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Bloodshot Records Gets Liquored Up

Bloodshot's newest spirits offering via Copper & Kings

How many sad country songs have been written on the back of a bar napkin? You can see it now: a lyricist propped up on a stool, steeping over cheap bourbon, reeking of promise and failure, scribbling a few lines in the dark. Legendary songs — the ones written furiously in one go — often come down to liquid courage and a borrowed pen from the bartender. Bloodshot Records knows this all too well as purveyors of fine albums filled (often) with revelry (drunken and sober). Over the past few years, the Chicago label has doubled down on their love of hops and liquor by releasing several short runs of delicious bourbon, beer, and gin batches. I spoke with co-founder Rob Miller and publicist Mike Smith about Bloodshot's spirit culture, their newest project with Copper & Kings (which comes with a great album sampler), and how best to pair their music with a well-made drink.

Bloodshot has somewhat of a reputation for holding its liquor. Where did the idea to work with distilleries come from?

Why thank you. Mistakes have been made, but generally, we like to think of ourselves as clever and debonair when in our cups, not nasty and sloppy — more Richard Burton than GG Allin. Most bartenders will agree we are good tippers and very respectful to bar staff and the venues.    

With indie, craft distilleries — as with indie, craft record labels — you will usually find them helmed by idiosyncratic people who are very passionate about what they do. It should not then be surprising that mad scientist distillers — not having to respond to anyone other than their own whims and talents — might find a kindred spirit with what we do. So why not join forces and have a party?

We have partnered with Lagunitas at SXSW and various other events for years and years and when they moved in on the South Side a couple years ago, it was a matter of time before we started brewing together. We’ve known the Few Spirits folks for a while too … naturally, we spilled some music in their whiskey after a while.

Can you talk a bit about the Lagunitas, Few, and Copper & Kings runs that you've co-produced?

The first of the recent collaborations, Bloodshot’s Small Batch Bourbon by Few Spirits, came about after Elise Shell (who used to work at Few but now works at Bloodshot in our Radio Department … we’re all family here) and Few master distiller Paul Hletko approached with their fandom and wonderful bourbon and said “Hey! Let’s mingle!” 

Our staff headed over to the impressive Few bourbon barrel warehouse and physically tasted about 15 different barrels and picked our favorite five. Paul blended them, cut them, and then a couple of us helped hand-bottle and label 500 bottles to release the bourbon to the wild. We threw a big summer party at Few’s distillery where Bobby Bare Jr., Banditos, and Devil in a Woodpile performed. After the Bloodshot bourbon so quickly disappeared, Paul said “So what are we doing next year?” Since Rob isn’t a bourbon guy, and we wanted to do something a little different, we developed a Bloodshot botanical gin recipe featuring guajillo pepper and blood orange and distilled the Few Spirits Bloodshot Insurgint Gin, which just hit shelves a couple weeks ago. Few knocked it out of the park and made one of the best and most unique spirits we’ve ever tasted, and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series during our release party at our birthplace Delilah’s. Coincidence?

While the bourbon was being prepared for public consumption, we were at our annual SXSW party with Lagunitas and their marketing wizard Fred Abercrombie said “Hey, what are you doing with those barrels after the bourbon is bottled? Can we put some beer in 'em?” Of course we resoundingly said yes. Lagunitas brilliantly aged their stout and smoked black tea tips in the barrels for a few months and out came the Bloodshot Lagunitas Few Brew. Jon Langford applied his iconic artwork by hand-painting one of the barrels at the Lagunitas Chicago brewery, and then Lagunitas used the artwork for the tap handles. We celebrated at Schubas Tavern with special performances by Lydia Loveless and Jon Langford, and the crowd was extra happy from the 13% caffeinated goodness of the brew.

As for the Copper & Kings brandy collaboration, that came through Few Spirits. Since it’s aged in Few whiskey barrels, Paul (Hletko, master distiller) was already working on the box set with Joe Heron from Copper & Kings. Joe, who’s a big indie music fan and tries to tie it in as much as possible, wanted a label partner to treat this like a “double album” box set. After a few phone calls, we suddenly had a special compilation to include with the brandy, with album art and everything. Joe went even further and listed all of the artists on the box itself, really focusing on the music element of the project. 

The great thing about the people we've joined up with is that none of us have to paint a smile on our face and say, through strained expressions, "mmmm, this sure is tasty!!!” We are fans of these brands and were well before we worked together.

Is the booze branding adding to Bloodshot's bottom line?

It does not directly add to our bottom in any way. We can't sell any of it ourselves due to the convoluted liquor laws. The only benefit (other than drinking my raspberry lemonade gin fizzes with my feet in the kiddie pool on a hot summer day) is building awareness of our label and artists through the mechanism of "small, craft = more fun." The more we all live, create, and consume in a more thoughtful and locally minded way, the more interesting and homey neighborhoods and cities will remain. Nobody wants an Applebee's and KFC on every corner. I am a firm believer in the power of change through day-to-day transactions in your community. All these relationships speak to that. Hopefully, the distillers/brewers get some new fans as well and have some fun doing it.

What’s the favorite poison of Bloodshot staff and its artists?

Nan [Warshaw] is an Irish whiskey fiend. I am more catholic in my tastes, though bourbon and Jager are right out. Put a good bottle of tequila in front me, and it WILL get finished off. Few things, however, can beat a good gin and good tonic with a lime wedge. I'm classy like that. Our HQ is always stocked with various bourbons, gins, and whatever weird stuff our old bookkeeper Anthony brings us from his world travels. Lagunitas is good to us and keeps our fridge stocked with delicious pale ales and pilsners. 

Most of our artists opt for bourbon, as we’ve noticed, and endured.

What is it about actual physical merchandise that gets music fans excited? 

I think the resurgence of vinyl speaks to the totemic, tactile power of the recorded artifact. You have a whole generation or so of people coming of age who know nothing but digital files, but where's the soul in that? The effort? Can something really sink in and be a part of you if the sum total of your activity to get it was to hit "download" and – BANGO! – you have 9 billion songs on your hard drive? It's a rather dreary way to connect to music. Besides, if you put on an LP, you have to get up every 20 minutes or so, which is a good time to refresh your drink!

Which Bloodshot artists would you recommend with your other liquor offerings? 

As for which artists to enjoy, my goodness, that would depend on your mood. You wanna bang your boots on the bar rail? You need some Waco Brothers. You want to roll up the rug and dance with your sweetie? Wayne "The Train" Hancock. You want to go down in the desert and howl at the moon? Scott H. Biram. You want to sit on the back porch and swap ghost stories?  Freakwater. You want to wallow, hang your head after a breakup, muttering "fuckin' A,  fuckin' A"? Well, you need some Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys. If you want to put on a clean shirt and split a bottle of snazzy wine with a person you want to woo, the Flat Five is for you. You want to have a bonfire at the edge of the woods and party with friends? I would suggest Banditos.  

We have a band for every mood and every level of partaking in the fruits of Dionysus!

Bloodshot is another great independent Chicago label, from Chess to Flying Fish to these guys and gals. Some 16, 17 years ago I got a nice Xmas present from them that included a Neko Case album. I have never been the same since. 

Great label, Great philosphy...I don't remember how I found out about Robbie Fulks' "Southmouth" many years ago but I would echo Amos' contention that between that and Whiskeytown's "Pneumonia" and Ryan Adams "Heartbreaker" I was a changed man...just saw Lydia Loveless live for the first time recently...that's a game changer too...and the Flat Five...too good for words...