Executive Bourbon Steward Course at Moonshine University

Booze Cruzer at Moonshine University

I attended the Stave and Thief Society’s Executive Bourbon Steward class at Moonshine University in May 2018 as part of my Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise. This is an all-day course consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on opportunities in the university’s working distillery.

Moonshine University at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter

The university is housed in the former Hagan Auto and Tire Shop, and is co-located with the Distilled Spirits Epicenter. The single story building is fairly small, about 4,500 square feet, and parking is very limited. The classroom area comfortably accommodated our class of 23 students. However, the still house was a bit cramped, with considerable jockeying around so we could all see what was going on.

The university’s official mission statement is to “Provide technical training and business management education for start-ups, industry professionals, and those looking for careers in the distilling industry.” What that means to me, based on my day there, is achieving two key objectives.

  1. Supporting the emerging craft distilling industry with educational and mentoring opportunities. As an example, the 6-Day Distiller Course at $6,250.00 covers a wide range of topics from how to get started in the craft distilling industry to how to distill rum, whiskey, vodka, and more.
  2. Supporting the overall bourbon industry, i.e., the mega producers and the craft distillers, by educating individuals in the hospitality industry.

As I noted in last post, my day at MU was fun and educational. Everyone involved in teaching us were experts in the field, and ensured all of us had the opportunity to earn our Executive Bourbon Steward credentials.

Becoming a Stave & Thief Society Executive Bourbon Steward

       Photo Credit: Stave & Thief Society

This certification program is the official bourbon education course of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and is designed to support the association’s goals and objectives. To me, an Executive Bourbon Steward is a bourbon advocate with the knowledge and yearning to spread and promote the good word about bourbon. Being an Executive Bourbon Steward is all about helping others enjoy and buy more bourbon.

The Executive Bourbon Steward certification builds upon the Certified Bourbon Steward course. However, the lower level certification is not a prerequisite for becoming an ESB. Our primary instructor was Colin Blake, the university’s Director of Spirits Education. He was assisted in the still house by the university’s Operations Manager Tyler Gomez-Basauri. Both men did a fantastic job of teaching us about bourbon and distilling.

The day’s instruction was broken down into three separate, but very interrelated subject areas; the Stave and Thief Society’s Bourbon Body of Knowledge, practical experience in the still house, and sensory training.

Stave and Thief Society’s Bourbon Body of Knowledge

Our Instructor Colin
Colin Blake, the university’s Director of Spirits Education, was our primary instructor

Colin was our classroom instruction throughout the day, and led us through the entire body of knowledge. Major topics areas included the various classifications of whiskey and their differences, the science and art of producing bourbon, to include aging and mingling or batching from different barrels to produce a finished product, and the history of bourbon and Kentucky’s important role in that history.

Colin provided much more detail and information about each topic than is contained in the Stave and Thief Society’s Certified Bourbon Steward book. Plus we were able to ask questions; lots and lots of questions. So many in fact that the class ran about an hour over our allotted time. Colin was very patient and answered all questions, and did not seem to mind staying late to do so.

Tastings were sprinkled throughout the day, which added variety and kept things interesting. My favorite tasting was a blind tasting of three bourbons that were distilled on the same day at the same distillery with the same mash bill then stored in identical charred oak barrels that sat side by side in the rickhouse for three years. Each smelled and tasted different, demonstrating the variability of the bourbon aging process. This also highlighted the distillers’ or blenders’ challenges in producing a consistent product that customers want to buy and drink over and over again throughout the years.

Basics of Distilling Whiskey Hands-On Experience

Dumping Grain
I get to add corn to the hammermill

Throughout the day we stepped out of the classroom and into the still house for demonstrations and hands-on work with the distilling process. Each time we went to the still house we observed one step in the distilling process, and some of us were given the opportunity to participate.

First up was the hammermill to grind corn, rye, and barley. Some members of the class, including me, poured the grain into the mill. All of us had the opportunity taste and smell each grain as after it was ground to the right size. As the grain was coming off the hammermill we observed it being added to the water in the mash tun. Once the grain was sufficiently cooked, we connected a pump to the mash tun and pumped the mash over into the fermenter.

Prior to the start of the class, Tyler had placed a low wine distillate into the still, which was now heated to begin the distilling process. As the fresh whiskey flowed up through the parrot’s beak and into the collection tank we were able to smell and taste the distillate. This allowed us to differentiate between the heads, hearts, and tails and make the cuts are the right moment (or at least close to it, give or take a bit).

