Myra Barginear, M.D. and Paul Sutton Bourbon
Walk along the marshes of Bayou La Batre, Alabama today and things look much like they did 100 years ago. A fishing village preserved throughout the ages, this small, tight knit community has a rhythm of its own, a secret song passed down through the hushed wind in the marsh grass, the sound of the wake behind a shrimp boat, and the fishermen’s nets that have dappled the waters for generations.
Time is not simply slowed down along the bayou, it is preserved there, and knowing the history and heritage of the community makes it all the richer. Alys Beach resident Myra Barginear, M.D. knows the power of carrying a legacy forward, and her hometown and her family whose roots date back seven generations within it have inspired nearly every step of her journey.
“My mom always said that my grandfather was ‘a tinkerer.’ Everything he touched turned to gold—he just tinkered with it until it was perfect,” says Myra. Her grandfather was known in his small town and beyond for doing things well. Better than well, in fact. Ronnie Sutton was dedicated to the mastery of a skill, whether that be the repair of the inner workings of a fishing boat or the training of blueribbon Tennessee Walking Horses.
He was great at so many things, but his bourbon is that storied, lasting legacy that epitomized who he was.
Liquid gold, perfected by an alchemist in his own right. It was sweet and rich, deep amber in color, and warming upon first sip. In its composition, a balanced recipe with a time-perfected, plenty-tinkered mash; in its essence, the story of family and community and an Alabama spirit of hospitality.
Myra has fond memories growing up in Bayou La Batre and the relationship she built with her grandfather throughout the years. “He was charismatic, handsome, strong,” she remembers of her grandfather. “He was welcoming and a friend to all, and I remember every year at Christmas, folks showing up at his house from around the country, people he’d helped or connected with throughout the years, and he’d pull out this whiskey that was just the best thing they’d had in their life.”
She’s carried bits of her grandparents and her hometown with her no matter what city she’s called home—her grandmother being her namesake, her grandfather having given her her longtime nickname, “Magoo.”
When Ronnie passed, Myra and her family gathered back in Bayou La Batre. Myra was a practicing medical oncologist, director of oncology research, and attending clinical professor at Mt. Sinai in New York, her career inspired by the small-town doctor’s office in Alabama where her grandmother worked as a nurse. Together, her grandmother and that skilled physician took care of every medical need in the town—from delivering babies to minor surgery. With her grandfather’s drive and her grandmother’s care preserved within her, she set off on a medical journey where she found great success.
And all these years later, with generations of her own family and scores of other locals who felt like family, she sat in her grandparents’ living room remembering all that he was and celebrating all he left behind. And there was bourbon. They drank it and remembered, and as they drank, they realized…he’d left so much behind, but his famous mash recipe? No one had ever written it down.
That’s when Myra knew, as she opened mason jars of perfectly-aged bourbon, that her next chapter was to continue her grandfather’s legacy by carrying on the family tradition. Paul Sutton Bourbon was born. Sutton, her family name. Paul, her husband and partner in the venture.
The recipe, developed over time by her grandfather, his brothers, his father and grandfather, was passed down through the ages, an oral tradition, learned through kinship and time. “Like a family cake recipe—you know there’s flour and eggs and butter. But you don’t know how much, and what order, and what exactly that secret ingredient is,” explains Myra.
But that didn’t stop Myra. It’s evident she embodies her grandfather’s ingenuity, and her own “tinkering” to get things right. She took a jar of her grandfather’s bourbon to a chemistry lab for evaluation. The chemists evaluated the bourbon on a molecular level and gave Myra the sugar content, the type of grain utilized, the proprietary yeast—all the things that made the recipe unique. However, the only way it could really, truly be his recipe would be through that familial element. Myra knew that was her duty, her honor. To carry this forward, to share it.
Myra knew that tapping into their Alabama history was pivotal to the authenticity of the bourbon, and she found a farm within the state to grow and harvest her grain each August. Once harvested, they distill 300 barrels of bourbon each year, with the first batch created in 2013.
“We chose to age a minimum of six years,” says Myra. Which means that over the past year or so, Paul Sutton Bourbon is finally hitting the shelves.
“The whole process has been incredible, with a great learning curve,” Myra explains. It is clear through her passion for story and quality, and her love of family, that this has been nothing short of a labor of love. It’s an effort born out of tradition and a desire to make something great for no other reason except to celebrate the finest things in life, family being chief among them.
“I remember as a child, even from a young age, seeing my grandparents and my parents celebrate even the simple moments with the bourbon my grandfather made. Back then, you didn’t make things like bourbon for any other reason except to enjoy it, to just do it,” she says.
“It has been such a wonderful thing to understand and experience a bit of my grandfather in a deeper way. He and my grandmother were true pillars in their community, and I see their influence on me. That’s incredibly special, to know where you come from and what makes that unique.”
Myra knows there’s something special about the place where she grew up, the place her family has called home for generations. And, in a way, her recreation of this bourbon is a way to carry forward another piece of the memory for future generations and to share with those she holds dear, no matter where she calls home.
“It’s wonderful to sit with our friends now, whether at Alys Beach or at home in Connecticut, and share a bottle of my grandfather’s bourbon,” Myra says.
“ ‘That’s some good juice,’ they say when they taste it!” And it is. Objectively and by all measures, the bourbon is wonderful.
But it’s so much more than that.
Like great bourbon, much goes into forming fond memories. The smell of home and fresh grain, the view of shrimp boats hoisting their nets and the way the light hits the water. The sounds of the front door opening and laughter filling the room. The clinking of glasses and a hug so tight you feel the weight of it deep in your bones even years later. That combination, made richer through the years, is lasting.
It’s the good stuff, for certain.