Yes, Whiskey Grade is a brand out of Cleveland, but don't let that fool you: The Denver outpost exists in its own world. Whiskey Grade Denver owner James Unger curates the shop's entire stock, from pieces within the Whiskey Grade brand to vintage clothing and local designs. The store is also selling the work of Denver artisans, including Josh Harvey's The Sneerwell, which makes amazing steel flasks, and Rootfoot sacred oils out of Boulder. The shop smells of freshly burned Palo Santo, a wood that can be burned like incense and gives off an odor that smells like how freedom feels.
Unger lives and breathes this style. He left a commercial real estate job to pursue this dream full-time, alongside wife Nikki. The duo began slangin' clothing and apparel in the Grand Bazaar last October, and less than six months later acquired their storefront. In advance of tonight's party,Westword spoke with the well-dressed James Unger about Denver style, substance and the intermingling of fashion and subculture.
Westword: How did you get started in Whiskey Grade?
James Unger: I originally got involved with Whiskey Grade focused on the menswear piece of the whole thing. I really like how strong the menswear game is getting in Denver, and has gotten over the past seven years. The menswear market expanding is a sign that there's a need here for a more broad perspective with brands and style and menswear in general. There is always the vintage component to it, which differentiates us from the other men's shops in Denver.
But the thing is, women were coming to the shop saying, "You should get more women's stuff." The women's market would not be denied, and started asking us to expand the offering a little bit. So the Whiskey Grade brand decided to get into the newer womenswear stuff and do a new line to run alongside the men's.
Do you embrace this change?
If you're not evolving to the needs of your market, you're not doing it right. We are and will always be in consistent evolution. We interact with people who come into our shop and when you build that relationship and really talk to them, they'll tell you what they want to see more of. People in Denver communicate very candidly. Not just the women: the men, too, they'll say what they like and what you need to carry. The lesson goes both ways: We also watch what they don't gravitate towards.
How does motorcycle culture tie into the shop?
First of all, there's a strong moto-culture here. Motorcycles have been in my history since I was a kid; I remember riding on the back of my dad's '73 Triumph Bonneville chopper. He put a metal colander on my head and tied it from handle to handle with a shoelace as a helmet because California had the helmet restrictions. But my dad was not really into following rules so much — him doing that, exposing me to motorcycles at a young age and me always being around garages and motorcycles and cars. In the beginning, Whiskey Grade was kind of a marriage of that moto-culture and fashion and style.
But you're not strictly a motorcycle brand?
Motorcycles are always going to be a part of my life and a culture that I engage in, because it's something I feel very personally connected to. But we're not just here for people who ride motorcycles. Motorcycles represent a component of a lifestyle that customers who dig our brand want to lead. It's a lifestyle brand; it is the artists, the adventurers, the creatives. And it's also the moms and dads who get out there and all week long bust their butts for their kids, to set that good example, and then when it comes time to break free, they want to put on something sexy and something edgy. Just to engage their inner badass, which I think everybody has. We are not a motor brand, but I guess we tend to represent that ideology of freedom.
What did you do before Whiskey Grade?
I was a commercial real estate broker for fourteen years. I spent fourteen years of my life doing something that felt forced when I got up every morning. And then a certain set of circumstances aligned that created the perfect crossroads for me; if I was going to take that leap of faith, to stop doing what I could do and make money at but didn't really make me happy, and start doing what I'm passionate about and what I love doing — but it remains to be seen whether or not I can make money doing it. When I got to that intersection, I just decided to take the leap.
My wife and I have five sons and one daughter, and I say to my kids all the time, "You have to do what you love." I wanted my sons to see me take that leap and pursue my passion over just this career that I had in place; I wanted them to see me go after what I love. 'Cause that's what I teach them.
How do you balance the local items with the Whiskey Grade brand items to make it feel so Denver? Because this feels like a Denver shop.
That is paramount. The brand Whiskey/Grade was born out of Cleveland; I need my shop to feel like it's Denver-born and -bred. I love the people here, I love the community. I got involved with all of this to be a Denver shop. It doesn't look like the other two Whiskey Grade shops at all. We take pride and care in making our shop look and feel Denver, and celebrate the spirit here because it's amazing.
Do you see a lot of tourists in this area?
We do. I mean, even tourists who come into the shop are like, "Everyone from Denver is so nice!" We are truly blessed to live in such an amazing place. We're down here, this is about as gritty as it gets in the city, and I can sit here all day because look, it's beautiful outside. The tree out front and the sun and blue skies, we're located in a big cluster of super-creative and courageous people.
What's your personal style?
I think everybody's style is personal to them. I like black, I find it a good base color for everything. People feel comfortable in different colors. For me, I geek out on clothing, I'm into quality and methods. Where was it produced? Is this a heritage brand or a fast-fashion brand? I want to know who made it. The story and the connection to the clothing is what I like.
What kind of bike do you ride?
I ride a 2009 Triumph Bonneville, a black one. All black everything.
Whiskey Grade Denver Ladies Night Block Party will start at 6 p.m. Friday, June 10. The boutique will be highlighting its women's Whiskey/Grade collections as well as Immaculate Ghost Vintage. Julie from Vagabond Supply Co. will be doing a pop-up shop for her jewelry, and DJ Electric Camel Toe will be on the ones-and-twos. There will be a free whiskey-tasting courtesy 291 Whiskey, as well as an all-night happy hour and a DJ spinning at the Curtis Club next door.