Doc 52 Bourbon: Searching for a Niche 

The recent debate over wine sales in grocery stores sparked heated discussion across the city and state. We talked about it — a lot. Now that the issue of Sunday alcohol sales has reared its head in Tennessee, the whole thing seems like a foregone conclusion, hardly worth mentioning. Regardless of which side of the debates you fall, both are game-changers for Memphis' wine and liquor shops — and not necessarily to their advantage.

Like bookstores and other small retailers facing Amazon and Big Box outlets — local toddy shops have had to hustle to keep and grow loyal customers. It hasn't been easy. I caught up with Ryan Gill, the General Manager over at Doc's Wines, Spirits & More in the Carrefour, to talk about the new normal for the liquor business — and found the clever angle of the entrepreneur still alive and well. Part of this strategy isn't trying to beat the grocery stores at their game, but to beat them at his.

Gill is a man on a mission to make Doc's the face of bourbon in Memphis. "Thinking outside the box and creating products exclusive to our store are ways that we can continue to fight losing customers to grocery stores," he says.

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That thinking includes being the first liquor store in the area with a Certified Bourbon Steward on staff. The training and certification is done by the Stave & Thief Society of Louisville and endorsed by the Kentucky Distillers Association. It is, more or less, a certification similar to Sommelier training with wines. With plans to add nearly a hundred new bottles of bourbon to the store's selection in the coming weeks, it may not be a bad investment.

Gill says he isn't content with all the good bourbon that is "out there." He also has his eye on an inside bottle or two. Long used to picking single-barrel bourbons, and earlier at Southwind Wine & Spirits, Gill, and Doc's bourbon aficionado, Mike Jones — have put their 10 years of experience in curated whiskey sipping to a novel use: Doc's is partnering with Big River Distilling to bring Memphis' first private label bourbon to its shelves under the name Doc 52 Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It's nine years old, uncut, unfiltered, and cask strength at 110 proof. Those nine years were spent the old-fashioned way, without heat cycling. The first batch is limited to 162 bottles, which will retail for around $50. After this run, there are plans for expanded availability for a Doc's single barrel. "We just wanted to do something special for the first one," says Gill.

The private label isn't new for Doc's, which has long had store-exclusive wine — also under the label Doc 52. The "Doc" in question, by the way, is the original store's owner, a surgical oncologist named Roy Page. The original store had the slogan, "The Home of the 52 Week sale."

The real question, though, is how does Doc 52 taste? It's been pegged by some early samplers as in the same profile as Woodford Reserve Double Oak, which is pretty good company. Without any Woodford handy, I couldn't do a side by side, but I did have a sample of Doc 52. There is some vanilla and caramel in the deep amber. What jumped out at me, however, wasn't what Doc 52 was like, but what it wasn't: It's not a wheated bourbon, like Weller. Doc 52 has a subtle sweetness that comes through from a mash built on the high side with corn. There is a little heat to it, but there generally is with a cask-strength selection. With a little bit of water added, everything opens up and what you have is a bourbon with a big mouth to it that isn't harsh or overwhelming.

"Our private label bourbon is just the beginning of Doc's becoming the face of bourbon in Memphis," says Gill.

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