Sensory Training at Flavorman

          Photo Credit: Flavorman

The classroom work was interesting and informative, and the hands-on experience in the distillery was great. I especially enjoyed tasting and smelling the fresh white dog and helping to decide when to make the cuts. However, our ability to appreciate and make sense of the tastings, and to know when to cut was enabled by our sensory training.

Our sensory training was provided by Flavorman, a separate but associated business right next door to Moonshine University. A short walk brought us to the Flavorman lab where some of the staff introduced us to the company. They then introduced us to our Bourbon Steward Sensory Training Kit, which was ours to take home. This kit retails of $250.00 in the Moonshine University or Stave and Thief Society online stores, so the $500 tuition for the day is a bit less painful. The kit is packed with 36 vials of different scents covering distillate odors such as acetaldehyde and acetone, “bourbon” aromas such as various fruits and woods, and the primary components of a bourbon mash bill such as corn and rye.

Our Flavorman sensory guides led us through the process of sampling each vial; ensuring we sniffed only – “No Sipping!”. They also helped us understand what we were smelling. A key part of this training was differentiating the distillate’s heads, hearts, and tails based solely on their unique smell. Our graduation exam was to identify each during a blind sniff test of the three samples. The staff told us that usually only 1 in 3 students would be able to pass this exam after the short sensory training we had that day. They advised us to practice at home with our kit. I am proud to say I passed the exam while there at Flavorman.

The Final Exam

Moonshine University is in this building, the Distilled Spirits Epicenter

No university course is complete without a final exam, and the Executive Bourbon Steward course is no exception. The exam contained 50 multiple choice questions that covered the full range of the day’s activities and classroom work. I passed with a 98% score. Everyone who completed the day’s activities and passed the exam received a Stave & Thief Bourbon Steward lapel pin and an Executive Bourbon Steward challenge coin.

My day at Moonshine University was a blast, and my knowledge of bourbon was tremendously enlarged and deepened. Although at $500, plus travel and lodging expenses, it was expensive, it was totally worth every penny. Colin, Tyler, the Flavorman staff, and Christin Head, the university’s Registrar, were wonderful and completely committed to ensuring all of us were entertained as well as educated. I highly recommend this course to anyone who wants to gain a significantly better understanding of America’s native spirit.

Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise May 2018


This was my third trip to visit Kentucky, and was significantly more fun than my first two. My first, in the summer of 1974 for six weeks, was to Fort Knox. I was 17 and at the mercy of two Army Drill Sergeants. The second, in the summer of 1992 and also to Fort Knox for six weeks, was much better since I was older and a Major, but still not a fun time. They say the third time is the charm, and, for me, this trip on the Bourbon Trail certainly was.

My wife and I have traveled extensively throughout the United States, and quite a bit around the world. Kentucky is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places we have been, filled with friendly and welcoming people. To say we had a great time is an understatement. While there we toured several horse and bourbon venues. The horses for my wife, the bourbon for me. We both enjoyed everywhere we toured. We are already planning a return visit in the not too distant future.

Horsing Around

Our base of operations for all but two nights was the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. This is a wonderful, well run facility, with 260 RV campsites. However, these sites only have power and water hook-ups. None have a sewer hook-up, so plan accordingly. They also offer RV sites with no hook-ups and primitive sites for tent campers. Campground amenities include a store, pool, bathhouses, and laundry. Everything was neat and clean, and even over the Memorial Day weekend, quiet at night.

Kentucky Horse Park

Statute of Man o' War at the Kentucky Horse Park
Statute of Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park

We spent two days touring the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP), and could have spent more time there. In short, the KHP is Disneyland for horse people. The Parade of Breeds, offered twice a day, showcases various breeds from around the world. We were introduced to many breeds we had never seen before, including the Marwari. At the Hall of Champions show, also offered twice a day, we got up close and personal with retired champions such as Thoroughbreds Funny Cide, and Go for Gin, American Quarter Horse Be A Bono, Standardbred Trotter Mr. Muscleman, and Standardbred Pacers Staying Together, Won The West. We learned about draft horses and their harness at the Big Barn, and saw how Mounted Police train and operate at the Mounted Police Demonstration. We also toured the Saddlebred Museum and stopped at the numerous Memorials and Statues throughout the Park such as Man o’ War. Saturday night we watched Kentucky Spring Classic, FEI Open Jumper show, which brought in top tier competitors from around the world. The highlight however, was the International Museum of the Horse. We spent hours inside this well done museum, and could have spent even more time there. Going back is definitely on our to-do list.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland Race Tracks

Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs

No trip to Kentucky is complete without visiting at least one of these two magnificent thoroughbred racing venues, so we did both. We toured Churchill Downs visiting the paddock area and going trackside, and toured the Kentucky Derby Museum. Both are well worth the money. Keeneland wasn’t open for racing during our visits, but we were able to drive around the property and snap a few photos of this beautiful facility.

