There’s always controversy on whiskey Facebook and in the first few days of 2020, it was centered around a guy who goes by the name “Crazy Naz.” Naz Yousif, the proprietor of a San Diego-area liquor store, had seemingly exploited a little-known loophole in California’s liquor laws to filch all the bottles of a single barrel pick of something called Smoke Wagon Bourbon. The problem was, The Bourbon Enthusiast, an online whiskey club, claimed they had actually made the pick and the bottles were theirs. For many online whiskey enthusiasts debating the controversy while trashing Yousif, however, a bigger question arose:
Why did Crazy Naz (or The Bourbon Enthusiast for that matter) care so much about a little-known bourbon from out of Las Vegas?
That was the first time I’d heard of Smoke Wagon Bourbon, the first time I’d seen images of this product from some outfit called H&C Distilling. It certainly stood out, packaged in over-the-top black glass bottles with embossed desert sage, criss-crossing six shooters on a recessed silver dollar and a motto in Latin reading “Bibamus Moriendum Est” (“Death is inevitable, let us drink”—a Roman battle cry).
Little did I realize it would soon become the biggest sensation in 2020 bourbon, its meteoric rise exemplifying the unthinking hype of bourbon today while foretelling the in-fighting and shark jumping that private whiskey groups have become.
But it started more humbly than that.
“This dude, whoever he is, is most certainly living the life.”
Visit Smoke Wagon Bourbon’s Instagram page on any given day and it looks more like the personal account for some sort of cowboy lifestyle influencer named Aaron Chepenik. In countless ’grams, Chepenik lounges in his backyard pool smoking a fat cigar and sipping a rocks glass full of whiskey on ice. Sometimes he’s under the moonlight; other times he’s getting scorched by the 110 degree high desert sun. Occasionally he’s tilting his shorn pate back to eject stogie smoke through his salt-and-pepper, Yosemite Sam-esque goatee and toward the sky; often he’s decked out in a cowboy hat and aviators, his only articles of clothing readily apparent.
This dude, whoever he is, is most certainly living the life.
“I think there is a cult of personality around him,” I was continually told.
But, back in 2004, Chepenik was just a neighborhood bar owner in Eagle Rock, California—he preferred to focus on his customers and to keep himself out of the limelight. It was a fateful night that summer when Jonathan Hensleigh, by then the successful Hollywood screenwriter behind Die Hard With a Vengeance and Jumanji, strolled into The Chalet after midnight having just finished his work for the evening.
The screenwriter and the bar owner hit it off, quickly became friends, and eventually decided they should open another bar together. This was in the days before downtown Los Angeles was being redeveloped and getting a new bar license in town was nearly impossible. So the men decided to look toward another city they both loved, Las Vegas, opening downtown bar The Griffin in early 2007.
“Back then I drank vodka. Lots of vodka,” Chepenik tells me. He particularly loved one super-premium brand called Russian Diamond—“the official vodka of the Kremlin”—which, according to what he read on the back of the bottle, was filtered through silver. “I started joking around, maybe I could do that here in the U.S.”
Chepenik began doing research on Russian websites, making calls to strange suppliers in India. Chepenik would eventually learn there was nothing particularly special about silver filtration—lots of places do it—and that it was a lot easier to source spirits than he realized. By then, he was growing out of the pounding vodka phase of his life and moving onto a more contemplative spirit—bourbon.
Remember, this was 2012. MGP Ingredients wasn’t yet a household name, wasn’t yet controversially known for quietly supplying many of our nation’s upstart distilleries with whiskey. In fact, back then America still only had around 200 distilleries total. It was just in October of 2011 when MPG—then a Kansas-based supplier of grain neutral spirit—had purchased the old Seagram distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
“We called over there,” Chepenik explains. He and Hensleigh were now working together as Nevada H&C Distilling Company and wanted to source some liquid. “And they said, ‘If you’re serious, you’ll fly out here.’”
The two aspiring distillers stayed at the famous art deco hotel, the Netherland Plaza, in nearby Cincinnati, and spent days touring the massive facility. By the end of their trip, they decided they’d buy all the bourbon that MGP would sell them. Chepenik’s favorite bourbon at the time was Four Roses Single Barrel, which uses a 35% “high rye” mashbill. He thus opted to exclusively buy the 36% rye bourbon mash bill that MGP offered. These were mostly young barrels, half which had been distilled by Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana in the final months before MGP acquired them; half distilled under MGP’s nascent ownership.
The men went back to Las Vegas with plans to also start distilling their own juice—they already had fermenters, stills, giant storage tanks—while releasing the MGP bourbon in the meanwhile. Approvals for craft distilleries are notoriously slow no matter where you are located, and the two men sat around for a year waiting for the go-ahead. Chepenik had already designed the bottles even, a one-of-a-kind custom glass mold featuring a recessed Morgan silver dollar for which he had to get permission from the U.S. Treasury.
