What do you get when you stick 150 bartenders, 21 cabin counselors, six head counselors, the staff of Lush Life Productions and more booze than you can shake a stick at in the middle of Kentucky? Camp Runamok.
That’s right, folks, summer camp with 200 adult(ish) bartenders. Although it is not for the weak of heart (I know of a few campers that made an early exit), last week was full of love, education, doing good and, well, running amok in bourbon country.
In its second year, Camp Runamok brings together bartenders from all over the country to help build community, educate and give back. I was assigned to a cabin with seven strangers who quickly became near and dear to my heart. Our cabin sponsor, Monkey Shoulder, sent us the fearless Freddy May, who not only put up with all of our shenanigans, gold glitter, red lipstick and glow sticks, but also kept us healthy with a stock of water, sunscreen and vitamin C. If that’s not cabin love, I’m not sure what is.
When we weren’t bartending a honkey tonk, dodging paintballs while building a Boulevardier cocktail on the battlefield (yes, I’ve got the bruise to prove it) or showing off our "talents" for the judges, we had some very gracious distilleries open their doors to this raucous bunch.
Our first stop was Bulleit. We were greeted with a catered lunch from the renowned Silver Dollar and juleps in custom cups that were gifted to us by the Bulleit clan. We saw relics of the old Stizel-Weller Distillery where Pappy Van Winkle was first distilled and got a lesson in the whiskey graph by the one and only Hollis Bulleit. And because they knew us oh too well, we even got to make some cocktails. Seeing that our cabin’s given theme was "whiskey business," we used our ladylike wiles to create drinks like "rye don’t you come on over?" and "some like it hot."
On day two, it was slightly more difficult to rally (thanks to the aforementioned honkey tonk), but as soon as we stepped foot at the Willett Distillery, we knew we were in for a treat. Led by the talented Hunter Chavanne and Drew Willett, our tour took us through their new facilities, where we got to taste the mash and watch the fermentation process; and one of my cabin ladies even got to help add the yeast to the fermentation tank. Talk about hands-on, and it didn’t stop there! After watching the barrels fill with clear, delicious liquor (and getting a white dog shower), we got to hammer in the bungs, sign the barrels and kiss them goodbye as they rolled away to sit for the next few years.
Our next stop was Heaven Hill. In case you didn’t know, Heaven Hill is home to some of the most well-known and historic names in the bourbon business. From the widespread Evan Williams to highly sought-after Rittenhouse Rye and historic legend Elijah Craig, their property is bursting at the seams with tradition and, well, whiskey. We got a tour of one of their many warehouses to see where the whiskey sleeps. We couldn’t steer clear of the romanticism conversation when talking about aging whiskey. Despite technological advances, no one can really explain to any definite point what happens between whiskey and barrel. Each barrel is different from the next, from so many minute factors such as who made the barrel to what part of the tree the wood came from. Of the distilling process, this is probably what struck a chord with me the most.
Last but not least, our final day of distilleries was capped at Maker’s Mark. It was astounding not only the effort they went through to change up their tour to show us behind the scenes but what they do on a daily basis to achieve their mission: consistent product. Of course, you would think that if you did the same regimen over and over your product would be the same, right? Wrong. It was here that they pointed out how every minute detail can change their final product. From the density and milling of the corn to temperature variation, it all must be monitored closely. Their lab hosts a professional panel of tasters who pick up on even the subtlest differences amongst barrels. The lengths they go to in order to remain diligent in their practice was humbling to experience.
Though debauchery ran rampant back at the campgrounds, we managed to do some good for our host camp. We raised a few thousand dollars in donations during our "talent" show and spent our last day cleaning and fixing up the grounds for campers to enjoy next year. The generosity of the group as a whole was overwhelming, and getting to see our guys hand over a check to the camp director that we had raised by merely cutting off a beard (you go, Brett!) and auctioning off T-shirts hands-down topped any other moment of camp.
I’m still reeling from the whiskey slaps and unforgettable friendships we forged. My bourbon knowledge has boned up just in time for National Bourbon Month, so pour yourself a glass and toast to the legends that got us where we are today.
Until next time, cheers!
Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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