Special/Signature Issues » 2012 Bar Guide

Excursions Through Life

Remembering the drinking days of John Kelley.



Bill raises his glass to the collage of friends and family gathered in the same nameless pub — the one that's seen them thousands of times before.

"John lived an honorable life," he shouts over the din. "A few dishonorable drunken hiccups here and there — but a life that never failed to be honest, never failed to shine bright. And to that lucky son of a bitch, we drink!"

Everyone laughs, some cry, but everyone laughs.

John Kelley's wake is full of drinking, remembrances and happy tears.

He would have had it no other way.


John's first drink actually had been his first 13 drinks — cheap beer pilfered from a friend's older brother — pissy yellow swill that eventually was vomited all over his parent's unfinished basement. The only reason to drink then was that it was there.

The reasons grew more complex as John's life began to take shape.

There was the time he flirted with White Russians in college. Learned about the evils of Jäger in his twenties. Made a short-lived stab at home-brewing in his thirties.

There was the day he was hired to that first real job out of college. The job that eventually would make him a wealthy man, although he didn't realize it at the time. At 23 years old, 30 grand a year and a company car seems like the world is being handed to you. Fearlessness and optimism abound.

His buddies got him properly inebriated off of rail-vodka tonics and shots of everything under the sun that night. A recurring theme of his twenties, to be sure.

There was that night at 29 when optimism did not abound. Boisterous celebration gave way to soul-crushing heartache. Katy — to whom he'd drunkenly proposed only weeks prior — moved out and moved on with someone else. His friends were there that night too. A lot of Jack Daniels was drunk, because that's what men like John Kelley drank when they need numbness.

That night ended on the bathroom floor with two black eyes and a heart that he never thought would heal.

But it did. Rather quickly.

John was always lucky in that way.


Thirty-four was the year when everything fell apart and came together and then fell apart again. His father died, two weeks before a son was born. It was bittersweet, but John named the boy Samuel, after his father. There were more than a few tumblers of Red Breast Irish whiskey consumed at the wake for the elder Samuel. John's old man had loved his Red Breast.

The day little Sam emerged into the world, cigars were lighted and John's friends showed up at the hospital with champagne. You never saw such a rollicking maternity ward. His father wasn't there for the greatest moment of John's life, but they poured his spirit an honorary spirit or eight anyways.

Luke Hennigan was there at that one. He was always there and he was John's best friend. His judgment always left something to be desired and John constantly bailed him out. Still loved the fuck-up like a brother though.

Luke ended up drinking too much on a Friday night a few months later and never made it home. Jack Daniels was drunk for a week straight after that.


The years went by and John's little boy grew up. Wives and women came and went. Friends drifted in and out. His career reached heights that shocked even John at times. He took his first trip to Napa, Calif., as an executive on the rise and finally got all the fuss over wine. At 55 he was named chief executive.

To celebrate, Sam took his Dad out for their first (legal) drink together. John had never been more at peace.

A lucky man he was.

Sam got married a few years later and his father was there beaming, bartending, shaking hands and grinning like a man who knows he's holding the nuts. His smile was legendary — devilish and boyish and something that he learned early on had a devastating effect on ladies, clients and strangers alike.

A wedding gift to his only son was a rare 50-year-old bottle of Auchentoshan Scotch — rumored to be in the $2,000 range. John had poured it all out and passed it around to guests before he even sniffed the stuff. Generosity was a key to his charm, and he would've shared anything with anyone, even before he had any money.

Luck tends to befall a man like that.


Here at John Kelley's final sendoff, the many people he befriended are here to drink and cavort and do exactly what he did best.

Drinking is what men and women do when celebrating life, when they get good news, when they receive bad news, when they're heartbroken, when falling in love, when grieving, when in pain. It's universal and it's why the bar as temple and the tumbler as chalice will never be out of vogue. The journey of life, the ups and downs, the sideways moments, are best enjoyed or tolerated with a drink. John understood it better than most.

Maybe it isn't about the journey of life, but who you spend each turn with, and what drinks you consume at every bend and break that give you the courage to keep on going.

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