Have you ever wanted to just chuck it all, quit your job, give away all your possessions, leave home and … drink?
Nate Woodruff did just that.
We’re all told not to seek answers in the bottle. But the Boonton, New Jersey, native said whiskey actually saved him from a destructive lifestyle and inspired a new career and a cross-country journey with his dog to pursue his passions for hiking, photography and top-shelf spirits.
Instagram followers know Woodruff as @whisky_nate, who posts stunning photos of full, high-end whiskey bottles he carries on rugged hikes to some of the most scenic views in North America. His @whiskywithaview has almost 80,000 followers; more than 20,000 follow @whisky_nate.
“Whiskey pulled me out of this dark stage of my life where I was drinking and partying way too much and had no aspirations and goals,” Woodruff said from Boulder, Colorado, where he’s currently staying with friends while the converted 1995 Chevy van he calls home undergoes repairs.
He’ll soon be back on the road with his dog, Skye, as they hike through mountains, valleys and other rustic locations. At some point, he goes to work, photographing whiskey bottles in scenic locations and posting them on Instagram for about half a dozen distillery sponsors underwriting his nearly year-long journey.
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Since launching his Instagram photos and reviews about six years ago, Woodruff’s self-taught expertise in all kinds of whiskeys has made him a social media star, capable of attracting sponsorships from distillers eager for the exotic images and buzz.
Woodruff also teamed with a coffee company, Armeno Coffee Roasters in Massachusetts, to produce a custom Whisky With a View “Bourbon Barrel Blend.”
“We’ve been very pleased with the exposure we’ve gotten working with Nate,” said Armeno owner John Parks.
His recent posts include a photo of a bottle of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon atop Mount Yale in Colorado after a 14,000-foot climb. Another features a bottle of Wyoming Whiskey near a lake in Grand Teton National Park.
The photos and posts go to select sponsors who understand his methodology.
“There are a lot of people who do what I do and use the term influencer, which I absolutely abhor,” Woodruff said. “That’s not what I do at all. I like to inspire people. I don’t show off a rich lifestyle of watches, fancy cars and expensive bottles. I’m just a dude who goes out in the woods and hikes. Anybody could do what I do.”
Woodruff, 31, said his unlikely path to adulthood hit a few bumps from teens to 20s, and involved frequent “shots of Jäger, Captain Morgan and ginger and Miller Lites.”
“Like many 20-somethings, all I cared about was getting drunk, flirting with women and everything that goes with it,” he said. “I was a terrible frat boy, and I wasn’t even in a frat.”
His path naturally led to work in bars after he dropped out of college following one semester at Montclair State University.
“I got an ‘A’ in film studies and failed everything else, including a new student seminar,” he laughed.
Having already studied film and lighting at Boonton High School’s Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Woodruff tried his luck getting work in the New York entertainment industry and ended up as many hopefuls do, tending bar in taverns and restaurants.
That career move accelerated a pattern of “partying and drinking way too much,” which he justified in part by adhering to a strict workout routine and healthy diet. Along the way, he “just about did everything” at Applebee’s before upgrading to the Madison Hotel in Morris Township, New Jersey.
That’s where he discovered bourbon and a new purpose in life.
When a manager there encouraged him to try some Maker’s Mark on ice, “I became interested in more than in just bartending,” Woodruff said. “I progressed to drinking Irish whiskey and I drank that neat. I got fascinated with the different flavor profiles and the process of how whiskey was made. I began to respect alcohol more and more.”
He eventually was promoted to managing the expanded whiskey and cocktail program at the hotel’s upscale restaurants. He also began to review whiskeys “just for fun” on Instagram.
“I finally got tapped by a large whiskey company,” he said. “William Grant and Sons hired me part-time, helping them with anything from liquor-store tastings to doing any events they needed me to do. That was my crash course in the whiskey industry.”
Before long, he added another element to his obsession with spirits.
“I developed a concept where I combined my two passions, for the outdoors and also whiskey,” he said.
On a whim, he took a bottle of Glenfiddich 19-year-old bourbon to Boonton’s Grace Lord Park, a scenic spot by a waterfall on the Rockaway River.