On the Bourbon Trail

Seeing and learning more about horses was wonderful, but the reason the Booze Cruzer was in Kentucky was … BOURBON. First stop, Moonshine University, yes gentle reader, there really is a Moonshine University.

Moonshine University – Executive Bourbon Steward Course

The Pot Still at Moonshine University
The Pot Still at Moonshine University

The the Executive Bourbon Steward Course is offered under the auspices of the Stave and Thief Society and in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers Association. This is an all-day course consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on opportunities in the university’s working distillery. As soon as I returned to our hotel room after class was over my wife asked me if I had a good time – yes I did – and if the day was worth the $500 tuition – yes it was. Yes, it was expensive, but I learned so much, and I’m sure the other 22 students did as well. The day’s coursework covered a deep dive into the Stave and Thief Society’s bourbon body of knowledge, the basics of distilling whiskey, and sensory training. I’ll provide many more details in future blog post.

Woodford Reserve Distillery – Corn to Cork Tour

Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel
Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel

I took the $30 Corn to Cork tour at Woodford Reserve. This was a very informative two hour tour that culminated in a tasting session back at the Visitor Center. This was without a doubt the most information filled tour of all the tours I took on this trip. The three gorgeous copper pot stills in the old stone still house are an impressive sight. Our guide, Stacy, was extremely knowledgeable and able to answer almost any technical or production question I posed. The only question she left unanswered concerned the production split between the Woodford Reserve Versailles facility and the Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville. In case you were not already aware, most of the distillate that ends up in a Woodford Reserve bottle comes from the Louisville facility. The highlight of the tour for me was the tasting since I had never sampled any Woodford Reserve product. I wasn’t overly impressed by the standard Woodford Reserve Bourbon, or their Rye whiskey. However, the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve Bourbon blew my socks off. Even my wife, who normally shuns whiskey, liked the Double Oaked. I’ll provide many more details on this tour in future blog post.

Maker’s Mark – Behind the Mark Tour

Maker's Mark Spirits Safes
Maker’s Mark Spirits Safes

At Maker’s Mark I opted for the $40 Beyond the Mark tour. I expected this would be a deep dive into the technical and production details of Marker’s Mark along the lines of the Woodford Reserve tour. Alas, it was little more than a standard consumer tour that lacked technical details and was more about marketing talking points. The only bonus was two commemorative Maker’s Mark wax dipped rock glasses. The highlight of the trip was tasting fresh off the still new make aka white dog from a dipper that the tour guide passed around. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Jim Beam – Behind the Beam Tour

Fred Noe Speaks to our Group
Fred Noe Speaks to our Group

This tour is only offered a few time each year, and at $199 per person is downright expensive. However, Fred Noe the Master Distiller himself and his son and heir apparent Freddie Noe, spent about 2 1/2 hours with our group. The tour of the distillery, conducted by Jessica, the Trade and Hospitality Manager, was informative and extremely well done. Fred and Freddie Noe joined the group at the rickhouse. Both were down to earth, plain spoken, willing to share personal and business stories, and just plain fun to be around. Each guest on the tour came away with a bottle of bourbon signed by Fred and Freddie, and some of us purchased a second bottle which was also signed.

I learned a lot about the distillery, their product line, and their family. Really a great visit and well worth the money. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Wild Turkey – Standard Consumer Tour

Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed
Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed

I hadn’t planned on touring Wild Turkey, but it was on our way home from touring historic Fort Boonesborough State Park, and we still had time to catch the last tour of the day. This tour is free for military, a nice touch that I really appreciated. The tour is your usual basic consumer tour, i.e., herd the tourists along from point to point, imparting marketing gems at each stop, with samples of three products at the end. No complaints, this tour achieves what it ought to do. The surprise bonus was the opportunity to meet Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller, in the visitor center where he was signing bottles. Jimmy was accommodating to everyone who came to him with a bottle, signing and posing for photos. He seemed the genuinely enjoy interacting with everyone.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products
Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products

Like Wild Turkey, this was a last minute addition to our itinerary, and we took the basic consumer tour. Buffalo Trace offers all of its tours free of charge, which combined with touring on a Saturday meant the place was packed with tourists eager to see the distillery and taste their products. We waited almost an hour after getting our tickets before our tour started. Our tasting was limited to two of the four products they offered, and was a cattle call at the bar affair. Not my cup of tea, or glass of bourbon, but the tour achieves what it ought to do, and the price cannot be beat.