Brandy Library’s Ethan Kelley Talks Peat Week, Rare Booze & How Mixologists Can Take the “Joy Out of Drinking”


Thousands of brown liquor-loving booze hounds will congregate at Pier 60 in Chelsea Piers today for Whisky Live, a trade show featuring dozens of exhibitors and a heckuva lot of stiff drinks. Brandy Library is celebrating the event with special tastings all week — Peat Week, they’re affectionately referring to it. As beverage director, Ethan Kelley is no stranger to coveted malted and aged liquors. Just don’t come to his bar looking for the latest celebrity mixologist. He runs a tight ship of “librarians,” who specialize in serving people, not drinks.

What’s happening this week?

We’re in the middle of Peat Week, which is what we do during the Whisky Live trade show over at Chelsea Piers. We have special events every night of the week.

Are you excited for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, coming up May 14-18?

Sure. We’re doing the Stories from Behind the Bar on Sunday, May 15 with Château Laubade Armagnac. We’re just selling as many tickets as possible for people to sit at the bar to taste some Armagnac.

Are you a big fan of Armagnac?

I’m the beverage director, so I’m a big fan of everything.

What does it take to be a Brandy Librarian?

Work, work, and more work. We test our staff regularly and we make sure they travel a lot. To Kentucky, to Scotland, to France. Some come to us as bartenders; some have no experience at all, just an interest in spirits.

What percentage of people are at the bar to drink brown liquor, neat compared to people coming for cocktails?

It’s about 80 percent that’s coming in to drink spirits, neat. We have enthusiasts, but also guys and gals that are just trying stuff out for the first time and looking to see what they like.

Is there a hard-and-fast rule about adding water or ice to the good stuff?

When it comes to drinking the good stuff, there are three rules that must be adhered to:
First, only drink what you enjoy, but don’t be afraid to experiment with new bottles.
Second, drink it however it makes you happy — you bought it, after all. However, if you do go adding ginger ale to a $1,000 bottle of malt, be ready to suffer the karmic responsibility that may follow. Third, savor it. You earned it. Hopefully, the days of speedy consumption are behind us.

Speaking of speedy consumption, being so close to Wall Street, you have a pretty active after-work contingent. How do you combat the douchebagerie involved with banker types?

They want to taste like everyone else. People who come here want something tranquil, something calm. Not everyone wants to end their workday with beer pong.

So, it never gets unruly?

We don’t let it.

How do you feel about the term ‘mixologist’? (Never mind cocktologist.)

I don’t agree with the whole mixologist thing. Here, we have librarians — not mixologists. Everyone is either a librarian or a whiskey sommelier. Our primary job is to serve our guests, not just to mix a perfect drink. Some of these mixologist guys are good, but in some places I think they forget they’re serving the customer, not the drink. Hospitality should be the first and foremost priority.

What’s the rarest bottle you have?

I have a lot of rare bottles. In the Scotches, I have a 1964 Glenlivet. We sell that for $450 a glass. Bourbons move at a good pace, so they don’t get so rare. I have a Jefferson 17-year-old from the Presidential Select reserve. I’m getting $32 a shot for that one.

What sort of drinking trends have you noticed lately?

I can really only speak about spirits, neat. I’m seeing people moving away from the really expensive single malts and researching more blended whiskies. Irish whiskey is going full force so I think we’ll start to see even more interesting things coming out of Ireland. And it’s hard to slow down bourbon and American whiskey. I’ve been excited about some of the small batch stuff, like McKenzie’s Rye, out of the Finger Lakes. And I’ve been preview tasting a lot of stuff that’s not out yet, like Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

Has the locavoric trend spread from the food world to the booze world?

Well, no. The movement is still more on the food side of things. But it doesn’t hurt to have something local. When people have tasted stuff from all over the world, it can be exciting and refreshing to have something from your home state.

What are some of the trends you’re sick of seeing?

Well, like I said before, I do see this mixology thing as going a little haywire. I disapprove of anyone who takes the joy out of drinking.

Where do you like to drink when you’re not at your own bar?

I like a divey, smoke-filled neighborhood joint with cracks in the wall and cheap beer. Smoke-filled… regardless of the illegality of it.