Continuing Bourbon Education With Stave & Thief


By Randall H. Borkus

Stave & Thief

(Credit: Randall H. Borkus)

Formal education is becoming a larger part of being whiskey enthusiast, and this past October I attended the Executive Bourbon Steward Training Program presented by the Stave & Thief Society in Chicago and hosted by the Chicago Distilling Company.  It was a fun filled day of hands-on participation and whiskey education.

Stave & Thief Society was founded in 2014, and is the first certification program recognized by the bourbon industry and the only to be recognized by the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) as its “Official Bourbon Education Course.”

The programs were developed by professional distilling and spirits educators and overseen by a panel of experts in the bourbon whiskey and hospitality industries to provide a superior, standardized bourbon education that is accessible, affordable and worthy of the participant’s time.  Attendees included avid whiskey connoisseurs, a West Coast spirits attorney, a member of the Pittsburgh Whiskey Society, folks I knew from the J. Henry Distillery from Wisconsin, a few local bartenders and some spirit brand marketers.

The course objectives are to provide a standardized bourbon education, with the tools and techniques to further participants’ scholarship and understanding of bourbon; to strengthen participants’ skills in guiding their staff in the aspects of Bourbon Stewardship and customer relations. They also provide training and materials which will allow participants to develop and expand in-house bourbon programs, and build bourbon lists to grow business sales.

The course focus on the basic history of whiskey in the United States, leading to the evolution of bourbon in particular and detailing the technical aspects of whiskey classifications, the science of distilling and aging, and types and brands of bourbon.  The course further provides a hands on walk-through of the bourbon-making process and dissects the process to distill bourbon, with attention paid to how each step in the process affects the end product.

Stave & Thief

Getting hands on at the Chicago Distilling Company
(Credit: Randall H. Borkus)

Then they move on to the sensory training process.  This step in the course breaks down and examines the array of aroma and flavor components of bourbon and how specific decisions during the production process determine those attributes and how it might be a little different for each Master Distiller.

One of the many highlights included was that each attendee received a sensory training kit, a must-have for formalizing your tasting training and an item that greatly rounded out the class experience.

The next step is a hands-on Flight Building experience, which dives into how to conduct a sensory evaluation of bourbon and how to walk staff and consumer alike through the sensory evaluation. This was particularly interesting as everyone samples and critics multiple samples of commonly found bourbons such as Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek and Willett.

Next is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Proficiency section, a more tourist-oriented part that covers the distilleries and brands on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience. Attendees build familiarity with the products and locations of attractions in order to advise guests and answer questions of patrons.

The day is completed with a formal exam which each attendee is required to pass in order to achieve the qualification of Executive Bourbon Steward

Although not a Spirits Sommelier certification, the Stave & Thief program does not demand the same level of commitment either, being a one day course. That balance between course quality and demands make this a good choice for any whiskey fan looking to put a formal stamp on their know-how, and it all comes approved by the Kentucky bourbon industry’s trade association.


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