“I’m not an investor—I’m not even on the payroll,” he told me over lunch that afternoon. Later that night, Fry e-mailed me a “job description” of his non-job at Jack Rose: “consultant, buyer, supplier/master of inventory, teacher/trainer, entrepreneurial planner/stager of tastings & general guru for all things Scotch . . . whatever Bill Thomas needs me to do to help make this thing a reality.”
Fry was going to transfer a chunk of his collection to Jack Rose, selling hundreds, and eventually thousands, of his bottles to stock the restaurant.
How many bottles he refused to say. “Goddamn numbers,” he fumed when I tried to pin down a figure. “Who knows? What does it matter?”
“We absolutely could not do this place without Harvey,” Thomas says over coffee one afternoon at Locolat Cafe in Adams Morgan, a half block from Jack Rose. “The collection, that’s huge, that’s gonna help us get to where we want to go in a hurry. There’s also his knowledge, his skills, his passion. And his credibility in the community, among distributors—it’s incredible. He can get his hands on things that not everyone can.”
If Fry is so central to the operation, then why is he not on the payroll?
Thomas describes Fry’s appearance as a cross between Santa Claus and Willie Nelson. With his long white beard and large eyes, Fry communicates something of the gravitas of a Talmudic scholar. His clothes—he favors a green bandana and secondhand jackets—suggest someone who has spent weeks on the street.
It’s not that Fry doesn’t have money; it’s that he doesn’t waste it on clothes. You get much the same impression from his brownstone, filled with paintings, books, and bottles.
Evidence of Fry’s mania for Scotch is everywhere. In the kitchen, a seven-tier shelving unit takes up the back wall. It’s not a pantry; it’s a library—a library of booze.
In his office are more bottles, including nearly three dozen unopened boxes—recent deliveries. A room off the office contains more unopened boxes and more bottles.
Fry says that, contrary to much of the writing done by so-called experts, there’s one key to great whisky.
“You can talk all you want about the water, but the most important thing is who controls the execution, and that’s the master distiller,” he says, by way of praising one of the greats in the industry, Jim McEwan, who oversees production at Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich. “He’s the executive chef, the sous chef, the line cook, and the waiter and busboy, too.”
The tour ends in a small top-floor room jammed nearly floor to ceiling with bottles. I had assumed that Fry’s collection would convince me of the narrowness of his obsession, but it has the opposite effect. It’s a literary truism that in fiction the universal comes from the particular, and it applies here, too.
Following Fry back downstairs, I catch sight of him as he turns a corner—the long white beard, the wild eyes—and it hits me: He is Prospero. Only with bottles instead of books.
Next: "I don't drink. I can't. My liver's shot."