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Studying Bourbon At Midway University

One question that is heard a lot in the bourbon industry is, “how did you get this job?” Until fairly recently there was no training course you could take to become a distiller or to work at a distillery, though all that is starting to change. At Midway University in tiny Midway, Kentucky halfway between Louisville and Lexington, you can minor in Bourbon Studies as an undergraduate or you can get your Bourbon Studies MBA in Tourism and Event Management. American Whiskey Magazine recently caught up with the Dean of the School of Business as well as two of the professors in the Bourbon Studies Department to learn more.

“Midway University’s Bourbon Studies program uniquely positions students for the KY Bourbon tourism or related industries,” says Tim Knittel, Adjunct Professor, Tourism & Event Management and Bourbon Studies. “We focus on a foundation of best practices of business with a focus on understanding how that applies to the KY Bourbon tourism industry. For example, all students in the current Destination Marketing course are analyzing the attractions, destination mix, destination branding and DMOs involved in KY Bourbon tourism and the MBA students are additionally concentrating on Woodford County tourism. The new Bourbon Archaeology class teaches students the history and evolution of the Bourbon industry in KY with specific research into a closed distillery of their choice; this history is one of the foundational elements of why tourists come to Kentucky for a Bourbon experience.”

Classes cover a wide variety of topics surrounding the appreciation, history, and business of bourbon.

“When Mark asked me to teach a Bourbon History class, the first thing I thought was that 16 weeks was not going to be enough time,” says Bourbon Archaeologist and Adjunct Professor Nicolas Laracuente. “Every single time I do a project or speak with someone about distilleries or Bourbon Archaeology, I learn something new. Despite my work on something incredible like the O.F.C. excavation at Buffalo Trace, it felt cocky to think that I could teach something comprehensive that would do the subject justice. At the same time, for me it was a way to carve out some dedicated time to make sure that I make progress on my own distillery research projects so I hashed out a skeleton of a syllabus and have been fleshing it out every since. It’s felt awkward getting back into academia after walking away from my Ph.D. program to concentrate on my state job and family nearly 10 years ago. So I concentrated on the thing that I find value in with my excavation projects making something useful for the folks who are caretakers of these sites. Our class project is assembling and annotating primary sources for T.W. Samuels Distillery and the Canada Dry Distillery. Both of these places have people who are interested in doing something with the physical place where these distilleries operated. The T.W. Samuels distillery actually has most of the historic building standing versus Canada Dry where there are just some foundation ruins. In both cases there are people working at these sites who want to do something capitalizing on the deep history of these places under their care. We’ve spent the first half of the semester working through how to find and evaluate sources from old maps and photographs to historic lawsuits that mention critical details of a site’s history. The second half of the semester we’ll be visiting these sites and concentrating on pulling together a body of sources that can be curated as a beginning to an archival library for both sites. We’re still working on the details but, there is a possibility of an internship developing if one of the students wants to continue working with T.W. Samuels. So, the second part of your question – I think it is going well. There were a few students that were freaked out by the scope of what we are looking at and dropped the class. The others that have taken it to heart that the point of this class is to scratch the surface of distilling history. In the first few weeks we discussed alcohol in a global context throughout time, because that is something that archaeology is well suited for and because I’ve been meaning to research it for a while. So we talked a lot about beer and wine. We looked at excavations of a 9,000-year-old tomb in China, a 5,000-year-old brewery in Iran, a 3,000-year-old shipwreck near Turkey, and other sites where archaeologists have found traces of alcohol. Then we compared how alcohol used in these contexts have similarities, maybe not in taste, but in why they were used. We’ve been continuing building these links as we’ve moved into a discussion of early whiskey making in Kentucky. For example, last week we spent some time looking at the similarities between farm distilleries operating in 1794 and the 1870s in Woodford county with the layout of wine-producing sites that operated in the 1500s in Peru. Both used steeply sloped valleys and gravity to realize efficiencies in their production. Now that we have some context and an increasingly solid background in distilling basics, we are starting to take some field trips to different places. I’m looking forward to getting our hands dirty.”

Bourbon Archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente, photo by Maggie Kimberl

Bourbon is Kentucky’s economic powerhouse, and because of its booming growth educators are stepping in to ensure that the industry has enough well-trained talent to fill the growing demand.

“The distilled spirits industry is important to Kentucky not only as an economic engine, but it is also a signature industry, much like the thoroughbred industry, bourbon is unique to Kentucky,” says Mark Gill, Ph.D., Dean, School of Business, Equine and Sport Management. “While it can be produced elsewhere, the cultural and historical significance is firmly rooted in the Bluegrass.  Economically speaking, the distilling industry consists of over 20,000 jobs and contributes over $8 billion in output to the state (according to the KDA).”

