A lot of us probably have great memories of summer camp. It was a time to get away, a weird, glorious collection of hikes, awkward dances, and archery. Regardless of your summer camp experience, there are very few of us who have experienced a camp quite like the one our friend James Kohler just attended last month. Right off the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Camp Runamok is a week-long, all-expenses-paid summer camp for bartenders that focuses on craft whiskey and bourbon. Sounds pretty rad, right? Well, hold your horses, buddy. Only a few lucky folks get invites, and this summer James attended. James is the Manager of Saison Market, a bartender, and all around solid guy. When we host parties in our space, we turn to James to keep the bar running smoothly and the cocktails coming. We caught up with James to learn about the experience and live vicariously through his stories.
Could you give us some background on the camp and how it got started?
Jared Schubert and Lindsey Johnson started the camp three years ago. Lindsey runs Lush Life Productions. They’re a marketing agency that hosts a ton of branded parties within the wine and spirit industry. They started the camp with the intention of helping craft bartenders learn more about bourbon.
The camp is held at Camp Crescendo. It’s a Lion’s Club music summer camp for children with special needs. They’re generous to allow the camp to be hosted there for two sessions during the summer. So a big part of Camp Runamok is giving back to Camp Crescendo. We spent the last day fixing up the camp – painting, service projects, and doing whatever needed to be done. We also hosted fundraisers and events for the camp throughout the week.
So camp wasn’t just about drinking the entire time?
The basic day would start at 7 a.m. That was probably the roughest part, but you get over it because everyone is excited to be there. After breakfast, we would leave for distillery tours around 9. We went to Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Stitzel Weller – which is where Pappy Van Winkle was originally based. It’s now the current home of Bulleit. Tom Bulleit [the founder of Bulleit bourbon] works out of Pappy Van Winkle’s old office, and we went there and hung out.
Probably the most impressive tour was visiting Brown Forman-Cooperage, which is where oak barrels are made. It was incredible to watch them make the barrels and see how quickly they go through it. Visiting these places helps to give it all some perspective. Jim Beam has over a million barrels ageing right now between six different locations. It’s crazy to think of sitting on a million barrels worth of inventory. Seeing the patience that goes into it and the craft behind it all was inspiring.
There were activities every evening and we had a talent show, a karaoke night, and a campfire was held every night. But it was definitely different from the summer camps that I went to as a kid. There were a lot of drinks. We finished the night around the campfire, and sometimes that would go until 3 in the morning. And then you’re waking up at 7. So there were some really long days. But you power through because you’re having a lot of fun and everyone was such a good sport about it.
The heavy presence of brand sponsorship at the camp is an interesting take on advertising. Did this impact the experience in any way?
It was actually really great. These are brands that we already use in our bar and no one was there trying to push sales or anything. All the cabins have names and were sponsored too. I was in the Whiskey Thieves. A whiskey thief is a long metal rod used to test the whiskey in a barrel while it ages. We were sponsored by Maker’s Mark. When we showed up, there was a ton of gear for us: t-shirts, hats, flasks, and a bag with our names embroidered on them. It was like that every day. They were giving us stuff everywhere we went too. All the parties were all sponsored. We had a pool party sponsored by Appleton Rum for example. It didn’t feel like anything was super over the top or overly branded. The camp has a very good process of building relationships with great brands and getting them to sponsor the camp.
Did you change your mind about any of the particular brands or discover new ones through their involvement?
Definitely. Especially for my own personal preferences at the bar. If I was going to go make a drink, bourbon was never at the top of my list. But after being able to experience the nuances and the opportunity to put a story behind some of the brands; it was something I was romanticized by. All the brands that we were able to taste, I gained a new appreciation for. Even for some of the brands that I had already liked. Seeing Old Grand-Dad Bourbon in a barrel was really cool for me.
You mentioned that going to Brown Forman-Cooperage was a great experience. Were there any other highlights from your time at camp?
Probably my next favorite moment beyond that was when we went to Jim Beam. They have a beautiful campus where their main distillery is. We had a tasting with Fred Noe, the current Master Distiller for Jim Beam. He also happens to be Jim Beam’s grandson. His father was Booker Noe, who created Booker’s, which is their cask strength bourbon. We had about an hour-and-a-half with him. We tasted the Jim Beam portfolio as he told us stories about growing up in Kentucky and knowing everybody in the spirit community. It felt super personal because it wasn’t something they do for normal tour groups. Our tours were much more in-depth and we were able to meet the Master Distillers at all five of the distilleries we went to. They also allowed us to sample things that aren’t even on the market yet.
This sounds like an incredible opportunity that any bartender would love to be a part of.
Roughly 1,500 people applied and there was only space for two sessions of 120 people. The application asked questions with varying seriousness to get a feel for your personality and to make sure that you mesh with the camp’s positivity. I got to meet bartenders from all over the country, and swap stories and share ideas with them. There were smiles and hugs from everybody every day. I can’t speak of too many experiences where the attitude was as positive on a daily basis. It was a great opportunity for sure.
Is there anything that you picked up at camp that we should expect to see at Saison in the coming months?
Definitely some of the products we tasted. We’ll most likely pick up Marker’s Mark cask strength bourbon when they start distributing it in Virginia. Woodford Reserve has a rye whiskey that we saw aging in the barrel and I definitely want to give that a try when it comes out in a few years. I’m also planning on setting up a dinner with Dave Pickerell who was the Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark for years. He is now a consultant and has his own straight rye whiskey called WhistlePig. He hung out with us at the camp a bunch.
Next year, they’re doing two sessions in Kentucky and a rum session down in Puerto Rico. I want to go back regardless of where I end up. It was honestly unlike anything I had ever been to before. Everything at the camp exceeded all of my expectations. From the second we got off the plane, I immediately felt comfortable with everyone there and met some really great people. It was an incredible experience.