Since 2011, Jack Rose Dining Saloon has served as DC’s premier destination for whiskey aficionados. Its owner, Bill Thomas, has amassed a collection over the years that totals nearly 3,000 different bottles — now touted as the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
To find them, Thomas doesn’t just rely on traditional wholesalers; he’s a bona fide hunter who sometimes flies across the country at the drop of a hat to (legally) raid the basements of mansions stocked with Prohibition-era bottles.
Desperate times now call for desperate measures, though, and so Thomas has made the difficult decision to sell off his entire collection in order to stay in business and keep his staff paid during DC’s coronavirus lockdown. “We didn’t have a choice,” he says. “You just do what you do to survive.”
Pulling Off a Hail Mary
Thomas tells InsideHook that once DC bars and restaurants were hit with strict rules about patrons only being able to order delivery and takeout, he thought he was going to lose his home.
“We were fortunate. I mean let’s face it: we went from me calling my brother (who is a real estate guy) just eight days ago and saying, ‘I have to sell my house now, because I have to have money to keep the bills current and get everybody situated.’ I went from that to realizing I don’t have to sell my house — that we can sell all of this [whiskey] simply because the mayor enacted this emergency legislation for restaurants and bars to do this kind of sale. That was the difference between surviving or not surviving for us,” says Thomas.
The emergency relief bill he’s referencing was enacted by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has a history of supporting restaurant operators. Unanimously passed by the DC Council last Tuesday, the bill allows bars and restaurants to add wine, beer and spirits to takeout and delivery orders. It stipulates, though, that every one of those alcohol orders must be packaged in a sealed container and include one prepared food item.
For Jack Rose, that meant selling off entire unopened bottles and 1-ounce pours of every open bottle on their fat “whiskey bible” menu, served in plastic containers and priced anywhere from 20 to 50 percent off the menu price, with the higher priced pours having the largest discount. That means you can get top-shelf, rare whiskies at a steal, from 20- or 30-year-old pours of Ardbeg and Macallan to hard-to-find bottles like Willett Family Estates bourbon to Jack Rose’s own private single barrels made in collaboration with Blanton’s and other distilleries (those are selling quickly, by the way).
Taking Care of Their Own
The sale kicked off this past weekend, and saw a line of people (spaced six feet apart, of course) snaking down and around the block. Thomas assures us that his staff has taken every safety precaution, only allowing three to four people inside at any one time. Pens are being washed in between uses, and customers swipe their own credit cards. They’ll also be open periodically through the week, as time is needed in between to clean, take inventory and restock as needed. The best way to keep up to date with them is through Twitter or Instagram.
“Our fellow whisk(e)y lovers — the demand has been so great, our website crashed, our phone lines were busy, we are so appreciative for all the interest and support!” Their website reads. “We are overwhelmed by the support and hope that this will keep us and our staff here for decades to come. Thank you all.”
Thomas has also taken unprecedented measures to take care of his staff, not only keeping them paid, but also making sure they have food on the table for every meal for the duration of the pandemic. He says that the sales from this weekend were enough to keep everyone’s pay current, and to begin providing all staff members with a weekly supply of free groceries to be picked up on Wednesdays.
“The chef put together what he thought to be the essentials everyone would need — so, you know, half a carton of eggs, half a gallon of milk, a pound of rice, some beans, fruits, vegetables and then a protein. And then I think we might start cooking and doing some sort of dessert to put it in,” says Thomas. “If somebody is vegetarian, we’ll swap it up for them.”
Looking Toward the Future
Now that Thomas and his staff are past the initial hurdles, he says they’ve already begun long-term planning and insists there are silver linings to all of this in the future
“There is a little fun to this,” he says, excitedly talking about a chance to start his collection anew once all of the bottles are depleted, despite recognizing that his restaurant will most likely be in six figures of debt. Thomas also says that once stocks are gone, there will be an even greater opportunity to employ staff to get the restaurant fully ready to reopen, including making improvements to the space like repainting, reupholstering and cleaning up the shelves — things he says he hasn’t gotten a chance to do while the restaurant has been open. He also plans to redo the website, and will obviously have to make drastic changes to the beverage menu.
“It’s like, hey, we’re gonna open up with more inventory than we sold, we’ll open up with a crew that’s gung ho and happy that we made it through this. The team will be together. So, I’m stoked.”
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