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. 

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