The Cycle of Bourbon Geeks


June 30, 2017

Remember when you were a new bourbon consumer?

Ah, the good old days. You walked into a store, chatted with the liquor store owner and grabbed a bottle in the perfect price point for your wallet.

Then, you started reading about bourbon, maybe found a favorite blog and a magazine. You followed people on Twitter who shared your newfound passion. Morning, day and night, you consumed bourbon information.

And finally, you graduated to telling the liquor store owner about what exactly you wanted. Now, the owner asks you questions about bourbon.

You know things, things that make you the expert in any given room. If you’re at a work party and somebody orders vodka, you feel the need to correct this person’s poor choice. Um, vodka? Yeah, it’s odorless and tasteless, you tell them, so why not order Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark? “Do you hate flavor?” you ask, as your co-worker insists on the apple tini.

Then, that magical moment happens, your colleague drops the vodka order and takes your advice and gives the Knob Creek Old Fashioned a shot. They sip and fall in love with the flavor. You created a new bourbon consumer.

You go home, proud of what you’ve done for society and pour yourself two fingers neat of your very best bourbon—let’s say Booker’s—and kick back, glowing in your successful whiskey mission. But you want more.

You start digging deeper into the history, consuming as much as you can about the 1800s, current regulations and the real stories behind people like Basil Hayden, Elijah Craig, Jacob Beam and others whose names don whiskey labels.

Some five years after falling in love, you take the Stave & Thief certification in Louisville and now have your distilling chops and can effectively talk shop with distillers. You understand the grains, fermentation, distillation, maturation and proofing. More importantly, you understand why bourbon tastes the way it does.

You are a bourbon geek and everybody knows it.

During the holidays, people buy you bourbon things. Whiskey stones, round ice containers, special glassware and occasionally a bottle of the good stuff. You happily accept them all, even if you already have five unopened packs of the whiskey stones—it’s the thought that counts!

You’re now involved in bourbon groups, look for bottles to buy that support charity and even lead a few presentations at the local VFW, Rotary Club or American Legion. You’re officially a bourbon personality on social media, the go to authority for many who follow you.

From the outside, you’re a bourbon lover, through and through.

But something is changing.

You’re getting bored. Perhaps you’re tired of bourbon brands dropping age statements, increasing prices or really lament the fact you can’t find what you could 10 years ago. So, you veer off to another spirit. Maybe it’s brandy, rum or gin, you’re taking your bourbon ways to another. But you don’t talk about it, in fear others will accuse you of cheating.

You taste and love the new spirit, which texturally feels different on the palate and brings new flavors to the game. You toy with learning its history and production methods.

But it’s not appealing to you. Your heart belongs to another. And no matter how much you may enjoy this new-to-you spirit and casually study its culture, you’re in love with bourbon, and you realize that no matter what the distillers do to the product, you’ll still buy it. Only now, you’ll complain.

And therein lies the final stage of bourbon geekdom: complaining.

We, bourbon fans, start out so enthusiastic, eager to learn and taste, always wanting to give back and make new friends. But eventually, we hit a breaking point, crushed by something (often marketing hype) and get settled into our own ways and what we like. I’m guilty of being a curmudgeon for little things like Wild Turkey changing its packaging. What was wrong with the old bottle?

Flavored whiskey, sourced whiskey, lawsuits, age statement dropping and unwarranted back stories are all reasons some people get irate toward distillers. But there was a time, as a new consumer, we just enjoyed the whiskey and didn’t involve ourselves in the whiskey drama.

Ignorance is bliss.

This post originally appeared in my Whisky Magazine column. Sign up for my drinks newsletter and check out my latest books.