When it was announced that Bob Dylan would be joining the ranks of celebrity whiskey makers, we wondered what Bob Dylan knew about whiskey. But Ryan Perry of Heaven’s Door Spirits knew Dylan already knew everything he needed to know: Dylan knew what he liked. When we heard this, we wanted to know how Heaven’s Door Spirits unpacked Dylan’s preferences and eventually bottled them.
Celebrity whiskey is a trend now in full sprint, as far as well can tell. Everyone seems to be latching on, from movie stars doubling as brand ambassadors on contract, to savvy business deals made by moguls, taking advantage of endorsements.
The point of putting all the big names on bottles is to sell more bottles. But whether it’s a movie star or a rock legend, today’s fans want an experience that brings them closer to their idol, not just some clumsy endorsement deal. With all the wheeling and dealing, it can be hard to tell the difference between a cash grab and a passion project.
This is where Heaven’s Door stands out. It became clear early on that Dylan (who registered whiskey trademarks long before anyone talked to him about producing a bottle) was keen to make his whiskey his way.
Perry was the man tasked with spirit guidance, so to speak: he needed to take Bob Dylan’s whiskey preferences and steer the final product where Dylan wanted it to go.
Dylan may have lacked the lexicon for writing the esoteric types of tasting notes you’d see on a bottle (or in our coverage), but according to Perry it quickly became clear that he had a good palate, and could communicate what he was thinking about samples.
“A lot of it was off the cuff, live feedback as he was tasting,” says Perry. “So, it was very unfiltered: “here’s what I taste specifically; here’s what I then would like to see differently. This is a little bitter,” or “this is doesn’t have enough toast,” or “this is too woody.” We heard “this is a little too hot” a couple times,” says Perry, “which I took as too much alcohol content.”
Like an interpreter, it was and continues to be Perry’s job to take what Dylan gave him and make use of it. “I’m really just trying to translate live feedback during a tasting to what am I going to do differently formulation-wise, or blending-wise, in order to achieve what he’s asking for.”
By his count, Perry’s office has about 500 samples floating around, and he sat with Dylan to taste a substantial number of them to arrive at the current offerings in the portfolio. Those include Heaven’s Door Tennessee Straight Bourbon, Heaven’s Door Straight Rye, and Heaven’s Door Double Barrel. “It’s something I’ve never done before,” says Perry, “so it’s been a welcome challenge for me to try to translate a creative mind like Bob, who has very purposely wanted to be involved in the whiskey creation from onset.”
But if there’s any suggestion here that Dylan was learning from Perry and the whiskey team, it turns out they were also learning a lot about whiskey from sitting with Dylan.
Perry says it’s refreshing to have someone like Dylan wanting to be part of the process, and that he’s actually grown from the experience with Dylan. ”I think just being a third party, not super technical whiskey geek, as I would like to call them, has really benefited because he’s asking questions that sometimes you would take for granted, like mash bill stuff, and barrel finished technicalities–if you’ve ever taught someone something they don’t know a ton about, you know, you’re kind of thinking about things as you’re talking. That’s been a really good influence I think on me, specifically having him involved and asking those very high level questions and looking at it from a totally different frame of mind.”
Perry and the Heaven’s Door Team are relatively tight lipped at this point about future projects. They’re letting the existing three bottles establish a foothold in the market before they think too concretely about more expressions, though there is a special 10-Year limited edition Tennessee bourbon coming this season. (We’ve tried it, and it’s definitely in keeping with the surprising but ultimately tasty whiskey Dylan’s brand has released thus far.)
That’s going to be the case going forward: that whatever’s in the bottle got there on a map drawn by Dylan and read by a team of experts. This is what celebrity whiskey should be: a taste of what they likes to drink, how they like to drink it.
And how does Dylan like to drink whiskey? The answer appears to be without pretense.
“I think he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like,” explains Perry. ““He’s not messing around with cocktails,” says Perry. “He’s not going and ordering the house barrel old fashion for eighteen bucks. He’s pouring it out into a glass that probably has dust on it from his bench, and maybe he’ll put a cube in.”
“He’s not someone that’s going to stand in line for a Sazerac release,” says Perry, “or the October, or September releases, you know–Pappy or anything like that. I think he’s the the type.. “I’ve had a lot of whiskeys, I know what I like, I think I know what tastes good.”