One question I get asked an awful lot is how to start a whiskey club or society – a place where people with a common passion can get together a number of times a year and enjoy great whiskey (and great company). While some of it might be pretty logical, I have yet to start a club myself. After receiving a rash of emails a few weeks back I thought I’d go straight to the source – someone that’s started a thriving whiskey club from the ground up.
About 18 months or so ago I met Vince Carida online through comments on this site as well as other whiskey sites across the internet. In April of 2011 I was in Chicago at the Hyatt Regency for WhiskeyFest – Chicago. A few hours after arriving and checking in, I hopped on a elevator on my way to the lobby to grab a drink when this guy said, “Hey Jason!” I looked up and got my first face to face introduction to Vince. Since that time I’ve been able to meet up with Vince a time or two, and have gotten to know him better.
Here’s the thing about Vince’s whiskey club, the Owensboro Bourbon Society – it’s really really well done. He’s engaging, very knowledgeable, and his club is very focused on one category of whiskey. Below Vince has been so gracious as to post about starting OBS, and all the things that went into making that club a success.
Establishing a Bourbon Society
Kentucky is known for three things; fast horses, beautiful women and great whiskey! I was fortunate to move to Owensboro, KY 4 years ago (from New Jersey) for the love of a beautiful woman (my wife is from Owensboro). I have always been a bourbon enthusiast but I don’t think I was prepared for the expanded options of bourbon made available to me in the “motherland”.
I fell in love with Kentucky and the history and heritage associated with this uniquely American product. I soon wanted to know everything about bourbon, how it was made, what impacts flavor, the history of each distillery and also the history of bourbon in the town in which I lived. I purchased every book I could find, joined great websites like this one and bourbonenthusiast.com and visited every distillery multiple times. The deeper I delved into this subject the more fascinating it became. It is rare when a particular process has both a scientific and an artistic element to it, but that is exactly what the making of whiskey provides.
As my journey continued I found one thing missing, and that was other bourbon enthusiasts to share my passion with. I also realized that most people in Kentucky knew they liked bourbon but knew little else about the history and process involved in producing it. That is when I decided to form the Owensboro Bourbon Society.
I had formed a Limited Liability Company (LLC) in 2010 called “RiverCreek Distillery”. It is still a dream of mine to produce bourbon and if that dream comes to reality the bourbon will be called RiverCreek. I then formed a “Doing business as” (DBA) under the LLC and named it the Owensboro Bourbon Society. I really did not know what to expect with this Society. Was it going to be 5 or 6 people getting together every month to try different bourbons? That would have been fine but my goal was a little more far reaching. I wanted to engage a community while achieving my desired result of meeting bourbon enthusiasts.
There is an old saying that if you want to “talk the talk” you better be able to “walk the walk”. I wanted my Bourbon Society to be a “brand” and a quality one at that. I had a logo designed and then I purchased high quality letterhead and business cards. I also hired a web developer to develop a web site for me. (Please feel free to check out owensborobourbonsociety.com). I also called Mike Veach of the Filson Historical Society. Mike is the foremost bourbon historian in the world and also established the Bourbon Society in Louisville. Mike provided great insight into not only the things he found successful but also pitfalls to avoid.
So, now I have a web site, some nice letterhead, an LLC. All I need now are members!
What should be the membership fee and what would a member receive when they joined? I called a woman in town who designs shirts and I got a price on making an Owensboro Bourbon Society polo shirt or Button down shirt. I then priced out the cost of having an engraved OBS Glencairn glass. I then concluded that every member would get a membership card which would provide value in one way or another. I set the initial membership fee at $75 for the first year and then $50 in subsequent years. I went to a Liquor store in town (where I buy a lot of bourbon) and asked if they would provide a discount to my members. They agreed to discount the bourbons we would be featuring at our monthly meeting. I then went to a great bourbon bar, Spirits at the Miller House, and they quickly joined my society and offered my membership a 10% discount on bourbon flights.
