Bourbon Hunting With a Former NFL Tight End

Bourbon blogger Blake Riber’s “Bourbonr” Facebook page has almost 10,000 members. All day long, whiskey fans are posting photos of their favorite store’s stock, asking for price comparisons and dishing about bourbon. If you want to venture down the bourbon-crazed rabbit hole, it’s a good place to start.

Online communities generate their own celebrities, be it an Instagram model, a comedian quipping on Twitter or a food blogger posting photos on Tumblr. And on Bourbonr’s page, aside from Riber, the top celebrity is a dude from Florida named Tom Crabtree.

In a market filled with zealous bourbon hunters, the man comes up big all the time.

And, oh, by the way? Crabtree is a former NFL tight end who used to catch touchdowns from Aaron Rodgers. He won a Super Bowl ring in 2011. Go ahead and Google him. If you’re a Packers fan, you probably remember plenty of his highlights, like this one, called by Al Michaels

But if you’re a bourbon fan, you might appreciate this Crabtree highlight: he once snagged seven bottles of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection’s William LaRue Weller over a few weeks in early 2017.

Crabtree is now 32 and has two kids. He works in marketing and lives in Ocala, Florida. He’s a regular Joe, albeit one who stands 6-4 and weighs 245 pounds. He says he was “undersized” for the NFL but he still gets mistaken around town for an athlete. In line at Starbucks he’s asked if he’s a UFC fighter.

You’d be forgiven for reading this thinking “there’s no way I can compete with a former NFL player, he must have a great hook-up.” But it turns out Crabtree is as new to the bourbon-hunting game as you are. When he was playing ball, he’d look forward to getting home after a game and cracking open a good Wisconsin beer by New Glarus. The only bourbon he ever considered was Maker’s Mark.

We caught up with Crabtree on a Saturday night just after he had spent the day working in his yard, and he was kind enough to give us some advice on how to track down all the best bottles. 

Ask for recommendations:

Crabtree perfected his liquor store banter while looking for hard-to-find beer, like Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, which is easier to find today than in the past. His game comes in handy, and he always asks salespeople what they like to drink. If you strike up a conversation that shows you’re not just looking for a quick score, he says, they might just remember they have something good stashed away in back.

“Show a genuine interest in learning about it. Find out what they like, what they recommend. That shows a genuine love for the hobby and hopefully, they’ll remember that and be like ‘I’m going to hold this Weller 12 back for this customer.’

Stop at every store you pass, just in case:

Last December, Crabtree drove down to Tampa. It’s about 90 miles away, and he hit eight or 10 shops, from the big ABC chain that dominates Florida, to the small mom-n-pop in the countryside. One place told him they were selling Pappy 15 at retail earlier in the week. Crabtree left, shaking his head.

“You’re going to strike out a ton,” Crabtree says. “But if you really want to stumble onto something, give yourself more of a chance – it’s numbers. Stop in every single store, every hole in the wall store, just stop and ask. And if they don’t have anything good, buy one of your favorite everyday drinkers. They might remember you next time.”

Put your name on the waiting list:

That day Crabtree struck out at every store he hit? All was not lost. At the end of a 180-mile round-trip, a glimmer of sunlight parted the clouds.

“I get a phone call from someone at one of the ABC stores in my town and they say “Yeah so we got some Weller in, and we have your name on the list. I don’t know if you’d be interested. We have it here if you want it.’” Crabtree asked “which Weller,” and it turned out to be the William LaRue Weller from the Antique Collection. He stepped on the gas and made it to the store in 45 minutes. “After a day of striking out looking for Pappy, I ended up getting an amazing bottle of Weller. That was extremely cool.”

Get your friends in on the hunt:

Some states and counties that have government-run liquor sales -- Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland (outside of D.C.) and others -- have lotteries. You fill out an online form, perhaps register your credit card, opt-in for the lottery, and if your name comes up, you get a chance to buy a coveted bottle. However, most of these states have residency requirements. So if you have a buddy in one of these states, recruit him to be your mule.

You might also get a sense of the distribution pattern. “Having some good connections is part of it, too. When the distribution hits Michigan or Wisconsin, you know it’s out. Then it comes out a few weeks later in Florida.”

Use social media to your advantage:

You’d be amazed how much inside info is shared on Facebook. States have their own hunting groups. Someone in one part of the state might find something on the shelf, post a message on Facebook, and a day later, the same bottle might be in your neighborhood. This is especially useful for hard-to-find but non-lottery bottles like Elmer T. Lee, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Old Weller Antique. Crabtree’s posted a nugget or two on Facebook before. “I’ll take one and leave some pretty good stuff on the shelf. I tell ‘em ‘it’s in Ocala.’ From my standpoint, it’s cool. People give you a little cheat code to go out and find some good bourbon.”

Find a good hunting partner:

You might have your lucky underwear or sunglasses, but Crabtree has his lucky dog, Annie. “Of probably the six or seven Wiliam LaRue Wellers I found, I think my dog was there for five of them. I don’t know what it was but she was right there with me riding shotgun. I even probably have pictures of her laying in the front seat with a bottle of Weller. It’s pretty funny.”

It’s a hobby, keep it in perspective:

Sure, you want that bottle of Pappy, but it might take years to come across one. In the meantime, maybe get a taste at a bar that won’t gouge you for a couple ounces (they’re still out there). But don’t get too worked up about missing out on a bottle. You’ll miss more than you make, after all. For Crabtree, finding a bottle is great, but not quite the same as scoring an NFL touchdown.

“Getting a rare bottle vs. scoring a touchdown? Probably, it’s not even close. But now that I am done with football, there are the little things like a good bottle of bourbon I’ve come to appreciate. But when I was playing football, it wouldn’t have come close.”