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Starting a Whiskey Club

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!

Cheers!

Vince Carida
President
Owensboro Bourbon Society
vincecarida@gmail.com

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!

-Jason

Review: Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit Bourbon

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery, out of Frederiksburg, VA, has been producing some excellent products in recent years. Owned by Sazerac since 2003, Bowman sources Buffalo Trace new make distillate and re-distills it at the distillery for a total of three distillations (reportedly). They age the whiskey on premises and recently opened a visitors center onsite.

A. Smith Bowman produces a Rye, a Small Batch Bourbon, Single Barrel Bourbon, rum, vodka, gin, and a number of limited release whiskeys. Last year I reviewed a barrel strength rye that was one of the best rye’s I tasted all year (2011).

Today I’ll be digging into the Small Batch Bourbon.

Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit Small Batch Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $29.99/bottle
Color: Light-Medium Amber
Nose: Brown sugar, sorghum syrup, sweet cinnamon, red apple, and moderate oak influence.
Palate: Well balanced sweetness (brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla) with ample sharp spice notes (pepper, cinnamon, and all spice).
Finish: A shade dry and spicy. Charred wood bitterness and cinnamon with a touch of maple sweetness.
Overall: Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon is a whiskey of very good quality. It offers a balance of sweetness and spice. I cannot say it’s very full flavored, nor is it complex, but it’s a damn fine sipper that offers some classic bourbon flavors. If you favor zippier bourbons, this one would certainly please you with its well defined wood/barrel sugars and spices.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.4 (Very Good)

Revving Up!

I hope this summer finds all of you and yours doing well. If you are anything like me, with 3 active girls (10, 7, and 5 years old), your summer has probably been filled with activity. The frenetic pace over the last 6-8 weeks is finally starting to calm down a bit, and as a result I’ve got a number of things brewing for the site over the next month.

As I type I’m sipping the latest E. H. Taylor Barrel Strength offering from Buffalo Trace, and completing a review of course as well. Stay tuned for the full scoop on this one soon. Also on the roster for August are reviews of Evan Williams Single Barrel 2002, Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit Small Batch Bourbon (from A. Smith Bowman Distillery), a micro bourbon from Iowa called Cedar Ridge, and a value offering from Evan Williams, (“White” Label Bottled in Bond).

In addition to reviews I’ll be providing my take on the whole “adding water to whiskey” discussion that’s been going around even more than usual lately. Also, a great friend and the man behind the Owensboro (KY) Bourbon Society, Vince Carida, has put together some awesome information for starting whiskey clubs and societies. This is very important for whiskey’s growth in my opinion. I love being on my own with a great bottle of whiskey, but like many things – whiskey tastes even better with good company. A whiskey club/society is a way for people with like interests to to get together and share one of life’s best (and most affordable) luxuries. I get asked an awful lot about the best approach for starting such clubs, and Vince is way more qualified than I am to talk about it. Thanks Vince for your contribution!

Finally, I’m really looking forward to cranking out a multi-part series on how to expand and “train” your palate for better whiskey appreciation. We’ll start with proper glassware, how to execute an effective tasting session, how to select the right whiskeys for conducting tastings, and most critically how to begin to develop your individual palate. Some would have you believe that being able to pick apart a whiskey for aroma and flavor is something reserved for experts. I’m here to tell you that with a little discipline, knowledge, and of course practice, you’ll soon find you have all the ability you need to understand why you like certain whiskeys over others. It’s going to be fun.

Thanks again for all the comments on the site this last month. We’ll get things cranking beginning this week. Until then, sip something great!

Drink your whiskey!

-Jason

Review: Old Fitzgerald 12 year Bourbon

Old Fitzgerald Bourbon first hit the market in the late 1800s, and was eventually produced by the much lauded Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively, KY. Yes, the same distillery that once made bourbon under the Weller and Old Rip Van Winkle labels among others.

Diageo purchased the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1992, thus taking over the Old Fitzgerald brand. In the last 1990′s the brand was sold to Heaven Hill along with the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, KY which produces Old Fitz today.

Old Fitz still follows a wheated recipe made famous by the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Exact mashbill proportions I am not aware of, but it’s safe to say the recipe is probably identical to the original.

Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $39.99/bottle
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Banana bread, toffee, buttered popcorn, and deep vanilla notes. There’s quite a bit of cinnamon spice and some staler aromas of sweet corn mash.
Palate: Soft as a puddle of toffee sauce. Rich vanilla custard, some maple sugars, and spicy cinnamon prickles the tongue. Very simple in terms of the flavors presented, but it does so with excellent structure. It’s not fat and overly sweet in the least.
Finish: A zippier finish than expected. The warmth from the cinnamon dominates with that ever present buttery toffee sweetness.
Overall: Old Fitz 12 year old is a beautiful whiskey full of classic wheated bourbon aromas and flavors, but made far more interesting with age. A wealth of cinnamon spice notes add some complexity, cutting the richer, sweeter flavors. My only slight criticism is the price is a good $13-15 more expensive than W.L. Weller 12 Year Old, which I rated an 8.8. Still, Old Fitz 12 is excellent whiskey and a delight to sip.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 (Excellent)

Happy 4th of July


Happy 4th of July to all of you that allow me the opportunity to share a wee bit of knowledge and enthusiasm for the world’s greatest spirit. One of the reasons I focus so much of my time specifically on American Whiskey is because I think it’s the finest, most diverse, and most exciting whiskey category in the world. I feel a deep sense of pride when I sip something fantastic that this great country has produced.

On a more important note – Thank you to everyone that has fought for the United States of America, and for those that still do so today. Living here is a privilege that I hope is never lost on me.

In honor of the 4th, make yours a pour of American Whiskey today. As for me, I have a day of Mint Juleps, great beer, and eventually some Pappy 15 on the docket. There’s not a sip that won’t make me think long and hard about what it means to be an American, and all those that have given me this opportunity. We are lucky in more ways than we know.

Happy 4th of July to you all.

Drink your AMERICAN whiskey!

-Jason

Reviews: Few Spirits and Ranger Creek .36 Bourbon

It’s been a while since I’ve examined some new Micro-Distillery offerings. Here are two that have caught my eye of late, and warrant some discussion.

The first is Few Spirits Bourbon. Few Spirits is an upstart of the last 18 months out of Chicago, IL. Chicago’s a city that has seen more local distilleries popping up, which is a great thing. I have paid attention to Few Spirit’s growth, and was surprised to see their bourbon already in the Nashville, TN market. Few makes an aged rye, white whiskey, and gin as well.

The second whiskey, Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon, comes from the Ranger Creek brewery in San Antonio, TX. The operation calls itself a “brewstillery” of sorts. Texas’ Balcones and Garrison Brothers distilleries have received some press nationwide for their products, and Ranger Creek is poised to do so as well. The distillery focuses only on a bourbon whiskey for now.

Few Spirits Bourbon Whiskey, 46.5% abv (93 Proof), $45.00/bottle
Color: Golden/Light Amber
Nose: Brash, youthful whiskey notes give way to vanilla, golden raisin, demerara sugar, clove, and corn.
Palate: Spicy and dry. Caramel and maple syrup dries quickly with clove and allspice. Some astringent bitterness overpowers the sip leading to the finish.
Finish: A tad on the bitter side with sweet corn and cinnamon.
Overall: Few Spirits Bourbon Whiskey is certainly drinkable, but there’s just way too much youth and rough edges to recommend it in any way. The label says “Aged in charred new oak barrels less than four years.” I’d guess no more than 6-9 months tops. Age is not the be all end all, but a whiskey is ready when it’s ready, and this one clearly needs more time to tie up the loose ends.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 6.7 (Decent)

Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey, 48% abv (96 Proof)
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Rich chocolate caramels, vanilla, nougat, banana, cinnamon, flint, dry corn and hints of rye spice.
Palate: Big and bold attitude – bitter caramel, cinnamon, maple candy, and a touch of chili heat. One quick note – avoid water. It’s 96 proof, and tended to go a little lopsided with the addition of too much. Add with caution.
Finish: Long – a balance of sweet caramel and barrel spices.
Overall: Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon has been aged for 9 months. I would have guessed it to be far older. Some traces of the typical young whiskey notes are present, but overpowered by a deep, dark, rich aroma and flavor profile that belies it’s age. Easily one of the best whiskeys under 2 years of age that I’ve tried. Ranger Creek claims it has a lot to do with the aggressive Texas heat, which they believe ages the whiskey quicker and more aggressively. I certainly believe the well developed flavor profile demonstrates the later well. As a result I’m looking forward to seeing more from this distillery. If this bourbon is any indication they are doing something right in San Antonio.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good/Excellent)