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Celebrated Sommelier André Mack Talks 50 Years Of Hip Hop, Days Out In NYC And What Sets His New Whisky Rye & Sons Apart

André Mack Talks What Sets His New Whisky Rye & Sons Apart
Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

André Hueston Mack is a sommelier, winemaker, and multiple restaurant owner who left his corporate job to pursue his passion for wine. André has multiple restaurants across a section of New York City, as well as his own brand of wine, Maison Noir. His wines can be found in 45 states and 11 different countries. André most recently released a new brand of whiskey, Rye & Sons, which has a more complex flavor than other whiskeys, and is much more affordable. 

André has made it his mission to make wine more enjoyable and accessible to those who are worried about spending too much or don’t know where to begin their wine journey. You can learn all about his own wine and spirit journey on his Bon Appétit Youtube channel, under his ‘World of Wine’ segment. 

If you are still searching for the perfect drink pairings for your New Year’s Eve celebration, Andre has some great picks for affordable wines on a budget as well as whisky pairings for the bourbon lovers in your house.

We caught up with André at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans to talk about how he trained to be a sommelier, what sets his Rye & Sons whisky apart, and what makes New York City such a special place. 

I’m not a huge wine connoisseur, but it fascinates me. How do you know that you have the palate to be a sommelier?

When I decided to get into wine, it felt like all I could smell was alcohol. I was like, ‘Oh hey, I’m gonna be book smart because I don’t know about tasting everything.’ Every time I tasted something or smelled something, I was like, ‘Oh wow, is this singing my nose hairs?’ It was just totally alcoholic. I realized about six months after getting into wine, this is all a skill. There are gifted tasters. My boy Raj Parr is a gifted taster, photographic memory. I’m not that. For me, I realized that I could work really hard at this thing. 

So, you’re saying, it can be learned?

Yes, it’s a trained skill. I thought everybody was born as a skilled taster. I think most of the world thinks that, but it’s not like that. Six months in, I realized this was a skill I could acquire and that was it. I went down that road. Some of those days, you know 9 out of 12 wines and you’re the best in the world.

How did you train?

Tasting a lot of wine with people who are better tasters than you. I’d put my nose in the glass and I’d smell alcohol, but they’d smell guava skin. I had never smelled guava skin in my whole life. Or, I smell cassis. That wasn’t even a word that I used. But then you start to realize, okay, that’s cassis. You start to pick out and realize these things through working and training. I tasted over 1500 wines to put together my first wine list. That’s such an exploratory experience of getting to know yourself and your palate, then you keep going. 

This year, the country is celebrating 50 years of hip hop music. What does hip hop mean to you and how does it integrate into your wine and whiskey experience? 

I was a kid who was raised by hip hop, skateboarding, and punk rock. Hip hop is the only genre of music that is affirmational, right? It told you when you got money or if you ever got money how to spend it, what to buy, what clothes, even down to what type of woman you should be attracted to. It’s totally mind-blowing it even existed. Maybe it would get canceled nowadays, but it was the blueprint of what to do. I drank 40 ounces because that’s what the rappers said to drink, right? Like Ice Cube, that’s what he drank. The first check I ever wrote at 21 was for a case of 40 ounces, which was like $14.

It means so much to me. I’ve grown up and I just turned 50, and it makes me realize that I was really embedded in it. We’ve all kind of evolved and grown up together. Hip Hop has changed and evolved. I think all our taste palates have evolved and changed. Hip Hop raised me and is ever evolving and different. 

You have even named some of your wines after hip hop, right? 

Yeah, that’s what raised me. The idea of putting my own name on a bottle of wine seemed so pretentious. Like, ‘Andre Maxwell, who the f*ck is this guy?’ So, the idea of naming a wine after something was to evoke somebody to think about something. 

In wine, the back label is really the front label. Other People’s Pinot originally started when I had bought eight barrels of finished wine someone else made and blended it in with wine I had made to have more to bring our costs down so I could pay my mortgage. It evolved and grew and it’s all about the people that make it actually happen. 

From our picking team, to our sorting team, our vineyard management team, all of these people who maybe couldn’t afford a bottle of Pinot Noir, they can afford this one. It’s a celebration of all the people that it takes to make great Pinot Noir at this price point. 

