Colin Blake, Colleen Thomas, Tyler Gomez-Basauri and Kevin Hall of the Stave & Thief Society | Photo by Sara Havens
Colin Blake, Colleen Thomas, Tyler Gomez-Basauri and Kevin Hall of the Stave & Thief Society | Photo by Sara Havens

Most Louisvillians know more about bourbon than the rest of the country because it’s near and dear to our identity as a city and state. You probably know bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, although 95 percent of it is. You understand where bourbon gets its color and how our four seasons and rich limestone water are essential parts of the process. But did you know bourbon is America’s only original spirit and was recognized as a “distinctive product of the United States” by the U.S. Congress on May 4, 1964? Do you know all five requirements that make bourbon bourbon and not whiskey?

All bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn. After that, it's up to the distiller which grains they use, although most use malt and either rye or wheat. | Photo by Sara Havens
All bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn. After that, it’s up to the distiller which grains they use, although most use malt and either rye or wheat. | Photo by Sara Havens

In order for us to truly uphold our distinguished bourbon culture, the front lines of our hospitality industry have to be armed with this knowledge to provide correct information to connoisseurs, tourists, teetotalers and everyone in between. This is the idea behind the Stave & Thief Society, a bourbon certification program created by the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in downtown Louisville.

Stave & Thief began in early 2015 and has since certified more than 25 establishment members (bars, restaurants, distilleries, etc.) and 150 individuals. The curriculum was created by an advisory panel put together by the Epicenter that consisted of industry experts from both the bourbon and hospitality industries. And it’s the first bourbon certification program to be recognized by the bourbon industry. As an added value, members have exclusive access to industry experts, private sensory training and networking events.

Colleen Thomas, former director of the Stave & Thief Society (who now works as a bourbon ambassador for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association), helped create the curriculum and tells Insider there is a real need for standardized bourbon education in Louisville’s hospitality industry. (She spoke to IL before leaving her position.) Thomas says while that is the main goal of the society, she and her colleagues are thrilled so many curious bourbon fans continue to take the course.

“When we first developed the program, our mission was to enable bourbon-adjacent hospitality businesses to provide a true and authentic bourbon experience — one that is informative, enjoyable and inclusive,” she says. “However, we soon realized that bourbon enthusiasts are just as passionate about the education as the professionals.”

Colin Blake leads the class in a proper bourbon tasting. | Photo by Sara Havens
Colin Blake leads the class in a proper bourbon tasting. | Photo by Sara Havens

While most members are based in Kentucky, Thomas says they’ve had students come from all over the country, including California, Florida and Louisiana. She believes no matter how much you know about bourbon, everyone who takes the course learns something new and comes away with a new perspective on the spirit. She’s certainly not surprised by the interest from enthusiasts.

“I’ll tell you what surprises me: When we bring two dozen bourbon professionals and enthusiasts together in one room, all egos go out the window,” she explains. “Everyone participates and contributes. It’s really something to be a part of.”

The class is broken down into six sections (history, accuracy, sensory, brand awareness, pairing and recommendations) and also includes hands-on learning inside the Epicenter’s own distillery and laboratory.

I took the course earlier this year and found it to be intensive yet approachable, educational yet fun. Like Thomas says, no matter who was in the class — distillery owners to enthusiasts like me — everyone in my class of about 12 to 15 participants came to learn and discuss bourbon without pretensions. The instructors — including Thomas, Colin Blake (creative director), Kevin Hall (distillery operations), and Tyler Gomez-Basauri (distillery assistant) — were well informed and prepared, and they covered the material at a brisk pace, pausing to answer questions whenever they arose.

I’ve consulted the handbook several times already since the class, using it to pull up various facts and trivia. For instance, do you know why some brands spell whiskey without the “e” — whisky? According to the book, there’s a general rule about this to know:

“Of the major whiskey producing countries, like the United States, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and Japan, if the country has an ‘e’ in it, they spell whiskey with an ‘e’; if it doesn’t have an ‘e,’ then it’s spelled without an ‘e.’ There are always exceptions to this rule, like Maker’s Mark and Old Forester, both American-made whiskeys that use the spelling without an ‘e’ as a way to pay homage to their Scotch heritage.”

The Distilled Spirits Epicenter has its own distillery for learning purposes. | Photo by Sara Havens
The Distilled Spirits Epicenter has its own distillery for hands-on learning purposes. | Photo by Sara Havens

The curriculum focuses mainly on bourbon, as you would guess, but doesn’t touch much on rye whiskies and the trend of using experimental finishing methods. I suspect time is the main reason, as we used up all eight hours going over the core principles of bourbon, learning the major distilleries and their products, and applying our knowledge with stills and lab work.

I’d recommend the Stave & Thief Society to anyone who has a passion for bourbon and/or works in Louisville’s hospitality industry. As more and more tourists descend upon our city to find out more about our native spirit, it’s imperative to serve them straight up.

Each Executive Bourbon Steward Certification Course taught at the Epicenter runs from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. a handful of times a year, and the next one is slated for Monday, April 18. Cost per individual is $500 and includes training, a training kit, access to member events/education, breakfast and lunch, and a Stave & Thief pin and coin you’re supposed to have on you at all times. For a bar or restaurant interested in the establishment memberships, cost is $1,000 for the training of 10 employees and can be held online.

Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville. She's known around town as the Bar Belle and updates her blog (barbelleblog.com) daily. She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."


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