It was then, in 2013, that Nevada’s craft distillery laws suddenly changed. According to Nevada Revised Statute § 597.235, section 2, “The person operating the craft distillery shall ensure that none of the spirits manufactured at the craft distillery are derived from neutral or distilled spirits manufactured by another manufacturer.” That meant, if Nevada H&C wanted to distill their own bourbon, they wouldn’t also be allowed to bring their MGP barrels back to Nevada. That was a no-go for Chepenik.
“And thank god,” he explains, “because if those tanks got approved quicker I would have immediately used that bourbon!” Instead, their barrels of bourbon sat around aging in MGP’s warehouses while Nevada H&C now tried to get up and running as a rectifier and bottler.
“You can definitely get proprietary flavors from MGP”
By February of 2016, after years of agonizing, waiting for approvals, waiting for a local distributor to get on board, Chepenik began blending some of the MGP barrels together. He had 8-year-old barrels he found creamy and smooth, though lacking in rye spice, while he thought his 4-year-old barrels were too hot to drink alone, but still had prominent rye spice. Together, they created a great flavor. Apparently others agreed, as Smoke Wagon Small Batch, as it became known, would win a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits competition.
Still, it wasn’t exactly flying off shelves. The Las Vegas spirits market is, what Chepenik calls, “upside down” compared to most cities. It’s obviously very on-premise focused due to all the casinos. The expensive price point of his Small Batch (around $50), as well as Smoke Wagon’s next product, Barrel Strength (today known as “Uncut & Unfiltered”), hurt them in a market where so many drinks needed to be comped. As a little guy, it was also hard for Smoke Wagon to compete with all the major brands who could offer great deals at scale.
“It absolutely was slow-going, creeping along for the first few years,” admits Chepenik. He even had to unload some of his barrels for cash flow purposes.
Things began to change when Total Wine & More approached him, wanting to try a Smoke Wagon store pick at their Nevada locations. Chepenik sold them a 9-year-old single barrel, not even labeling it according to TTB standards because he figured he’d never do one again, so what did it matter? One day a Total Wine manager called him.
“‘What are you doing with these barrels? Are you doing something different?’” Chepenik recalls him asking—he found the flavor incredible. People had started showing up to buy case after case of the single barrel and eventually it sold out. He sold Total Wine three more single barrels and also sold picks to casinos like MGM Grand, ARIA, and the Bellagio. People began noticing how good Small Batch and Uncut & Unfiltered were as well.
“I always hear, ‘All the MGP stuff tastes the same,’” says Chepenik. But he doesn’t believe that whatsoever. He notes that MGP offers five different bourbon mashbills, three ryes, two wheat whiskeys, and one malt whiskey. The 36% rye bourbon Smoke Wagon exclusively uses is rarely seen in single barrel bottlings. MGP also has countless warehouses with countless floors to age barrels on—when Chepenik is allowed to “place” his barrels he always opts for a variety of locations. He’s really keen on the 6th floor of warehouse G, where he’s noticed barrel not only age faster, but get a toasted nut flavor profile that he’s never experienced in other bourbon before.
“You can definitely get proprietary flavors from MGP through your blending, through using multiple vintages, and from pulling barrels from multiple floors,” Chepenik explains.
Even Yousif, who is on the outs with the company—Chepenik declined to even speak about the incident—had to admit that Smoke Wagon’s 12-year-old single barrels are simply better than any other MGP sourced products on the market. Yousif claims that’s because they are the last of the LDI/Seagram’s distillate—I’m certainly dubious. Then again, you can’t deny that people started crushing on Smoke Wagon right as those 12-year-old single barrels—aged for four of those years in the Nevada desert—started coming out in the summer of 2019.
“It was his [Crazy Naz’s] controversy that got people talking about Smoke Wagon,” believes Gene Nassif, co-founder of Iowa’s Obtainium Whiskey. He shares a distributor in California, Collier-Barnett, with Smoke Wagon. “Naz, I think, has been ahead of the curve on a few trends in whiskey, and I do think Smoke Wagon is probably his biggest. He helped bring it to the next level. The feud certainly brought it to the next level.”
A Viral Bourbon Brand
Today, if you visit any online bourbon message board or whiskey group on Facebook or Reddit, you won’t be able to scroll for more than a few posts without seeing questions about Smoke Wagon. Likewise, images of Smoke Wagon bottles eventually appear on all the Instagram accounts for any dude with “bourbon” or “whiskey” in his handle. Like the Chicago-based Christopher Nyren, who recently managed to track down all seven Smoke Wagon single barrels that hit Illinois this year.