Hip Hop has always been there for me. I had to fight for it a little bit. Hip Hop would never be what it is today if it didn’t progress and move outside of that, right? It started in the inner cities and has become this global thing because the whole world embraced it. I’m just super proud of that. 

You travel all the time. I’ve seen your vlogs. What are your must pack items?

I always travel with my laptop so I can travel without checking a bag. For a decade, I went to the airport almost every single week to go on the road and tell my story. Monday was the travel day, work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If I could catch the late flight home on Thursday, I’d do that. I would always be home on Friday for dinner. Soccer dad on Saturday. Sunday, I’d take the trash out and then get back on the plane. I have a photographer’s bag that was made by The Hundreds. Like, a streetwear brand that Bobby Hunter had gotten into photography and I’ve had eight of the bags. It was the perfect bag. 

I do the same thing. When I find a bag I like, I get multiples because you know they’re going to discontinue it. 

Yeah and they totally did. Near the end they had some quality issues, but they were still really great. For me, I always have my wallet, my phone and my laptop. That’s it. I can always buy clothes on the road. I can always buy shoes. And I have ended up doing that. But for travel, I need an airplane pillow. That’s the best. I sleep on planes when I can. 

At the beginning it was hard, but as I’ve accumulated a couple million miles and points, it’s gotten easier. It’s the nomad in me. I always want to bring the bare minimum. I look at it like I’m going on tour. One bag. It evolved into a carry-on suitcase. But if I don’t need it, I don’t bring it. 

I saw on one of your vlogs that you went to Seattle and back in one day. I’ve done it, but that isn’t fun. 

I’ve done so many of those. It’s fun. If I have my laptop, I can create. If I have my phone, I can communicate. That’s it. None of the other stuff matters. I’m just here to tell my story. I just think of myself as a rock band. Remember when bands went from dressing like KISS to just looking like they just woke up? I’m just gonna show up, do my thing and keep going. 

What’s one of your most memorable travel experiences? 

It was when I was with my kid and we were going to miss the connecting flight because of the airline and he was doing the Olympic trials. We show up in Atlanta, we’re getting off the plane and my kid was like, ‘Pop, they’re holding a sign with our name on it.’ And I was like, ‘That’s us.’ They take us in a Porsche Cayenne to the other plane on the tarmac and it’s so funny being a dad because he asked, ‘Pop, is it always like that?’ And I said, ‘Yep, it is.’ He had no clue. 

That’s awesome. So, I want to talk more about Rye & Sons. What do you think sets it apart from others? 

Rye, for me, has always been a spirit I enjoyed drinking. Bourbon tastes so much better older, whereas rye tastes so much better younger. What sets our rye apart is that it’s not 95%, it’s not 90%, it’s not 100% rye. Our mash bill is like 60% rye, 20% barley, 20% corn. Corn gives it the backbone and the structure. Barley is more of a seasoning, like salt and pepper, that gives it its nuance. The rye has the signature characteristics of the spiciness and those things. 

To me, the 60/20/20 split sets us apart. Most rye on the market is 90/95 percent if not 100. I think sometimes that is too much. The nuances in that remind me of pinot noir, and bourbon is more of a Napa Valley cabernet. In its youth, it can be very one dimensional. The pleasure in all those expensive bottles come later on, which I feel like is really comparable to bourbon. 

What’s your perfect food pairing with it? 

I’m a little bit old school. When you think about Mad Men and that kind of stuff, you had a martini or drinks pre-dinner to set your appetite and make you hungry. I love a whiskey soda to set up your palate to build your appetite. If we’re all talking, sitting around, the more we consume, we’re starting to get hungry. So for me, building an appetite, coming to dinner ready. 

It’s like a hype man for dinner.

Yeah totally! It’s just building your palate to get ready to drink. 

André Mack Talks What Sets His New Whisky Rye & Sons Apart
Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

I do want to ask a little bit about wine. There are so many people like myself that don’t even know where to start with wine. When you walk into a grocery store, there are a thousand options. How do you even begin to choose a brand or style of wine to drink as a beginner? What advice do you give people? 

