Strategic Bourbon Decisions


Bourbon selection, I’ve learned, is a thing to be taken seriously in Kentucky.  Bourbon has been a huge business in the region since around the 19th Century.  The history creates a need to be careful about how you talk your selections.  It is still a fun experience that I relish with each visit to my local liquor store of choice (shout out to Total Wine in the Paddock Shops) but I must say that I no longer show up with no agenda.  The reality is that I now put a lot of thought into what I buy there.  So when the trip to SK moved far enough into my calendar where I needed to make strategic bourbon decisions, I must admit I was a little excited.

I chose to go in the early afternoon because I was hoping for some individual time with an expert (Total Wine is known to have some good ones in its employ) and have a little fun.  When I arrived, I was greeted by an older guy who could see that I was in the bourbon section with purpose.  He asked me what I was looking for and I explained where I was headed and why.  He grinned and said “yeah, you need some special stuff” and then got a slight, far off look in his eye.  That look, and our conversation, ended up being more important than I would realize.

He explained that export of American booze tends to run astronomically high in price (tariffs, etc.) so places like South Korea tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to bourbon.  Places like Japan buy it in huge quantities (Buffalo Trace went so far as to package it differently for them, allowing them to increase the price despite there being no discernible difference) and the Chinese are discovering it as well but it’s still amazingly expensive and likely a little hard to find.  This means that even stuff I think of as mixing bourbon now (Heaven Hill, Costco brand, etc.) is actually pretty hard to come by overseas.  So if I was going to go, I should take something that shows more than what is commercially available over there.  He said, at one point, “You should really show them what we’re capable of here in Kentucky.  So many flavors are on display here.”

I took his advice to heart, ultimately (after two bottles were confiscated/liberated at customs) bringing along a bottle of Blade and Bow (for the organizers I wanted to have a drink with) and Jefferson’s Ocean for KCTU leadership.  While the second is a great bourbon with a commercial gimmick of sorts, the first is a beautifully done high-quality small batch bourbon that isn’t available everywhere as of right now.  Now, looking at recruiting for a delegation in late Spring/early Summer 2018, once again I’m back to strategic decisions of a different kind.  But I’m keeping the analysis of my bourbon expert in the back of my mind as I look at who should join us.

The American labor movement is actually as full as the ocean we will travel across.  Traditional labor spaces like unions are getting smaller, but new formations emerge in places we sometimes don’t see.  From worker centers to cooperatives, we are also seeing new interest in expanding what it means to be a worker with power.  Friends in these organizations remind me all the time that they exist and can’t be counted out.  There’s also the little acknowledged fact that workers are organizing in places that aren’t the traditional labor strongholds (organize the South!) and want to be seen as the larger picture of struggle.

If I want to show South Korea the labor movement that I see, if I want them to taste all the flavors and see what we are really capable of, it better burst with all colors.  It’ll need to be queer and cross-class and body positive and cross-sector along with all the other things that people see when they see us through televisions and computer screens.  This group will need to learn together and develop relationships if they don’t already exist.  They’ll likely need to, at some point, find a way to present their work to others.

Remember:  our call is to fill this space with life.

A while after I returned from SK, I went into the store hoping to see the guy I worked with at Total Wine.  I did and I asked if he remembered my trip.  I ran down what happened briefly for him, pointing out that it was one of the few moments that didn’t need translation.  We laughed at the reaction together and after a few quiet moments he smiled.

“… I guess we showed them a bit of Kentucky.”

“Yep.  We did.”

If you’re a union member, leader, or staffperson that is interested in being a part of our Korea Delegation you can reach out to me at for details. 

The Days After

A few weeks after the trip and I’m just at the end of recovery from a huge, life-altering trip.  It was a Monday at about 12 noon.  I had a lunch scheduled with a friend named Richard at a favorite spot known to have breakfast food available at lunch on a weekday.  The room is tight with lunchgoers, squeezing politely past each other on dark hardwood floors.  The taps are gleaming in the noonday light and I can already smell the cold cider.  I really like this place, which is good because at 12 noon I’m still groggy.  Jet-lag from a 15 hour trip around the world takes a long time to wear off.

We embrace as friends and sit down.  Conversation naturally starts with “So… uh, why were you in Korea… specifically?”  I tell the story, going through the salient details, and then we’re a little quiet as the food comes because I was hungry and it was delicious.

Fighting through a forkful of my favorite dish, I pause and he says

“So what do you do next?”

Upon my return, I was asked to report back to the Steering Committee of US Labor Against the War about the experience and what I think is next for us.

Politically, we’d been fairly clear prior to our visit what needed to happen.  Resolutions had been authored (available here) and statements had been made.  But for USLAW, we needed to figure out what we’d say and what we’d do next.

Let’s start with the short term.

Recognizing our role in the conversation as trade unionists concerned with confronting militarism, we know that the question of Korea is one that directly relates to the American addiction to militaristic foreign and economic policy.  Answers to that question won’t come easily, so we agreed to develop a Korea Task Force within USLAW to figure out what we want to say about our role in the Peninsula.

Medium-term was pretty clear, though definitely not easy.

By the second day, I was fairly certain that US Labor Against the War would be returning to South Korea.  What that looked like wouldn’t be clear until the end, when I was meeting with the Reunification committee.  There, I’d see that the delegation would need to be similar to the one that I had participated in.  I was in SK to do real work and so would whomever we’d bring along for a second delegation.  We’d need to center our work around three areas:  just transition that deals with both militarism and climate change, freeing SK labor political prisoners, and connecting NK, SK, and US workers in a way that allows everyone to be safe and valued.  This means that we’ll need a diverse group but also a fairly large one.  Because I’m an organizer that can only think in terms of organizer math, the plan is to find a group of 15-30 (leaders, staff, and rank-and-file) to go along for what stands to be an important mission across the ocean.  As it stands, the plan will likely be to organize the trip to coincide with May Day somehow as it provides an important opportunity for us to be in the same place as many union leaders from across the Peninsula. 

Long-term is less plan and more vision.  So much of it, at this moment, is dependent upon what is open and closed diplomatically that really all we can do is think of it as a dream we work toward.

That third area of work for the delegation (NK, SK, and US workers in the same place) won’t be the typical meeting in a board room.  I’d been asked specifically by the reunification committee in KCTU if meeting when NK and SK trade unionists were going to meet for a soccer game was a sound way to get us together, responding yes despite not knowing when or how this would take place.  So, our long-term plan is to help facilitate an American presence at a Korean trade unionist soccer game.  Again, this really isn’t about soccer or games.  Peace isn’t negotiated by governments, it is merely recognized by photographers capturing momentary displays of honor by those governments.  Politicians smile and take credit out front… while we, the people, do the work in the back rooms.

This is our work moving forward.  The controversy surrounding it will be tenacious.  People will continue to have a hard time understanding why and how we’re going to get it done.  This is an arena full of risk and the fight will be, at times, a slog.  But when we fight?  We win.

Richard and I continue to work through the last of our meals.  He’s a local labor organizer so we talk shop for a bit.  I ask him if he has ever traveled out of the country and he looks at me puzzled.  “Why?”

I take a deep breath and say:

“Well, there’s a soccer game I need help putting together.  It’s in Korea.  You interested?”

I’m going to continue this blog, talking about recruitment and what the conversations are like as I move around the country.  If our Korea Task Force comes out with anything in the form of a resolution or statement, I’ll be sure to put it up on the Resource List.