Stave & Thief Society Aims to Educate On All Things Bourbon

Sommelier is to wine as Stave & Thief is to bourbon

The class wrapped up with a blind evaluation of bourbons, then they rolled out the cart and let us try to identify what we'd had. It's harder than you might think.

Ever asked a bartender for a bourbon, only to have a bottle of Jack Daniels land in front of you?

Most of us have. The misinformation goes beyondthat whiskey faux pas though. I once found myself in a heated argument about the rules of bourbon that I thought might come to fisticuffs. Granted, this bartender worked at the TGI Friday’s at the Dallas airport, but still. The conversation went something like this: 

Him: Bourbon has to come from Kentucky.

Me: It doesn't actually have to come from Kentucky.

Him: It's my job to know, I promise it does.

Me: “I promise it doesn't … oh never mind.”

I gave up. Not many folks know heads from tails when it comes to bourbon — but a new program in Louisville is about to change that. The Stave & Thief Society aims to do for bourbon what sommelier education does for wine. Classes at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter educate people in the front lines of the spirits world, preparing them to face the crowds clamoring for Kentucky's native spirit. This program isn't about turning out bourbon snobs. It's meant to equip staff to share their passion for bourbon with consumers like you and me, people who enjoy bourbon more after they learn about it.

It's open to the public, so I faced my test anxiety — yes, there's a test — and joined a class. In the midst of my note-scribbling, I picked up some fascinating new bourbon knowledge — and got to discover just what Bourbon Stewards (graduates of the program) are expected to know before they pour another dram.

Here are just a few highlights:

Whiskey, Bourbon, and Scotch, Oh My!

What are the differences between the whisk(e)ys of the world, and what do people mean by Kentucky bourbon vs. straight bourbon? A Steward can break it down for you — and tell you just why Jack Daniels may start its life as bourbon but end up as a Tennessee whiskey.

Read Between the Lines

Want to know if that bourbon was mass-produced in one spot and bottled elsewhere? Parse the label: Distilled “in,” as opposed to distilled “by,” is the clue that the producer is buying their juice elsewhere — not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that.

Bourbon Science 101

Dana McMahan

We headed to the Flavorman lab next door to the distillery and classroom, where Epicenter founder and beverage architect David Dafoe led us through our analysis of the alcohols in, well, alcohol.

“Why wasn't my science class like this?” a fellow student asked as our instructors broke down the milling, cooking, fermenting, and distilling process in Greasemonkey Distillery at the Epicenter. They really geeked out on us, teaching us to identify the different alcohols produced during distillation. From methanol (yes, the stuff in moonshine that can blind you) in the “heads” to the curiously Band-Aid smelling amyl alcohol in the “tails,” we sniffed and analyzed before attempting to identify these elements through nosing. You might think a distiller would cut out all those other alcohols, just keeping the “hearts,” but that leads to a non-descript bourbon, as we learned. And therein lies the art of the distiller: knowing just where to make the cuts.

That Old Barrel Magic

Though there's no law that says how long whiskey has to be in the barrel (Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell says you can fill a new, charred oak bucket from the still, walk it to the bottling line, and have bourbon), it's the time spent inside those staves that transforms white whiskey to golden bourbon. And we learned one of the most important secret ingredients: oxygen. As the “angel's share” evaporates, oxygen moves in and mingles with the bourbon to create those alluring flavors.

History in the Making

Every history lesson needs a little whiskey. We followed the timeline from the days when those early Kentucky farmers distilled their surplus corn through the so-called “Bourbon Depression” (that sad era when people switched to clear spirits) all the way to today. In our current glorious days, can you guess how much bourbon is aging in Kentucky? At a party for every person on the planet, there would be enough for everyone to have four drinks — with some to spare.

Share the Love

The world has enough too-cool-for-school bartenders. A Bourbon Steward is there as a friendly guide on your bourbon journey, not to lecture you or talk down to you.

My Kentucky Home

It can be made anywhere in the United States, but 95 percent of bourbon comes from Kentucky. The state’s limestone water that helps yeast thrive and removes iron is a well-known reason, but there are others: Kentucky’s soil is fantastic for growing corn, oak is the most prevalent wood species in the state, wild yeast is abundant, and the hot summers and cold winters are ideal for pushing that bourbon in and out of the oak, all of which leads to the ultimate bourbon-making scenario.

The Honey Barrel

If most bourbons start out with similar recipes and they all go into oak barrels, why does one taste so different from another? Well, there lots of factors. Try how the wood for barrels was dried, which side of the ridge the oak tree grew on, how high up in the warehouse the bourbon is stored — even which direction the light comes into the storage area. A multitude of factors converge for the sweet spot that makes the perfect barrel of bourbon — the honey barrel, often the gnarliest-looking one of the bunch (ugly leak stains? see oxygen, above).

Don't Forget to Swallow

Here are some pro tips for tastings: Nose the glass starting at chin level so you don't blow out your olfactories if it's high proof; sip and coat your mouth with the Kentucky chew (lip-smacking is encouraged); work from lower proof to high (or wheat to rye); and always swallow for the full experience.


I'll spare you any more suspense: I passed with flying colors. But more importantly, the number of people who can talk bourbon with enthusiasts is on the rise. So the next time you order a bourbon at a Stave & Thief establishment, settle in for a drink and a rousing good conversation — free of fists.