That Time the Team at Canlis Drove a Barrel of Whiskey Cross Country Just to Toast Eleven Madison Park
Because when your best friend lands at the top of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, you don't just send flowers.
At last year's World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, Eleven Madison Park, the fine-dining mecca run by Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm in New York City, won the top spot on the list, and Brian Canlis, the co-owner of Canlis in Seattle, woke up at 4 a.m. to watch the awards ceremony unfold online.
Canlis and Guidara are old friends, and their restaurants have a special relationship. “They’re our sister restaurant. Their ideas line up with ours,” says Guidara. “It’s amazing to have a restaurant on the other side of the country that feels like home,” says Canlis. So what do you do when your favorite restaurant sibling wins the biggest dining accolade in the world? The Canlis team hatched a plan.
Years ago, F&W reported on the Canlis brothers’ search for a barrel of the best whiskey in Scotland. They’d fallen in love with an 18-year-old single malt Springbank but were unable to acquire a cask of it. After the story was published, a Florida reader reached out, asking if they’d like to take his barrel of 20-year-old Springbank. Since then, the Canlis team has sold exactly one shot of that whiskey, at $100 an ounce, to a Seattle billionaire who’d requested their most expensive offering. After that, it felt wrong to sell off any more of the gift.
“What if the price of drinking from the barrel is having the courage to share how you hope to grow?” Canlis posed. He gave it a go with his staff. At first it was awkward to open up in front of a group, but then breakthroughs started to happen. “People would cry for an hour; soon guests were asking to try it,” Canlis says. “Our staff made it a ritual every New Year’s Eve. It became this mystical, magical thing.”
That vulnerable experience—of sharing hopes and dreams, nursed with a shot of priceless whiskey—is what the Canlises wanted to give to Eleven Madison Park. So they loaded the Springbank into an old green Volkswagen Vanagon Doka and hit the pavement. Fourteen staff members drove the van in shifts on a 4,300-mile, two-week road trip from Seattle to New York City, taking detours along the way to invite chef and restaurateur friends to toast the Eleven Madison Park team. They meandered into Northern California to catch up with Christopher Kostow and David Kinch, stopped in Chicago to sit down with Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, and somehow snuck into New York to chat with Dan Barber under Guidara’s nose.
Filmmaker Jeremy P. Beasley sat in the back of the Doka and filmed the whole thing—right up to the moment when the Canlis brothers hauled the barrel up the steps to Eleven Madison Park. And that’s the footage Guidara, Humm, and the Eleven Madison Park team were watching at the restaurant when the Canlis brothers burst in with the actual whiskey.
“It was insane,” says Guidara. “But the craziest part is the gift that they gave to the team, the gift of feeling loved and honored but also the hour after, when everyone on my team talked about what they had learned.”
Once they all had their say and sip, Canlis remembers what Guidara said to him in tears. Five words: “I love you. Game on.” Not too long after, a truck showed up at Canlis with 400 Zalto wine glasses.
“People become jaded when they lose perspective, but friends like Brian restore perspective,” says Guidara. “They remind you we’re so blessed to do this on a daily basis.”