The Whiskey Whisperer

Mac McCormack will tell you what to drink.

Photo by Kate Thompson 

How does one decide what to order at a bar where bottles of whiskey line the walls by the hundreds? Mac McCormack, the owner of McCormack’s Big Whisky Grill in Henrico and the smaller McCormack’s Whisky Grill in the Fan district of Richmond, has developed his own system for making recommendations to customers. 

McCormack, 50, opened his first bar at age 24. Over the years he began buying bottles of whiskey just to taste them, accruing nearly 1,500 bottles—the largest collection in Virginia. “Listening to people for years, I’ve taught myself how the mouth works and the nuances of the palate,” he says. “Every palate is unique.” 

McCormack begins by asking customers what they typically drink—wine, beer, other spirits—and then narrows it down to specific varietals. From this he identifies key flavors and qualities, which he matches in a whiskey. “It’s rare that I have someone come in, even a non-whiskey drinker, and I can’t pick out something they’ll enjoy.”

For someone who typically drinks a dry red wine like Cabernet Franc, McCormack matches the spicy, earthy notes of the dark fruit to those of a port cask-finished whiskey, such as Angel’s Envy bourbon. For a pilsner drinker, he would match the lighter body to an Irish whiskey. McCormack is developing his method into an app that will help customers select a whiskey, find what is available at nearby restaurants and bars, and compare prices for pours. 

In a quest to produce what he wants to drink, McCormack has collaborated with Reservoir Distillery to craft limited-edition whiskey blends—the latest, Holland’s Milkman finished in Ardent Craft Ales milk stout barrels, was released this fall. He also has a distillery of his own in the works, where he will partner with Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery to exchange barrels for aging beer and finishing whiskey. 

Asked what selections have piqued his own palate, McCormack names Oloroso Sherry cask-finished Glendronach 33 year Scotch and A.H. Hirsch Reserve bourbon—but then admits, “I never expected that I would be telling people what to drink.”


This article originally appeared in our Drink 2018 issue.

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