If it wasn’t for the pandemic that brought the planet to a halt exactly a year before, Charlie likely would have made a whirlwind tour like the one he was about to embark on every few weeks. He likes to visit a city to mark the launch of a new chapter of Drammers Club, the whisky club – well, whisky and mezcal and brandy, etc. – he presides over. He likes to show up bearing a few fascinating old bottles he found at an auction to initiate the new chapter. As of the beginning of April, there were chapters in 35 cities, like LA, Paris, Beirut, Warsaw and Indianapolis. Actually, it might be more than 35. He couldn’t say at that moment. The club was growing so quickly, he lost track. Or maybe he was just distracted thinking about all the things he had to do before he left the next morning. Like tasting five samples of Rochelt brandies, absolutely exquisite Austrian eaux de vie that fetch about $500 per bottle.
Here’s how Drammers works: you know someone – or you know someone who knows someone – who belongs to the club. Membership is invitation-based, but there’s no vetting or quizzing or hazing. It only works this way because, in most cities, tasting events take place in people’s homes, so it’s more of a security clearance than anything else. It’s also an assurance of the person’s passion and/or enthusiasm: “They have to be down to get nerdy with us,” Charlie says.
Drammers offers members easy and frequent access to rare spirits, and tastings are regularly led by some of the industry’s best-known figures. Members pay an annual fee, then a fee for each individual event, just to cover product costs. In the ‘before times’, pre-Covid, events took place in people’s homes – a tradition maintained over the years by Charlie, who lives in a high-ceilinged apartment that’s spacious by Manhattan standards. Whenever a distiller or production manager was in town, his handlers often made sure to carve out time for a Drammers event. VIP appearances have included The Balvenie’s David Stewart, The Dalmore’s Richard Paterson and Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie, to name just a few. Since the pandemic launched, however, online tastings have become the norm.
This is bad for all the reasons Zoom events are bad: no handshakes or hugs, no knowing looks on the sly, no schmoozing, hobnobbing or networking. But it’s good because Zoom has unlocked a world of access to whisky makers, who now can lead tastings from their living rooms. Here’s how a tasting works: participants receive a box of at least five samples, either by mail or by Charlie’s private messenger service (i.e. him riding through New York City on a rented CitiBike). Samples come in one-ounce (approx. 30ml) bottles. Charlie purchased nearly 30,000 said bottles over the year, 6,000 at a time. His girlfriend, Summer Rej, an accessories designer for her company, Dauphines of New York, helps fill them for each event.
Participants settle in at their kitchen table or couch and Charlie plays host, going around the Zoom squares asking everyone to introduce themselves before he brings on the speaker. After the distiller or brand ambassador gives his spiel, Charlie returns to moderate the tasting, encouraging people to shout out their thoughts, bringing the session a communality often lacking in virtual tastings. Events have been known to go upwards of four hours. This scenario has played out to hundreds of whisky lovers more than 100 times in the last 12 months.
“We’ve just been trying to do something to keep the energy going. And it’s working,” Charlie told me that Friday in March at his apartment. Liquor bottles are everywhere – on shelves, on countertops, neatly arranged around the periphery of the airy living room. Built-in shelves covering an entire wall are neatly packed with 1,000-plus DVDs, emblems of the years he worked as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. He still does legal work on the side. To feed his movie obsession, he runs Lighthouse International Film Festival in New Jersey, which he founded in 2012.
“It’s really picked up pace in the past year,” he said of Drammers, much to his own surprise. Things had been going strong: he was boomeranging around the world and just as he was about to head to Berlin and Manchester to launch new chapters, the pandemic hit. “Everything was just getting cancelled. When it started to sink in how serious this all was, I started thinking maybe this whole thing wasn’t going to work out.”
He knew a drawn-out pause in the club’s activity might tip it into oblivion. Last March he had planned to hold an Austin chapter barrel selection event at the nearby Balcones Distillery during South by Southwest, the music and tech festival. But he was already in Texas when that event was cancelled, so he decided to go to the distillery himself and stream a tour via Facebook Live. Members from as far away as the Beirut chapter were tuning in and asking questions. He left Texas having bought two barrels from Balcones: a corn whisky finished in a Tequila cask and single malt in ex-apple brandy cask. He also left knowing that Drammers wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, it may turn out to be an all-purpose remedy for a plague age.
“I had been trying to think of a way to do global tasting parties way before the pandemic,” he told me. “We’d been talking to an LA distillery. I thought I’d get bottles to each group in advance. We’ll be able to see each other, which was more fun than my telling each group about each other.” Turns out he was ahead of his time.
Drammers took shape in 2013. Charlie made frequent visits to Astor Wine & Spirits, Manhattan’s renowned liquor store, which was close to his apartment near New York University, where he started law school in 2000. He got to know Stephen Winch, the shop’s whisky specialist. In case you need your bearings, in 2013, Miley Cyrus set off the twerking craze, ‘Frozen’ won the Academy Award for best animated feature film and President Trump sounded like something only writers for ‘The Simpsons’ could contrive. Things were different then, the whisky industry included. The club’s growth would reflect the industry’s growth.
Stephen invited Charlie and a few other regular customers to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. They turned up with bottles to share and talk about. Over the following months, friends and friends of friends joined them. Soon, the group couldn’t get enough seats at Chinese restaurants, which is how the club evolved into a global network, too. People get wind of it and want in. So it went for Rohan Mirchandani, who had always had a specific impression of a whisky drinker: a polite older gentleman in a tweed suit. Then he met Charlie at his cousin’s bachelor party in 2013. Later that night, Charlie invited the crew to his apartment for drinks and poker. They listened to hip-hop, ate pizza and drank exceptional whisky. Rohan readjusted his outlook. He stayed in touch after moving to Mumbai later that year and then, in 2019, Charlie asked him to start a local chapter.
“He likes to get cool people together. Whisky is just an excuse,” said Rohan, co-founder at Epigamia, India’s leading yoghurt company. “When I started the chapter, he came out to Mumbai to introduce the club, to set the tone of how to run it, and now it’s something that everyone wants to be a part of. The minute we have a Drammers event, people drop important meetings just to be here. Charlie has done such a great job educating folks and I’m one of them. I started out as a road warrior, shopping in duty free whenever I travelled. Now I have a serious passion for a good dram; I’m so much more evolved in what to look for and how to taste.”
Charlie tapped his wide network of members to turn the club into a force for good during the pandemic. With brand ambassadors’ work severely limited, Drammers provided access for young professionals eager to engage. He developed Save Our Whisky Bars, a series of at-home tastings featuring a noted bar owner broadcasting from onsite. Proceeds support the venue. Beneficiaries included Delilah’s in Chicago, Brooklyn’s Travel Bar and Jack Rose in D.C.
Members were also happy to support small distillers. Barrel selection was always part of the plan. In 2019, the club bought two barrels from Seattle’s Westland Distillery, three from Medley Brothers (the company that once made rye for Pappy), plus a barrel of mezcal, Charlie’s latest obsession. After that aforementioned March purchase from Balcones, they bought two more barrels in August. Last year they also bought four expressions from Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn. Of the total of seven barrels purchased, four 10-gallon barrels were blended.
“Charlie saved our ass at a time we needed our ass to be saved,” said Colin Spoelman, co-founder and distiller. “I’ve seen whisky clubs all over the country... and Drammers is very singular. Every Drammers event has irreplaceable whiskies – heirloom treasures you could sample.”