It’s 9pm on a Tuesday in July. I’m rushing to finish up my lengthy to-do list for the day so I can get onto a video chat with a whiskey personality I’ve been following - and admiring his insane bottle photography - for years. As we get talking, with the day's to-do list still on my mind, I can’t help but subconsciously compare what he has set out to do to the accumulated mountain of commitments in my own life. And in doing so, his journey seems even more incredible.
So what kind of guy sells everything he owns to travel cross-country living out of a van for the better part of a year, all in the name of braving the outdoors and taking incredible photographs of whiskey?
Meet Nate Woodruff. Or as some of you might know him, Whisky Nate (@whisky_nate) or Whisky With A View (@whiskywithaview), a New Jersey native with a long beard and no inhibition to take off his shirt (or more) for a photo. At the time of our conversation in July, Nate was about halfway through his nearly year long cross-country journey. He had officially departed from his hometown in New Jersey back in mid-February, and was joining in on the chat from a hotel room in Oregon, which he tells me he stays in a few nights per month to take a real shower. “Sometimes you get tired of bathing in rivers,” he explains.
In talking with him I learned his journey is exactly as it seems: grounded in its simplicity but amazing in its execution.
Nate effectively began working with whiskey in some form since becoming a bartender at age 17. He later went on to work for William Grant in New Jersey, followed by Michter’s, and then WhistlePig. During this time, he started Whisky With A View, an Instagram account that features photographs of whiskey bottles in unlikely settings - typically with a spectacular outdoor view in the background, oftentimes snow-covered mountains. A whiskey fanatic and avid hiker/outdoorsman, he thought why not merge the two interests? The idea of a cross-country trip to log as many hikes as possible, visit as many distilleries as possible, and take as many photos of whiskey "with a view" as possible, was born.
“Not a lot of people are able to, or want to, do what I want to do...bathing in rivers...not getting haircuts…” Nate says. And what makes it even more exciting is the freedom of it. “I wake up, drink my coffee, then figure out what I want to do. Maybe a beach, maybe a mountain.” I ask if he thinks he’ll be anywhere near Central New York where I live, and he says he plans to “chase the fall foliage” down the northeast starting as early as September.
We talk briefly about getting together to share a few pours, and the idea of meeting new people during his travels comes up. I can sense a feeling of excitement in Nate as he starts to talk about it. “People see the van or a photo online and reach out to get together to have some whiskey, but a lot of people don’t follow through. [When they do] it’s always awkward at first, but I like to ask questions about them...people open up more that way. It’s amazing what you can learn.”
We go on to talk about what’s involved in a hike and photo shoot. Taking photos for Breaking Bourbon I can relate to this, but Nate adds a layer of complexity I’ve yet to face. For any outdoor photo, you need the right light and timing is everything. For me, it’s jumping on it at the right time of day, often taking a short trip to a local location with the bottles safely packed up in the back of my car. For Nate, his hikes to location can be anything from an easy 8 mile relatively flat hike, to a 20 mile journey with a couple thousand feet of elevation. “Some might be shorter at around 4 miles, but they can be brutal if they’re basically straight up,” he says. The bottle(s), glencairn, camera equipment, food, water, necessary gear, and everything he needs “just in case” have to travel with him in his backpack. “Usually one bottle, sometimes two, and one time I did it with four...it hurts when I get to the top,” Nate goes on to say. And these are not boozy travels either, because the hiking part is serious. “Maybe I’ll have a half glass at the top,” he says. "Any drinking takes place after."
Nate likes getting away from all things modern and electronically connected. He’s been completely off-grid for as many as four days at a rip. On one of these wilderness-soaked adventures he had forgotten to tell his family he would be unreachable, causing alarm. It was at this point in our conversation that Nate acknowledged the fact that his family thought he was crazy at first for even attempting this nearly year-long expedition, but knew how much he loved it. After that incident he makes it a point to communicate a little better to his family, but says, “I love that feeling of being disconnected. And if I do die in the woods, I’ll be drunk.”
Ultimately, Nate is finally doing what he has wanted to do for a very long time.
But he has faced his share of struggles.
If selling your home and everything you own to live out of a used van and travel around the country wasn’t enough of a challenge in-and-of-itself, this journey has been an uphill battle (no pun intended!) since the onset, he explains.
It started with funding. In addition to a self-funded base, a number of brands sponsored Nate in order to have their products featured in these hard-to-capture photographs with breathtaking backdrops. Right before the trip was about to kick off, brands got cold feet and pulled their sponsorships. But he didn’t give up, and launched a Patreon campaign to recover. Fans stepped up, and thankfully other brands came around as well.
Nate set out from New Jersey in mid-February of 2020, and by March had made his way to Tennessee. Then COVID-19 hit. Travelling from state to state was like travelling between countries, each one with wildly different restrictions. With family there, he held up in Tennessee for a bit waiting out the initial panic. Unfortunately, many distilleries shut down and remained shut down for some time once he got back up on the road, so he missed connecting with a long list of distilleries he had planned to visit.
Travelling and living out of a used Roadtrek 190 RV “van” complete with a bed and kitchen that he renovated himself, Nate has experienced mechanical issues nearly every step of the way. Even more significant, it can get lonely. Thankfully Nate has Skye, his faithful companion dog who is very comfortable and well-trained off-leash. She jumped up on Nate’s lap to say hi later in our video chat, and he got to talking about her. She does every hike with him, which means he cannot hike national parks as dogs are not allowed. Nate has to make sure she drinks enough water, has a special vest to keep her cool, and she has her own chair in the van to sleep on. “But on one hike she drank river water and became really sick, she threw up and got really dehydrated,” he says. I could sense from the tone of his voice it was scary. “If I didn’t have her I don’t think I could do it. I’d be way too lonely.”
The journey was a “risk” and started with a “leap of faith” according to Nate. “But there’s a cool feeling of loading up the van with enough food and water and knowing it’s all there,” he says. “The amount of support is amazing...people I haven’t spoken to since high school are reaching out.” Nate wants the journey and all the coverage that surrounds it to be inspirational to people. “I want people to get out of their comfort zone,” he says. “If everyone just drank whiskey and chilled out for a bit, we would have a much better world.”
Of course I couldn’t agree more.
Original photography by Nate Woodruff via Instagram - @whisky_nate / @whiskywithaview