Joshua Gonzales, owner and manager of Thunderbird, will be sending us dispatches from Camp Runamok, a bourbon education summer camp for bartenders.
Now, lest you think Camp Runamok lives up to its name as a 24-hour party in the woods, Gonzales explained that the camp is taken quite seriously by its roughly 300 campers—from beginning to end. There's a rigorous 6-page application, wherein the bartenders have to speak to their contributions not just to the mixology scene, but to their community as well.
"Over 2,000 people applied this year," Gonzales said. That puts their acceptance rate at just under 15%. For comparison, Cornell's acceptance rate is 16.6%.What kind of person would sweat through a multi-page, essay-question-laden application to go learn about nothing but bourbon for a few days? “The person who is committed to this as a career. They are bartenders. For life,” Gonzales said.
The camp itself functions exactly like any other camp, with campers assigned to cabins and counselors assigned to each cabin. Six head counselors wrangle the cabin counselors, and everything you do at camp has a point value, from showing up to meals on time, helping to prep dinners, being courteous and respectful at distillery tours, and helping out wherever you're needed. The cabin that wracks up the most points "wins camp," and the entire cabin is invited back next year, the real prize being given a pass for the application process.
But what is the point of all this if not to run around drunk in the woods for a weekend? It's all about bourbon education, so campers are loaded into buses and taken to distilleries to learn each brand's process. The camp is paid for by liquor distributors and is, essentially, an in-depth marketing strategy. As consumers become more interested in where their bourbon comes from, brands find that bartenders who are intimately familiar with the processes are much better brand ambassadors, both for bourbon connoisseurs and bourbon babies—of which there are a lot in need of education.
"Bourbon is the fastest-growing spirit segment globally," Gonzales said. He attributes the explosion to budget-conscious consumers turning away from pricier brown booze like scotch, but who are still in the mood for something deep and complex. Plus, as Gonzales so eloquently said, "it's so American."
Runamok campers return to their home bars with a tremendous depth of knowledge of their bourbon selection, and the winners can start getting excited for the next year. That, Gonzales said, is one of the most quintessential camp-y things about Runamok: "Its like real camp—I’m excited to see people I haven't seen in a year."
Keep your eyes on this blog for updates from Gonzales, and go here for info on how to participate next year.