By Maggie Kimberl

It's happened: Whisky societies are going mainstream

Once the realm of only the most die-hard fans, more and more people are telling their friends: "Meet me at the club."
Whiskey clubs and societies have been around for a long time, but it has only been in the last decade that we have seen a veritable explosion in the numbers, types, and popularity of such organizations. Ten years ago, when I was brand new to my own journey in Bourbon, there were a handful of whiskey clubs and societies in Kentucky. There were a few more based around Scotch whisky. The Keepers of the Quaich was founded in 1988, but it was for people working in the industry with a core goal of promoting Scotch. Consumer groups, on the other hand, were rare.

In 2006, The Bourbon Society was founded in Louisville by Bourbon historian Michael Veach, Bourbons Bistro and Buzzard’s Roost founder Jason Brauner, and others. It was an early adopter of the crossover between industry and consumers coming together in the spirit of whiskey appreciation. Ten years ago, the Bourbon Women Association was founded by Peggy Noe Stevens, the first woman to become a master taster in the Bourbon industry. It was the first group to be founded with female consumers in mind, and the goal was to provide a comfortable and engaging environment for women who liked brown spirits to learn and enjoy them while simultaneously facilitating better communication between brands and their customers. When I became president of this organisation in January this year, I took over a group that experienced a 20 per cent growth in 2020, pandemic notwithstanding, with a dozen branches nationwide.

In the last few years, I have watched in amazement as new whiskey groups formed and grew at an astonishing rate. I did the first story about the British Bourbon Society back when they were a group of a dozen members meeting monthly at a whiskey bar; I have since had the honour of accompanying them on barrel picks here in the US that went on to be distributed to their thousands of members across Great Britain.

The Louisville Bourbon Hounds formed around a mutual love of chasing and camping out for limited-release whiskeys. The Whisky Chicks formed as a way for women to bond over a shared love of whiskey. There are groups and clubs ranging from The Bourbon Outlaws to The Bourbon Society of Greater Cincinnati, BARDS (Bourbon and Rye Drinkers Society) to The Whiskey Barrel Society, Bourbonr to The Chicago Whiskey Society, and the Monmouth Whiskey Club to the Wisconsin Bourbon Enthusiasts – all are groups of whiskey drinkers bonding over their mutual love.

More recently, we have seen significant growth in whiskey societies with a mission for greater inclusivity. When Samara Davis founded The Black Bourbon Society it was out of frustration at the lack of understanding of black consumers on the part of brands. Today this group has more than 20,000 Facebook followers and is continually putting out barrel picks that sell out in days. There are also Kentucky-based black Bourbon groups such as the Kentucky Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE) and The Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. The former, based in Louisville, has a strong philanthropic mission and its founder, Jamar Mack, is featured on the cover of this issue. The latter is based in Lexington and formed with a mission to uncover, share, and preserve African-American history within the Kentucky Bourbon industry.

One of the most refreshing aspects of my job throughout the last decade has been spending time with these groups and seeing the passion people have for distilled spirits. Some focus on bottle shares where everyone brings a bottle to enjoy with the group, while others have festivals, barrel picks, and other organised activities.
Regardless of the activity, the people are always friendly and welcoming – especially to new folks who are just getting started on their whiskey journeys. In fact, I always recommend that people getting interested in whiskey seek out their local clubs. Most people in the US are within a few hours’ drive of a distillery these days and engaging with the local enthusiast groups is a great way to get a behind-the-scenes peek or a taste of something you might not otherwise have the opportunity to try.