A few months ago, Steve Thompson died suddenly and unexpectedly. He had worked for Heublein before joining Brown-Forman, and was one of the three main people instrumental in starting the Woodford Reserve brand, along with the late Lincoln Henderson, who went on to found Angel’s Envy with his family, and Dave Scheurich, who is still consulting with new brands across the United States along with his daughter, Steffani.
I remember interviewing Thompson for a story a few years back. During the course of the conversation, which was about fish-farming research that was conducted at Brown-Forman in the 1990s, he casually mentioned a trip to Russia in which he took Yeltsin out on a fishing boat in order to help get Brown-Forman’s American whiskey portfolio into distribution in the country shortly after the fall of the USSR. I stopped the conversation. Boris Yeltsin, I asked. Yes, that Boris Yeltsin.
I had a sticky note on the side of my monitor for about two years reminding me to come back to that story when I had the time. When I heard of Steve’s passing, my first thought was of how all that history is now lost. Thankfully, Thompson made sure that the most important things he knew, including how to start and run a distillery and how to build brands, would always outlive him. After retiring from Brown-Forman, he founded Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood, Kentucky. He hired and trained the next generation of distillers and marketers, even bringing his grandson into the family business.
The industry people who helped keep the ship steady until it found calmer waters are not going to be around forever. Fortunately, they are spending their retirement years training the next generation to take over, and the prevailing philosophy seems to be to respect tradition, but be ready for change. And change is afoot.
There is a great reshuffling happening in the American whiskey industry right now. People are leaving generations-old businesses to strike out on their own. According to a recent DISCUS economic briefing, in 2005 there were just 50 distilleries in the US. As of 2021, there were more than 2,300. Those distilleries need expert hands on their steering wheels.
Marianne Eaves was perhaps the most high-profile example of this. She had been with Brown-Forman for more than five years and was next in line for the top job when she was hired as master distiller by a start-up distillery that would later become Castle & Key, making her the first woman to achieve the title in Kentucky since Prohibition. She then left Castle & Key to do consulting work for distilleries across the country. This guidance is something there is still a dire need for, but there are few people who can fill the roles.
With so much distilling talent moving around the board, there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to work in the industry to get started. Many of the established distilleries have internship programs, and several of the smaller distilleries support initiatives that work to train new distillers, blenders, and more. The Nearest and Jack Initiative is a great example: Brown-Forman and Uncle Nearest administer the program, which has produced one graduate and has one current apprentice. Similarly, the STEPUP Foundation was launched by the American Craft Spirits Association to promote diversity and training, and part of the fundraising is coming from Good Deeds Malt Whiskey, sold only at seelbachs.com.
As the great resignation and rehiring of whiskey talent continues, there will be more shocking news of seemingly entrenched whiskey-industry talent leaving job security to make a mark elsewhere, as well as a great uplifting of newer starts as they gain experience. The future of whiskey will be built upon the shoulders of those who came before. And the future looks bright.