I cannot recall when we first chatted, but no longer view that as unusual—not in a world where friendships can span hundreds, or even thousands of miles, and two people can be good buds even though they’ve never met in person.
That said, I do know that the first conversation Joey and I had was about whiskey, a mutual obsession that neither of us ever grew tired of discussing with each other. And by discussing, I mean instant messaging and texting, oftentimes daily during the fall months, when all the newest releases were hitting the shelves.
This was well before the infamous “Bourbon Boom,” before everyone, including their great aunts, lost their collective minds and began camping outside retail shops days before the latest Pappy Van Winkles and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottles were scheduled for release.
It was well before so-called bourbon enthusiasts began clearing the shelves at their local liquor stores, adding hard-to-find bottles to their investment portfolios, or immediately “flipping” them for a profit, rather than opening and enjoying them.
It was also before retailers began catching on to those trends, justifiably jacking up those “suggested retail prices”—so much so that the average person could no longer afford to buy many of them.
It was only five years ago, but feels like a lifetime.
That’s because back then was a much more innocent time in the world of bourbon, when true enthusiasts humbly bragged about their purchases, and later posted pictures of them enjoying their coveted brown juice.
That is how Joey and I met.
He had just scored several sweet vintage bottles that some retailer in Joey’s home state of South Carolina had long forgotten about, leaving them to gather layers of dust in the corner of some basement or storage room. Joey posted several photos of them on a Facebook bourbon enthusiast page, and was immediately envied or cursed by others on the same board. Instinctively jealous, I congratulated him on his find, and he thanked me in kind, sharing that he was shocked at his good fortune.
Our online exchanges about all things bourbon seamlessly evolved into private messages, with one of us typically asking the other for his thoughts on a particular release, or whether a specific bottle was worth the price of admission. Those inevitably led to more personal conversations about family; Joey sharing that he was the unofficial caretaker of his elderly father, whom he affectionately referred to as “The Kraken,” and me being the freshly minted, proud daddy always bragging about the latest accomplishments of his then-young daughters.
Though he never married, Joey—he was never “Joseph,” or even “Joe”—loved and valued his family, and treated his network of close friends as if they were family.
Joey had a huge personality—I often imagined him at the center of lighthearted and good-spirited debauchery occurring some 800 miles from me while I was still living on Long Island. He loved cigars, whiskey and women, though not necessarily in that order, and always seemed to have something fun in the works—at least when he wasn’t distracted by his responsibilities.
Even still, he always managed to make me feel like I was a part of his life, and that cannot help but make one feel special. Joey always made time for you, and could evoke a smile even on the worst of days. His natural ability to make those he chose as his friends always feel like they were the most important person in the room is what made him special.
But it wasn’t until much later, after his tragic death in the summer of 2017, that I came to understand just how large that circle of friends actually was and, equally amazing, how most felt the same way that I did.
I inadvertently earned my way into his inner circle through the trading of bourbon. He had access to things I did not, and vice-versa. Neither of us thought of trying to make money off the other—a rarity, it turns out, in bourbon circles. We were just two friends with a mutual hobby helping each other out whenever we could. It eventually evolved to the point where I would automatically buy two bottles of whatever release I was after—one for me and the other for Joey.
He responded in kind whenever he could, but lamented how it was growing more and more difficult to find allocated bourbon near his hometown of Gaffney. He made up for this by sharing samples of bottles that I would never have the chance of owning and, one Christmas, baked me—what else?—a bourbon-glazed pound cake that was packed with an assortment of bourbon samples, including Blanton’s lines that are only sold to the European and Asian markets, and, being a true southerner, a mason jar filled with moonshine.
We promised each other we’d share a pour whenever one of us was in the other’s neighborhood.
Joey also loved cooking and baking. He once disappeared for two weeks when he drove to the mountains of West Virginia, as uncontrollable wildfires were devastating the region, so he could volunteer as a cook and help feed local firefighters. He was that kind of guy.