“I quickly realized two existing friends were into it and then met [someone] super into it online,” says Nyren. The group created a private Facebook group, Smoke Wagon Rustlers, to egg each other on in their pursuit of additional bottles. Still, Nyren does recognize it’s kind of silly, labeling an Instagram of his Smoke Wagon single barrel scores with the knowing hashtag #tatertrophy. “But damn, dudes in Dallas and other big bourbon deserts are thirsty even for regular Smoke Wagon.”
Indeed, Smoke Wagon is about as hot as I’ve ever seen a new bourbon brand get. In fact, the online whiskey world has lost its collective f#cking mind for it, with bottles currently being flipped online for two times purchase price. Chepenik credits all the private bourbon clubs across America, like Bourbon Enthusiast with it’s 100,000 Instagram followers and Patreon community, for the brand’s incredible virality.
“It’s not just the private barrels they’re buying, their existence alone is huge,” he explains. “They love finding something good that no one knows about and then they love to share it with everybody they know.”
Chepenik couldn’t even guess how many single barrel picks he’s sold this year—hundreds easily. Smoke Wagon Bourbon is now available in eleven states, stretching all the way to Texas, Illinois, and New York and New Jersey. They began distributing to Colorado in March and sold more on their first day than they had projected for the entire year, all this without a brand ambassador or sales rep outside of Nevada.
But many longtime bourbon enthusiasts kind of laugh at the exuberance for the brand and have begun to question whether Smoke Wagon is simply a house of cards. How can an MGP bourbon be any better than the countless examples of it we’ve all tried over the years? Are eager collectors simply convincing themselves that Smoke Wagon is a unicorn?
“These guys didn’t get Willett, they didn’t get [Smooth Ambler] Old Scout,” says Blake Riber, referring to the kinds of new-to-the-game whiskey collectors that now rabidly pursue Smoke Wagon. Yes, it turns out that Smoke Wagon could very well be the last brand to blow up due to its savvy sourcing of barrels.
You could buy bottles of 23-year-old Willett single barrels back in 2009 for just $75. As recently as 2016 you could buy 10-year-old Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout single barrel picks (of that same 36% rye MGP) for around $50. Those days are long gone and those who missed out need their own bourbon to collect, their own bottles to “invest” in with dreams of them appreciating in value.
The online retailer Riber owns, Seelbach’s, recently sold through eighty-eight cases of Smoke Wagon a mere thirty minutes after it went up. He jokes that today’s bourbon collector is more concerned with hype and the silly private barrel sticker attached to the back of the bottles than whether the liquid is actually any good. Then again, if it makes them happy, he’s not so sure that matters. “People have always collected things that others just don’t understand. Our culture has had Tamagotchi and pet rocks, we shouldn’t be so shocked about this.”
Today, Yousif still has a few bottles left of that controversial Bourbon Enthusiast 12-year-old Smoke Wagon which he is selling for $500 each. Absurd, yes, but if a 12-year-old Willett single barrel was put on the market today it might go for around $1,000. Even knowing he’s a part of the problem, he still hates where the industry is going.
“The bourbon community is no longer a community—it’s a cult!” says Yousif. “People just don’t question things any more.”
It might not be in their interest to. A little cognitive dissonance is better. The glory days of the aughts and early-2010s are long past. Today there are well over 2,000 distilleries in America, with whiskey brands in every single state. Many are lucky to source 4-year-old MGP. There’s a reason why Willett mostly sells its own distillate these days. Smooth Ambler too. Neither have the fervor surrounding them today that their well-aged sourced bottles used to. Nassif feels like Smoke Wagon is on this same path.
“The guy [Chepenik] started out selling 12-year-old MGP, now he’s moving to 8, then 5 years,” he says. “I think the writing is on the wall for his brand and he’ll be like everybody else before he knows it. He was smart, he bought MGP stock years and years ago. But, when a brand pops like this, you end up running out of stuff.”
Chepenik, for his part, believes he is in good shape with Smoke Wagon. He tells me Nevada H&C just recently bought two-hundred more barrels from MGP. He tells me he’s not trying to flood the market and pump out as many bottles as possible. He likewise has no exit strategy, no plans to sell out to the first big conglomerate to throw money at him. He wants to go from today’s trendy brand to tomorrow’s established player. He doesn’t even pay attention to the negative chatter online. He’s in this for the long haul, not that he finds his life particularly grueling. He’s happy spending most days, once he gets back from his facility, just taking more of those Instagram selfies in his pool.
“You hear all these other bourbon brands talking about their product: ‘We painstakingly…painstakingly make our…’ Man, this is the greatest life in the world. I can’t believe this is my life. And it’s fun. You better believe it’s 100% real!”