During the peak of the pandemic, Chris Stapleton would often awaken to find little unmarked bottles of whiskey on his doorstep. His bass player, J.T. Cure, would quietly drop off the caches of brown liquor at a few select houses, and later that day, Stapleton, Cure, and their friends would conduct blind taste tests over Zoom.
“That was our social activity,” Stapleton says. “It would inevitably just end with a bunch of guys cackling on Zoom, but it was fun.”
Stapleton didn’t know it then, but the tasting experience would serve him well when it came time to sample various prototypes of Traveller, his new blended whiskey made with Buffalo Trace Distillery, a distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, not far from where Stapleton grew up in Lexington. Released nationwide this month, Traveller — named after Stapleton’s 2015 breakout album — is a partnership between the singer and Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley. Stapleton says he was approached many times in the past about getting into the celebrity alcohol business, but it didn’t feel right until now.
“I’ve had people push me to do the ‘slap your name on the bottle’ kind of thing and I’ve had no real interest,” he says during a Zoom with Wheatley and Rolling Stone. “I wanted it to feel authentic, and beyond that, I just wanted it to be good.” For a country star who has a barrel’s worth of songs about whiskey — “The Bottom” on new album Higher, “Whiskey and You,” “Whiskey Sunrise,” the juggernaut “Tennessee Whiskey,” among them — it couldn’t be a more natural fit.
Stapleton, wearing a baseball hat with the hot-chicken logo of Nashville’s minor league team the Sounds, is taking a few days off in Florida. But he can’t escape the south’s cold snap: he spent the morning crawling beneath the house with a blowtorch, trying to defrost frozen pipes.
After such an ordeal, it sounds like a glass of Traveller might be in order. It’s only late morning, so Stapleton isn’t drinking his product yet, but he clarifies that he does in fact drink, dispelling some reports online that he’d gotten sober.
“I think the word ‘sober’ got used in an interview, and it’s probably a disservice to sober people to call me sober — certainly as we’re sitting here talking about drinking,” he says. “I don’t drink as much as I used to. I’m a 45-year-old man who has a lot more responsibilities and a lot less time for leisure than I used to have. But I do enjoy it. The first room you walk in at my house, there’s probably 200 bottles of bourbon there.”
But for the past year, he’s only been focused on the one bearing his name. Working shoulder to shoulder with Wheatley and his team, he sampled various blends until they settled on the flavor profile — sweet at first, some spice, a strong finish — that would become Traveller. When it came time to taste the final product, he once again summoned his whiskey Avengers: Cure, engineer Vance Powell, and guitarist Mike Harris, who played in Stapleton’s band before his current role in Old Crow Medicine Show. “They’re a couple guys who I really trust their palates,” Stapleton says. “We had those tastings and came to the same conclusion that Harlen did: This is the one.”
Wheatley says they had a specific image in mind while crafting the whiskey, one they’re seeing manifested by fans and consumers on social media since Traveller (retailing at $39.99) dropped. “We’re seeing all these posts,” Wheatley says. “There’s a person sitting there, looking at the bottle, sipping it, enjoying it, and listening to great music. Chris has great songs, so it goes well together.”
“Good whiskey is like a good song. It requires no explanation. One taste should tell you everything you need to know,” Stapleton wrote in a personal note that adorns the back of each bottle. “I wrote drafts of it and did all the editing,” he says now. “I spent as much time working on those parts of this project as I have anything in recent memory, including records and touring.”
According to Stapleton, he’s already making plans for how to celebrate next year’s 10th anniversary of Traveller, the album. “We’re working on it. We’re going to do something different,” he says.
In March, he’ll return to the road on his All-American Road Show Tour, an ongoing trek that finds him playing stadiums with openers like Lainey Wilson, the War and Treaty, and Grace Potter, and headlining festivals like New Orleans JazzFest. Now that he has his own whiskey, it’s a fair bet that Traveller will be backstage.
So how does Stapleton drink it? Not in a cocktail. “It takes too long,” he says. “Just pour it in the glass and let’s go.”