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What you can learn on a bourbon tour

Lessons from America's longest continuously running distillery

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I spent half of the last week at a friend’s 40th birthday in Louisville, Kentucky. The main draw for the trip was The Bourbon Trail, the area of the state with a sequence of distilleries of all sizes, some of which have been around for centuries. 

The most remarkable tour was Buffalo Trace. Rather than walking us through the distilling process (though we got some education on that too), they told stories that connected the modern day to their rich history of making bourbon since the 1700s.

They’ve steadily grown in their presence over the last several decades, becoming one of the most sought-after bourbon makers on the market. Despite that growth and economic success, the company has remained remarkably committed to the core principles that got them through the 1700s, 1800s, and prohibition. The fact that they survived so long, under such varying conditions, is instructive. There’s a lot to learn from being excellent for so long. 

In that experience, 3 key lessons jumped out to me. Reflecting on the trip, it became clearer that these 3 lessons were part of what made them great and were at the core of who they are. These same 3 things could help any organization innovate.

Lesson 1: Culture is in your history

When prohibition hit in 1919, most distilleries in the area were forced to shut down (or move underground). The movement to curtail the consumption of alcohol had reached a national level and the government acted to end what it saw as a battle for public morals. 

I visited two other distilleries the same day, both of which used the prohibition era to retool and consider other products, much like when distilleries made hand sanitizer during COVID. 

Buffalo Trace, however, took a different approach. 

When prohibition hit, they adapted by making “medicinal whiskey” (which, for some reason, could be prescribed by barbers). When prohibition ended, they got to return to their old manufacturing, but never lost sight of what they did to get through that tough time. They turned it into a unique part of their story and a point of pride. Instead of “barely surviving the prohibition of alcohol”, they tell the story of ingeniously working around a constraint that they can now say has led to them being the “longest constantly running distillery in North America.”

Owen Eastwood captures a similar concept in his book, Belonging. He describes the phenomenon of Phakapapa, a sense that we are all linked together across time but that, at any given moment, the sun is shining on us and it’s our responsibility to be a good steward of the culture. The idea that we are all owners of history we need to carry forward helps create a sense of legacy that thrives in the all-time best sports organizations, like the All Blacks or Yankees. 

We could all stand to look back and figure out the best way to carry the excellent parts of history forward. 

Lesson 2: Craft is in the details

It’s almost impossible to find the flagships of Buffalo Trace anywhere on shelves. Blanton’s, EH Taylor, and Pappy Van Winkle are all among some of the rarest bourbons in the US, in some instances retailing for several thousand dollars. They're known for their quality, and that quality has driven the product to a premium.

Much of that quality is distilled down to the details.

Unlike the other distilleries we visited, Buffalo Trace was meticulous in the way they made their bourbon. There was a process or system for everything. Right down to how many times they roll a barrel down a rack to make sure it sits properly.

Details like this can feel frivolous, but they’re the fabric of excellence. What to many other distilleries were points on a checklist were points of pride and specificity for Buffalo Trace. The same thing is true of the best pros in the world. 

Peyton Manning, for example, would watch a cut-up of his interceptions, near interceptions, and deflections at the end of every season, noting down whether the play was a poor decision, great defense, or something else - as well as what details he’d change. But he wouldn’t just watch once. He’d spend weeks poring over the information, fine-tuning his entire process each offseason. These same plays are those most other players would choose to forget and leave behind. But for Peyton, understanding the details of his mistakes took him from the most interceptions ever thrown by a rookie to one of the best the game has ever seen. 

The list of greats who talk about the details is endless.  It’s also a place to gain a competitive edge. The work of tuning into the details is tedious. Most people will skip it.  

Lesson 3: Excellence takes time 

The last, and perhaps most obvious and still worth repeating finding, is that the best stuff they make simply takes time.  There's no replacement for time spent refining, refining, refining if you want something excellent.

The degree of patience required to build a $15,000 bottle of bourbon is pretty remarkable. Two decades (or more) of aging, hoping that when you open up the cask, there's enough leftover to fill a bottle. And there's really no way to check other than to wait.

If you want anything great, you have to be willing to work for it and wait it out. There's no replacement for time on task, getting reps in, and letting your skills age.

If you want to be excellent, it takes time.

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