a loyal lot, and it’s hard to get them to switch to a new brand.  I was the same way, but once I tried this, it was all over.  I think it will surprise a lot of people.”

While the bourbon was being perfected, wheels were simultaneously turning elsewhere. The flagship 21-room Gentry Hotel will open soon in Charleston’s historic waterfront district; furthering the brand by continuing the equine theme throughout its guest rooms, restaurant and private rooftop cabanas.  Eventually, JD hopes to open a horse farm with the proceeds, raising thoroughbred horses and featuring cottages, stables and a polo field.  His dream is to bring the story full circle.

Celebrating the national launch of Gentry Bourbon at Boone Hall Plantation’s Cotton Dock, JD Madison lifts his glass to the memory he honors with every barrel of bourbon carrying his family’s name, and to the legacy locked in the amber liquid swirling in the tumblers raised by those responding to his toast.  Locking eyes with Gary Madison standing proudly in front, JD’s eyes mist at the emotional significance of the moment.

“I love you, Pop,” he says to his father, tipping the glass forward in salute, and speaking from his heart.

John Gentry Madison may have never known the thrill of the Run for the Roses, but there is no doubt he is smiling from above.

For more on Gentry Bourbon, and to find an available location near you, visit gentrybourbon.com.

By Susan Frampton