Taste everything. This is the hard part. There’s a little bit of trial and error. Your relationship with wine is not about monogamy. It’s about trying as many wines as you can. It’s like speed dating. You can go to tastings and all that, but just get the experience. Take pictures of things that you’ve had, take pictures of things you enjoyed. Your local wine shop will generally have a history of things that you tasted or that they sold to you. It’s going to take a minute to really find out what you like. I’m a professional and I’m still figuring out things that I like. Also, taste the things that you don’t like, if you’re in a tasting setting. 

Wine is not a quick fix for a lot of people. It’s a journey. Going down that path is about understanding what you like. So, say a country, say a specific region within that country. It’s all those things. It doesn’t take a lot and I feel like it discourages people, but if you just take pictures of the wines that you’ve enjoyed, that’s a starting point. Sometimes, being a sommelier is like being a detective. Like, ‘okay, wait a minute – you like this one but you don’t like that one? What did you like about that one?’ It’s a lifelong journey to taste wine. You shouldn’t be anxious about it. 

You had this YouTube series with Bon Appetit, to help make wine more accessible to everybody. People don’t need to be wealthy to try wine. Right now, what is the best wine on a budget that you would recommend off the top of your head? 

That’s a fascinating question. First thought, Etna Rosso from Sicily. Those wines give tremendous value. It’s hard with the budget thing. They’re like $28, but that price might eliminate 90% of the people, you know? They make red, white and rosé. $28 might skew some people and you might find some stuff a little bit cheaper. I think that price is the sweet spot. At $28, you’re getting the most bang for your buck. 

Talk about your perfect day in New York, but I also want to hear about these restaurants you have in Brooklyn. Can you tell me what they are and what they’re all about? 

A perfect day in New York for me is full of food and drink and thematic. We like to have themes. Ever since I moved to New York, I’ve been a part of a group or posse where it’s like, hey, we’re doing bone marrow. Where are we going? It’s always been taste-offs with people who are already really into it. 

I love the competition aspect of that. 

Yeah, well, it’s also like that community. Every person’s in it, right? Like, this is what we’re going to go do and that’s great. For me, I think I jumped on the train and we went to Flushing to do Szechuan in four places. Deep dives. It’s amazing. So, when I think about New York, you can do that. There’s this depth and breadth that you can say, I’m gonna go and check out chili crisp today. That’s what’s so fun, intriguing and exciting. It takes you outside of your comfort level. And then my own restaurants in Brooklyn, I just wanted to be a part of the restaurant landscape in New York City. 

What are they called?

& Sons Hospitality Group is the name of our company. We’ve started like seven food businesses in New York City. We have & Sons Ham Bar which is All-American, American cheese, American charcuterie, American wine back to the 50’s. It’s our little 400 square foot wine bar. We have & Son’s Buttery, which is our bougie deli. It’s all the stuff that you want at the ham bar – you can get sandwiches, slices, small batch groceries, all of those things. All small American producers. 

I grew up in Texas, so on the next block I have a breakfast taco pickup window. We mill 80% of our own grain. The next block is Kingfisher, our Michelin star seafood restaurant. Next block is Chickadee Bread, which is our bread bakery. We have a 26-inch granite stone mill that was custom built in Vermont. We make all the bread there. We mill all our grain there to make our own flour. Next block is Wizard Hat Pizza, which is all sourdough pizza that’s amazing. 

You have a whole neighborhood.

Yeah. I live in that neighborhood and I have for 14 years. It’s a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Prospect Lefferts Gardens. My wife and I are always trying to figure out how to contribute to the changing narrative of our neighborhood. We met in restaurants. She wrote a New York Times bestselling book about our courtship and working in the restaurants. This is what we had to offer to our neighborhood. The last thing on that street is our wine store, a little 200 square foot store that has supplied wine to all kinds of secret and celebrity events all over the world. I realized I shouldn’t keep a whole bunch of wine in my own home, so down the street we opened a wine store. 

It’s been really fun and all about community for us. I was traveling outside of my neighborhood to seek out all of these things, but why wouldn’t I just do it in my own neighborhood? It’s been really amazing and I get to know my neighbors. I get to celebrate and be an extended member of their family. It’s a really great feeling to be able to be a part of my neighborhood. A neighbor who may not even be a frequent customer or guest of ours came up on the street to thank me recently and said, “Hey, I know you can open this place anywhere in the world, but the fact that you decided to do it in our neighborhood makes us very proud.” It’s a good feeling. 

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