Finding Bourbon: Rising Tide

Story by Kevin Gibson


A recent employment shortfall gave me a need and an opportunity rolled into one – I lost a full-time job as a food and beverage writer, prompting me to take a part-time job. The latter is a position selling and pouring bourbon.

As a relative bourbon beginner looking to learn, what better opportunity could there be?

Interestingly, one of the things I’ve learned already is that there are plenty of people who are even farther behind the bourbon curve than I am. If I’m wading into the surf, they’re standing on the shore, daring to dip a toe into the golden copper waters.

When I started the job a couple of months ago, I was getting questions I simply couldn’t answer. I wasn’t too sure what “bottled in bond” meant. I couldn’t rattle off, without looking at a label, where New Riff Distillery was located in Kentucky. And I had no idea that a gentle blow into a tulip glass helps release the heavy alcohol aroma from the delicate aromas underneath.

As time went by, I realized that, when you impart certain basic knowledge to bourbon beginners, you’re not just offering tips, you’re opening up new worlds.

I often hear, “I’m new to bourbon, what should I try?” It wasn’t long ago that I would shrug my shoulders. Now I immediately reach for something low proof, like Basil Hayden.

Sometimes it’s tough for beginners to detect certain flavors (and I’m as guilty as anyone of missing nuance in bourbon), so for them I encourage a few sips followed by an ice cube to help enrich what’s lurking below the surface.

One gentleman came into the tasting room where I work, armed with a laptop and a serious demeanor. He spoke with an accent that suggested he was in Kentucky from a Scandinavian country, and he revealed he had never tried bourbon before. In the U.S. on business, he knew Kentucky was home to bourbon and he wanted to give it a try.

I started him with a lower-proof bourbon and supplied him a garnish of an ice cube and a small piece of chocolate, instructing him to take a few sips of the pour, then add the ice cube. After a couple more sips, take a nibble of chocolate to open up more magic.

From across the bar, I watched bourbon unfold for him in interesting and fun ways. I could see on his face he was enjoying this first encounter. He ordered another pour, and I gave him a bourbon that was a bit bolder. He continued his journey, taking sips between working.

He was in the shop for maybe 40 minutes before he approached the bar to settle his bill. I’m not sure why it made me chuckle and also made me feel quite happy that he said, “I’ve enjoyed playing your little game.”

He sounded almost like a campy villain from the old Batman TV series from the 1960s: “I hope you’re enjoying my little game, Batman! Bahahaha!”

A couple of weeks later, a woman named Victoria came into the shop with her sister. Victoria had just moved to Kentucky from California and had no knowledge of bourbon. She had no idea if she would like it, but she knew she had to at least try if she was going to be a full-time Kentuckian.

I played the same game with her, and while she looked perplexed and skeptical by her first taste, when the ice cube went in, her eyes got big and she said, “Oh my gosh! It’s so much different!” Her sister held out, and decided to press on (they were on foot, hitting area boutiques), but Victoria said, “You go ahead, I’ll catch up.”

And then she ordered another pour. And she loved it. And she said she’d definitely return to experiment with more bourbons. And I lit up inside, knowing I had helped someone take a gentle step forward.

I’m a beginner still, just wading in. Victoria and the customer from another country got a chance to step into the delicious ocean of bourbon with someone to hold their hand. I guess what I’m saying to all you other beginners out there is that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Come on in; the water’s fine.

And the bourbon’s even finer.

Kevin Gibson
Official Contributor

Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Thrillist and Alcohol Professor. He also is author of Louisville Beer, Secret Louisville, and several other books. In his three decades as a professional writer, he has won numerous awards but doesn’t know where most of them are now (they're probably in the basement). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his dog, Atticus.