However, it was after another unexpectedly successful day of bourbon hunting with his elderly father that Joey’s nickname was born.
Once again equal parts envious and awestruck at my friend’s good fortune, I instinctively quoted my favorite line from the classic flick, The Sandlot, after a photo of his latest score—an assortment of highly coveted bottles—popped up on my cellphone.
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” I wrote, without hesitation.
It wasn’t until after I hit send that I realized I might have inadvertently offended him. By his own admittance, Joey was a “big guy,” a lovable person who women would always affectionately—and accurately—describe as a “teddy bear.”
Still, I thought I had crossed a line and anxiously waited for him to respond.
To my surprise, he immediately embraced his new nickname, explaining that he loved the movie and reference. He then shared that he had come up with a nickname for me, citing all of the times I hooked him up with bottles that he could never find on his own.
“No kidding?” I texted, pleased that I had entered nickname status.
“You’re my Peaches,” he said.
My reaction was exactly what one would expect from a heterosexual and married man who was just called a tender fruit typically associated with a specific part of a woman’s anatomy.
I was silent.
Sensing my unease, Joey quickly offered an explanation, sharing that his parents once owned a large peach farm in South Carolina, and that the term “Peaches” was one reserved for the most special people in their lives. He assured me that there was no hidden message or implication, and that I had earned that nickname because of my generosity to him over the years, and how I never once tried to take advantage of him.
I’ll admit that I reluctantly accepted my nickname, and cringed the very first time he used it on one of the public bourbon boards. That feeling of embarrassment quickly faded and soon I found myself laughing whenever Joey began using a peach emoji, followed by an exclamation point, to tag me on a bourbon-related post.
Life and work, as they often do, began to take their toll on our long-distance relationship. We began to chat less as bourbon prices continued to soar, and we were unable to find the bottles that we loved, let alone two to help the other out. Still, we would always check in with each other every few weeks, sometimes just to say hi or to get an update on the family front.
One of our last exchanges took place in the summer of 2017, three months before my wife and I decided to pull up our lifelong Long Island roots and relocate just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. We were on rocky financial footing at the time, unsure of what to do next, when Joey—as he always managed—offered some comforting words: “I’ve faith you guys will be fine. Think about you often, life just gets in the way of life.”
He was critically injured in a head-on crash less than a week later, an accident that instantly killed the drivers of both vehicles involved. Though Joey was in a medically induced coma, those who loved him knew he would fight and fight to the end, and we were all willing him to do exactly that.
Joey held on for nearly a week before succumbing to his injuries, leaving an enormous hole in the lives of all those who considered him a part of their extended families.
I recall asking another close friend, in the wake of Joey’s death, whether it was strange for me to mourn someone I’ve never met, but felt as close as family. My friend didn’t find it strange at all, pointing out that the traditional rules of friendship no longer apply. He said my feelings of loss and sadness were understandable, and that grieving the loss of a close friend is still grieving the loss of a close friend, no matter the distance that separates the two.
It wasn’t until this past week, some six months after I joined my wife in our new North Carolina home, that I summoned the courage to open my map app and plug in Joey’s old home address.
Seventy-four miles. A 75-minute trip without traffic.
With a pint of dusty Old Charter bourbon—a gift from Joey—and two Glencairns in hand, I made the trip south on Friday to Frederick Memorial Gardens, Joey’s final resting place, to share that pour we had promised each other long ago. His sister, Linda, shared that they had sent Joey off in style, dressing him in his signature outfit that included shorts, a dress shirt, a tie and a jacket. They made sure to bury him with a few bullets—Joey was also a gun lover—and, of course, also sent him off with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.
After filling him in on recent events in my life and updating him on the successes of my wife and our now not-so-young daughters, I shared what he already knew—that there are dozens of people like me still struggling with his loss. I told him he probably had no idea how much he meant to those whose lives he touched, and how we all miss him and his unique personality.
We then shared a glass of bourbon, and I returned home.
Rest well, Smalls.
The only man who will ever call me Peaches.