Hermitage Farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, may be one of the few places in the country you can sip bourbon in a horse barn. And Barbara O’Connor, Director of Tours and Tastings of Hermitage Farm brings bourbon to new drinkers on a daily basis. In this Meet the Makers, we hear about her path to bourbon and her thoughts on “whales” (sometimes called unicorns) for collectors and how that impacts drawing new bourbon drinkers into the community.
BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
BP: After graduating from Arizona State University where I majored in Business – Tourism Management, I returned home to Kentucky where the main focal points of tourism revolve around horses and bourbon. I started off as a Tour Guide and Brand Ambassador for Stitzel-Weller and have been working in spirits education ever since!
BW: When did you discover you wanted to work with bourbon?
BO: I already had a deep appreciation for the behind-the-scenes of Bourbon, going back to jumping on tours with my father when I was younger. The spirit itself was delicious (once I was old enough to consume it), but the science of how bourbon is made, the amazing stories, the interconnectedness between distilleries and our local communities, and the deep cultural ties to Kentucky made it easy to want to share bourbon with the world.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at Barn8?
BO: The biggest surprise was that Barn8 had bourbon tastings – but no permanent place to do them! Finding and creating a new space to host those tastings in would then become a focal point of my programming. With teamwork and ingenuity, my peers and I were able to create an amazing and unique tasting space we call the Barn6 Speakeasy.
BW: How do you use your background at Barn8?
BO: After working with different brands in wildly different locations, one of the best parts is being able to bring distillery knowledge to Barn8 and Hermitage Farm’s programming, while also being able to talk candidly about a lot of different brands! Not having a brand affiliation can be a double-edged sword as you lack that public recognition and allure, but that also means you can help guests experience a wide variety of products in a very short time. I think it really shows how much love our Stewards have for bourbon culture when they get to talk about more than one brand at a time.
BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards? What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?
BO: I think that right now our industry is moving in the direction of having greater respect for both the bourbon and the guests/consumers who indulge in it. For a really long time, there’s been a party-centric view regarding bourbon and other American whiskies from the general public, which is okay to have as part of our industries culture of course, but it’s been great seeing more and more guests who want to learn about how a spirit makes it into the bottle. Guests like being able to understand a brand’s history and to talk to a professional about, not just what they like, but why they like it. I’ve always believed that appreciation for a product goes hand-in-hand with responsible consumption of a product.
One major problem I do see, however, looms big, which is the constant pursuit in the industry to fish for Whales in the collector’s market. Collectors are great (to a degree) in helping bring friends and family into spirits appreciation and education, but can also deter more casual consumers who just want a good affordable bottle. If all the “good” stuff your collector buddy recommends is next to impossible to get or costs $85-$350 dollar, you’ll probably just end up sticking to whatever is in the bar’s well and keep bourbon in your mind as less of an everyday sipper and more of an “if I can’t get the good stuff, why bother” category. It can be hard to convince people that less expensive stuff can be good too!
BW: What does your day-to-day life on the farm look like?
BO: My day-to-day life involves doing everything from grooming a horse to having a networking meeting to giving a cocktail class (in other words: hectic). The tastings remain my favorite part of our educational programs, and one of the largest facets as well, but that doesn’t change that there are always lots of things going on!
BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about your role or the initiatives you’re working on?
BO: That we’re looking to help the state of Kentucky flourish and for guests to embrace Bourbon Culture as a whole. Maybe you don’t drink, or you enjoy a different spirit – that’s okay and we celebrate that! There’s amazing food, music, art, and history guests can still enjoy without needing to directly consume that spirit that’s such a focal point of our cultural makeup.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work with bourbon?
BO: Never let yourself feel intimidated or othered, whether it’s by guests or by peers. Many spirits educators who chose this as a career, regardless of gender presentation, are subject to the infamous question “Do you really like Bourbon?”, I feel like there’s a constant nagging implication directed toward women that we’re just pretending to like it. Women in this industry have brought so much attention to the fact that yes, we do like Bourbon, and we’re really really good at talking about, drinking, and mixing that spirit. You can embrace what has long been seen as a “man’s” drink without needing to project some performative bad-ass image to justify your being there and speaking as a knowledgeable subject matter expert. I have to learn the lesson every day that I don’t have to justify my presence in this industry – I only need to be present and do my best. Your presence and your voice mean a lot more than you think in helping change misconceptions and old beliefs surrounding such a deeply interesting (and tasty) spirit!
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Louisville, KY.
BO: I’m not a big breakfast kind of gal, but you can never go wrong starting off with a late brunch at Big Bad Breakfast with a plate of biscuits and gravy and a Kentucky Coffee. After that, I might head over to the East Market District and walk around a bit where there are tons of fun shops and places to pop in (including Vendome’s Louisville workshop which isn’t open to the public, but sometimes their garage doors are open and you can watch them hammer away on a new fermentation tank or pot still). If I want to stretch my legs some more I could walk out to Waterfront Park and enjoy any of the cool events they often have going on, or just enjoy the views of the Ohio River. Now, any stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail is great to take yourself or a guest, but since I would be in the neighborhood I might as well walk over to Rabbit Hole’s Overlook bar, with maybe a quick pit stop at Muth’s Candies for a bag of Modjeskas or some bourbon barrel chocolates. If I’m feeling hungry after that, I’d catch a ride to Chik’n & Mi for some mind-blowing ramen and amazing shared bites, where they are shaking up some creative drinks that pair well with the fusion cuisine they are cooking up. With one last neighborhood hop, I’d end my night over at Trouble Bar to relax in one of their armchairs and have one of their handcrafted cocktails (funny names, amazing flavors) or a pour of some of the best bourbons on the block from their very well stocked collection. Now that’s a Saturday to enjoy!