Now I had value to provide and a price to join. Next obstacles were where would the meetings take place? when would the meetings take place?, what would the format for the meetings be? My goal was to always provide a historical perspective to each meeting, and always taste bourbon. Beyond that was the great unknown. Would I be able to get guest speakers? Owensboro is 2-3 hours away from the big distilleries.
I decided that we would meet once a month and it would always be the third Wednesday of every month. That would allow members to schedule events appropriately. I was able to secure two locations for the meetings, the Medley Distillery (which is silent but still hosts weddings, etc) and The Miller House, a restaurant with a second floor that could be reserved for my meetings.
I went to J’s Liquors and asked if they would send an e-mail out to their “wine tasting” mailing list and advise them that I was starting a Bourbon Society. If anyone wanted additional information they could contact me. I had about 10 people contact me. I then sent a letter to every master distiller outlining the charter of the Owensboro Bourbon Society and asked each if they would consider being a guest speaker.
Our first meeting was in March of 2011. 12 people showed up and we tasted the Van Winkle line of bourbons, from the 10 year old right up to the 23 year old. The second meeting our membership was up to about 20 people. I then was contacted by Jim Rutledge of Four Roses who said he would love to come to Owensboro and speak to my Society. He spoke at our third meeting (we had about 25 people there).
Since then I have had the good fortune to have the likes of Charles Medley, Rob Samuels, Tom Bulleit, Bernie Lubbers, Brad Boswell (President of Independent Stave) and Wes and Kyle Henderson speak at my society. We are having Chris Morris as our guest speaker in July. We also have taken two distillery tours, one at Buffalo Trace which ended with a tasting with Harlen Wheatley and another at Makers Mark which ended with an evening cocktail at the home of Bill Samuels.
The membership in the society has grown to over 80 members with people joining all of the time. We just completed our first annual Bourbon & Jazz Festival in Owensboro which was a huge success. My initial goal (meeting people who enjoyed bourbon) has more than been realized as I have developed deep friendships with many of my members. Starting a bourbon society has provided me with a passion that is enjoyable and rewarding. The Bourbon Journey is just beginning and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store!
Owensboro Bourbon Society
Perhaps you don’t want a large club – that’s fine. Scale things down and start small. There is nothing that says your whiskey club can’t be more than a half dozen people each bringing a bottle and sitting around and chatting and enjoying the brown stuff. You may not need or want a website to start. Begin small with the understanding that you can grow slowly and organically. It can be set up any way you want.
Whatever size or type of whiskey club you wish to have, Vince has provided some excellent points worth considering. I’ll summarize some of them as well as add a few:
– Have a clear understanding of what you want out of your club. Remember, you have to really want to do this. Don’t do it for anything but the fun of it. Much like Sku wrote recently about Whiskey Blogging – you have to have a passion and desire to start a club. It’s not glamorous and it’s work, but it’s great fun if you love it.
– Talk to liquor stores that you frequent and check on getting a discount for your members. This is a win win for both the club and the store. However, be careful here. Liquor stores get approached for similar things like this frequently. If you don’t have a store you frequent often, I don’t recommend broaching this subject with a prospective store without feeling things out a little. Go to a few local shops, ask questions, talk to the owners and staff, explain what you are looking to accomplish. If you do that properly (i.e. sincerely) you may very well foster a great new relationship with a shop that will help you grow (and/or sustain) your membership.
– Use social media and online resources to start inexpensively. A simple private FaceBook page or Google+ group could serve as your group website and communication bulletin to start. There are so many tools to help you limit up front costs.
– If you are in an area where you can leverage industry experts – don’t be afraid to do so. You’ll find brand ambassadors and industry vets love nothing more than to talk about whiskey to people interested in learning.
A special thank you to Vince for providing some fantastic insight. Rather than bombard Vince with a boatload of emails, if you have some specific questions, please feel free to ask them here. I’ll coordinate with Vince to stop by when he can and post some responses.
Drink your whiskey!