To begin tonight’s tasting, Chris Uhde (pronounced “OOH-dee”) grabs a half-full bottle of Old Lewis Hunter rye. The label is so ragged, it looks as if it’s been salvaged from the wreck of the RMS Lusitania, and indeed Uhde dates this whiskey to about 1917, pre-Prohibition. “I want to teach you about ‘old bottle effect,’ ” he says. “Typically what you’re looking for is an overoaked aspect, but it’s also going to be musty.”
On his dining room table, in a Valley apartment where whiskey bottles are stacked high against the walls and peek out from beneath the beds, Uhde, who is 39, has deployed additional bourbons and ryes from the 1940s to the 1980s. Blue eyes narrow under a mop of red hair as he brings a 1983 bottling of Old Taylor bourbon against his pale nose and suggests I do the same. “What you’re smelling,” he says, “is broken-down vanilla and wet basement wood. You see it in bourbons that have been in the bottle a long time, and in scotch as well.”
In the world of whiskey enthusiasts, where so much of one’s reputation is made online, Uhde has become L.A.’s leading evangelist. But you’d be hard-pressed to find him on Facebook; he tweeted zero times in 2015. Instead Uhde earned his reputation strictly as a live act.
The Whisky Redhead, as Uhde calls himself, presides over as many as 20 tastings each year at restaurants, bars, liquor stores, and club gatherings, including his own Southern California Whiskey Club. At a scotch tasting I attended a few weeks after Uhde introduced me to the old bottle effect, all chatter died down as the Whisky Redhead rose and began to speak. In his native Georgia drawl he told of how dram after dram either fit into a rich history or disrupted it. “Whiskey,” he’s fond of saying, “can go all over the place—from tasting like flowers and honey to blue cheese and feet.”
Until 2007, Uhde’s whiskey experience was limited to shots of the cheap stuff washed down with Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. He spent his late twenties playing in local rock groups and scraping by as a plumber while he finished college on the 12-year plan. “But I wanted to see the world,” he says, “and I was tired of being broke all the time.”
He drove to L.A. to crash on a friend’s couch. The friend worked at a liquor store, and on the day Uhde met him there, a sales rep from the boutique whiskey distributor JVS Imports arrived with samples. “It was an independent single-cask Mannochmore and, I think, a single-cask Laphroaig,” Uhde recalls. “They were so different and amazing. I asked so many questions that at the end they asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this?’ ”
In his eight years as a rep for JVS, Uhde has become Southern California’s foremost expert on practically every variety of whiskey made anywhere during the past 100 years. Get nosy at any respectable liquor store, bar, or private whiskey club and you’ll hear his name invoked as an authority. The Daily Pint in Santa Monica has long been known for having the city’s most formidable whiskey menu. Uhde, it turns out, was its main architect. He serves as mentor to aspiring whiskey personalities such as Linh Do. “He’s like my big brother,” says Do.
Late last year Uhde became an importer, bottling casks of rice-based whiskys a friend of his found idling at two distilleries around Hitoyoshi, Japan. Back at his place, he pours me a little preview from a small bottle marked with masking tape. “One’s aged in new American oak,” he explains, “and the others are aged in sherry and brandy casks. All three are strikingly delicious.”
As for opening a bar of his own, Uhde might have to age a few decades before considering that option—allowing the equivalent of old bottle effect to blunt the edges of his disposition. “In the bar business you have to always put your best foot forward,” he tells me, “but I can get a little surly now and then. I’m a redhead through and through.”