“The Midway program prepares students to support and lead the hospitality portion of the industry,” Gill says. “We focus on how brands are developed, how one views the industry from a tourism perspective and how to create experiences that grow brand equity for distilleries. Midway is unique in that we are not focused on the creation of bourbon, but rather the creation of the experience and understanding of cultural placement of distilled spirits.”

But bourbon is more than jobs and money; it’s part of Kentucky’s history and heritage, as well.

“I want them to understand how much history there is to uncover in the distilling industry,” Laracuente says. “I want them to be comfortable talking about the amount that they don’t know when it comes to something like whiskey history and where to go find the facts. I think that is a critical ability for folks who intend on moving into the industry as possible future tour guides or visitor center managers. The authentic histories and tasty stories that make the distilling industry so appealing are weakened if people have gotten used to making up things to fill a knowledge gap or increase the sexiness of a marketing campaign. My students will view these gaps as opportunities that can be seized to create new authentic experiences for people who want to collaborate in discovering new aspects of our shared heritage. And they are seeing some of the best vehicles for relaying authentic histories that exist in the industry today as we critique them during class. We took a detour during one class to discuss the amount of work that went into the video advertising Uncle Nearest. When we watched it the students sat in silence for a moment and then one said, “I had no idea that history could make you cry”.”

A deep understanding of history is critical to understand how bourbon got here, but it can also help students gain an appreciation for how much is lost to history and what that history may mean when it comes to light.

“One of the things we did to illustrate how much there is to discover was replicating the mash from an 1814 recipe,” Laracuente says. “You’d think that everything was captured on a piece of paper with instructions right? But when we had out measuring cups and bags of malt, corn, yeast and other things in the classroom the questions started popping up. Do I add all of the grain at once? How long do I mix it? It says stir until the water is cool enough to hold my hand in it without scalding… how hot is that? We used all of these questions to discuss how innovation existed between farm distilleries and how things become more uniform as rules for distilling are in place, more detailed distilling manuals are published. We also used this particular exercise to talk about how distilling tiers were created through differential access to technology or resources because of a variety of factors.”

Adjunct Professor Tim Knittel

Fortunately, you don’t have to move to Midway to take these classes, though there are worse things than living in the heart of Bourbon Country. 

“Our curriculum is delivered primarily online so we can serve a wider student market,” Gill says.  “However, we have also started creating on-campus experience to increase the hands-on aspects of the program. At the undergraduate level, we offer a minor in Bourbon Studies and at the graduate level we offer an MBA with a concentration in Tourism and Event Management. The MBA concentration is primarily focused on distilled spirits as opposed to hotel and restaurant management. We have graduates that work in distilleries around the country as well as those that apply what they have learned to jobs in branding, customer development and other areas of marketing.”

So who is the “typical student” taking these courses and earning these degrees?

“There is definitely no typical student in this program,” Knittel says. “We have a mix of undergrad and graduate students with a range from “Bourbon interested” to “I want to work in KY Bourbon tourism.” Some of our students are in college immediately out of high school and exploring their options, some are professionals adding an MBA to their resume and some are looking to move from their current job to one in the Bourbon industry. We even have one Kentucky distillery owner/distiller participating seeking an advantage for his company through this education. For the last three years (which is only as long as I can speak for), the response has been very positive with continuing contact with many of the students. Some have even moved into positions in the beverage alcohol industry.”

“This first class is 10 people who are at all stages of their careers,” Laracuente says. “There are a few freshmen (all of whom are from families who’ve worked in the distilling industry). At least one of them has parents who are taking the class vicariously through him, he regularly mentions how his dad liked what we discussed in the previous class. Two folks work in the distilling industry. I love it because I’m learning things from them while I’m coming at things from a different angle that what they are used to. There are a few upperclassmen who are about to finish their work at Midway and the bourbon studies program. We’ve gotten to a point now that the classes are unstructured – I have a rough idea of the things that I’d like to cover but we also pivot to unpack aspects that they are interested in personally.”

Maggie Kimberl is a spirits journalist focusing on whiskey culture in the United States, though she considers herself to be 'geographically blessed' to live in the epicenter of the bourbon world, Louisville, Kentucky. When she's not covering the bourbon beat you can find her browsing through vintage vinyl with her kids or tending to her homegrown tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and check out her blog.

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