For the Love of Bourbon
    Max Miller

    Max Miller

    I didn’t know there were people like Max Miller; I really didn’t. How could I? I didn’t know people could love bourbon (and also whiskey and vodka and tequila, but more on that later).

    Maybe I should have understood—but I was just a “kid.” Actually, I was a big kid of 27 in my new home of Baltimore at a party with my new bride. This party was like nothing I had seen before.  There was no beer. Confused, scared, and feeling like a Steelers fan at a Ravens party, I was frozen. Well, Frank Sinatra drank Jack Daniels—so I ordered one. I finished that with an Ava Gardner whiskey sour for my then-wife. And so it began.

    Sharing that story with Max Miller brought a huge smile and a question from him: “So how far have you come from there?” Sharing that information should have brought me much pride; yet, over the course of my several hours with Max, it just brought me embarrassment and a “thirst” to learn more.

    Max loves bourbon. I mean he really loves it. Max is now the president of Raise Your Spirits and writer of the column of the same name in The Strip! Max didn’t start out as a bourbon and spirits aficionado, expert, writer, and scholar. He was a lawyer with Federated Investors and then Heinz. While there he was inadvertently, or perhaps through divine intervention, building his experience to break ground in the craft-spirits industry not only in Pittsburgh but throughout the world. While he was involved with international law, he lived in the UK, spent lots of time in Puerto Rico, and saw the world.

    And he had some bourbon. He started to like it, then loved it.  He started to think about bourbon, talk about bourbon, read about bourbon, know everything about bourbon. Says Max, “It was like someone who loves cars. You start buying every magazine, reading every article. You become enamored with it.”

    Max was finding his muse and passion. He went to business school, where he first thought of his plan for a business: a bar.

    Max’s bar was to be called Barley and Rye. He would try and get new bourbons into the hands of fellow zealots. As he was developing the concept for a class and a possible bar, he decided to throw a party—which he did for his law-school reunion. There was no money in it for him; he just wanted to throw a great party and show off his passion. It grew from there.

    His fellow alumni loved it and had as much fun as he did. They fed off of his passion and enjoyed the bourbon. This led to more “parties” as he was finishing school (while still being a lawyer). These parties led to 13 years of repeat business.

    Eventually the parties became his sole business. News of his success spread, as his vision changed from a bar to individual parties where obscure whiskeys and bourbons found a place to meet their families of bourbon lovers.

    The parties expanded to teaching marketing, entrepreneurship, and business development. He started teaching at Pitt for two years, building the Innovation Practice Institute from the ground up. From there he became the general counsel and chief administrative officer of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America in Philadelphia. He commuted between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The parties kept happening. His heart was in Pittsburgh and in bourbon, and he continued to expand his business while working with other start-ups.

    He then was asked by Washington and Jefferson College to start an Entrepreneurial Studies program. As he said, all of this came from Raise Your Spirits—either developing that or via people who liked how he did it. All of it grew, and continues to develop. The parties have not stopped expanding. New “sensory experiences” emanate from Raise Your Spirits. Max is soon hosting a “bourbon and bass” event with legendary Pittsburgh Jazz icon Dwayne Dolphin. And landing his column here in The Strip! has helped to further spread his “spirits” passion.

    As I was talking with Max, I tried to show off by talking about my first love, Jack Daniels. I said, “Jack Daniels is just bourbon made in Tennessee—so it’s called Tennessee whiskey because it’s made in Tennessee and not Kentucky.” He smiled his big friendly smile and said, “You know, many people think that but actually it’s not like champagne. It’s not geography. They filter it with charcoal. Racks of wood that they set on fire to make the Jack. It creates charcoal. Spirits are filtered through it, which adds a nonartificial flavor.”

    With another large smile, Max looked at me like an apprentice being schooled by a master. In many ways, I was still a hick from Western Pennsylvania just looking for a beer party at a big-city Baltimore party, trying to grow up, to look sophisticated. Had he been with me 20 years ago, my love for bourbon would have not only grown more, but would have had a much easier and less painful birth. Luckily for those attending his classes, enjoying his parties, or reading his column, it will be a smoother entrance into the world of bourbon.

    Christopher “Zeke” Caresani is a well-known Pittsburgh raconteur and has been a fixture in the Pittsburgh music scene for many years. The former vice president of the music promotion company Dr. Z Presents has also taught at Penn State, the University of Maryland, and CCAC. In addition to writing, the father of two currently serves as senior business consultant at J. P. Bacchus and marketing advisor at Leaf & Bean in the Strip.