“That was the first picture I took for @whiskywithaview and I got a ton of traction,” Woodruff said. From there, “every time I hiked, I threw a bottle of whiskey in my backpack, took a picture of it and wrote my review. It just exploded, took off, going viral on stuff like Buzzfeed and theCHIVE. It got incorporated into a Forbes article.”
He later took full-time job work in the whiskey industry, becoming a national brand ambassador at age 27. Eight months later, “I was burned out,” he said.
“I couldn’t handle the pressure, it was too much,” Woodruff said. “I needed my freedom and space.”
Last summer, he finally decided to cut the cord on his former life.
“I’ve always wanted to do a long-term cross-country road trip,” he said.
He quit his job at Whistle Pig distillery and recruited a half-dozen sponsors to help cover the expenses for his trip. He committed by selling or giving away most of his possessions, save one – Skye, the “total mutt” he rescued in Virginia and “is now my hiking buddy.”
Bumps in the road
From the start, there were bumps on the road he chose.
Two weeks before his trip was scheduled to begin, his sponsorships fell through.
“I was committed,” he said. “I had already quit my job and given my house notice of leaving.”
Friends and industry connections helped him to quickly “recoup and get enough sponsorship to make this work.”
He left home in early February, first heading north to visit distilleries before turning south to visit family in Tennessee, where he ended up volunteering to the relief effort following a tornado outbreak there March 2-3.
“Then COVID hit,” Woodruff said.
He used the downtime to upgrade his ride to a used Chevy sports van, which he customized in part by removing the commode and installing a mattress. Along the way, he upgraded his camera to a Canon EOS 6D.
“I started out using an iPhone,” Woodruff laughed.
Alcohol actually played a role in getting him back in the road in late March, when he traveled to one of his sponsors, Swamp Fox Distillery in Georgia, to help them make hand sanitizer for local hospitals and first responders. The work earned him an essential employee letter that allowed him to travel without restriction from state to state.
“I needed a loophole and I found it,” he said. “I eventually realized I had been social distancing. Most of the time I’m in the woods. I did my very best to be responsible.”
His trip collided with the COVID shutdown “in a weird, twisted way.”
“It kind of ruined the trip because a lot of the distilleries were not able to open,” he said. “But initially it was a blessing in disguise. I was finding gas in Georgia for $1.11 a gallon.”
Since then, he and Skye have hiked across the Midwest to the West Coast in search of scenery that goes well with whiskey. Mountains and lakes are frequent backdrops.
He’s enjoying his current trip interruption, hanging in Colorado with friends who have two dogs for Skye to play with.
“She is possibly one of the most popular dogs in the whiskey industry because she visits distilleries everywhere and she hangs out with everybody,” Woodruff said. “She’s kind of the star of the show. I get yelled at if I don’t bring her to a distillery.”
His most recent hike was among his toughest: a 14,000-foot climb atop Mount Yale in the Collegiate Peaks of the Rocky Mountains, “With forest fires going on, so the air quality was terrible.’
“I got to the top and it literally felt like I had smoked two packs of cigarettes,” he said. “My lungs were burning.”
He’ll be back on the road soon, taking another tour of the west coast before finally heading back to Boonton for a friend’s wedding in October.
“As much as I disliked living in New Jersey, I love my town,” Woodruff said. “I just wish I could move it to another part of the country. I miss my friends. I miss the great food in Boonton.”
Boonton misses Woodruff back. Mark Taylor, owner of Boonton Liquor Outlet, is not a fan of social media, so he was wondering what happened to his friendly bourbon buddy.
“I didn’t know about any of that,” he said of Woodruff’s Instagram celebrity. “We’re pretty good friends, at least for work. He’s a great guy and he really knows his whiskey.”
For the record, Woodruff says his friends have an open invitation to join him on his passion project.
“I’ll pick them up at an airport and they can come adventure with me and Skye for a while,” he said.
But they better act fast.
“My contracts all end in November-December, so that will be the end of this project,” he said.
Sponsors and pandemics-willing, future trip options include an end-to-end hike along the Appalachian Trail or a backpacking trek across Scotland to visit all 130 distilleries in the tiny nation.
“I could make a lot of money in the whiskey industry, well over six figures if I wanted to, but money and material objects don’t mean anything to me,” he said of his new path “I just have a ferocious appetite for adventure and living a little bit of a risky, spontaneous lifestyle.”