Martial Arts

Martial Lessons from the Bourbon Tour

In the verdant, winding hills of Northern Kentucky, a truly American alcohol is distilled. Bourbon has a long history in this young country. It is crafted with pride and tradition. Over a weekend, a few friends and I went exploring this craft along the so-called Bourbon Trail. We visited distilleries to learn how bourbon was made, to celebrate a bachelor party, and to drink some excellent whisky. During the visit to six distilleries, we took three tours which ended in product sampling and had three tastings. The whole trip was more nuanced and artistic than I expected. In the end, the bourbon trail had three lessons for me that are easily applicable to the martial arts.

Maker’s Mark campus

Have you ever smelled an alcoholic drink? Often, I see connoisseur’s smelling their drink before tasting, and whenever I tried it, all I could smell was the alcohol. Not the flavors, just the alcohol. I might as well have been smelling rubbing alcohol; whereas, those who know what they’re doing were able to detect the flavors built into the drink. At our first stop, the tasting guide explained to us how to ‘nose’ a bourbon. It turns out that I had been using improper technique to smell the drink this whole time. With the correct method, I began to smell caramels and butterscotch. My friends were better at detecting scents than me, but we all agreed learning this made the experience better. Learning this technique was worth the price of the trip itself.

How to Nose a Bourbon
Note how his mouth is slightly open.

Learning the method was important because it opened up a new way to enjoy the bourbon. It reminded me that just watching someone do something doesn’t translate into being able to do it. Find an expert and let them explain what they’re doing. In the martial arts, there are certain techniques or training methods that we dismiss because they don’t work. The question that I learned to ask was, “Do I really understand what I am seeing? Do I understand the why of the technique? Are there certain details that I’m missing?

Bottles of Pappy van Winkle at the Buffalo Trace distillery. Pappy is a historic and highly sought after bourbon.

Some bourbon recipes go back a century. They are a part of family tradition in the Kentucky area as well as the local identity. During the tours, we saw people of all walks of life partaking in this bit of American history. The flavors are unique and wonderful. Yet the tasters and distillers are still creating. They are continuing learning and continually improving. The martial artist should take note of this. If even a recipe that’s been around for a century or a process that’s been passed down multiple generations are still being improved, then we can continue to work on our best techniques. There’s always something to learn; there’s always a way to do it better.

Ricks hold the barrels of bourbon as they age.

Bourbon is a barrel aged whisky, and they store the barrels in rick houses, where the change in weather affects how the bourbon ages. How long it stays in the barrel varies by brand. We tasted all sorts. For the middle brand of most bourbons, aging will be five to seven years. Some distilleries will age eighteen to twenty years. That’s a huge investment. But it doesn’t stop there. The barrels hold close to 53 gallons at the start of the process, but they lose approximately 3% of liquid per year to evaporation. For an eighteen year whisky, this means almost half the barrel has evaporated! The longer the age, the more expensive the product for this reason.

Rick house at the Buffalo Trace distillery

Once the whisky has aged appropriately, a master taster will sample some directly from the barrel itself. They will check color, smell, and other factors to ensure the bourbon meets their quality. The interesting thing that we learned is that if that whisky doesn’t taste the way it should, it gets thrown out. Think about all the time invested in that barrel. Think about the amount of money that barrel could bring the distillery. But because it doesn’t meet their quality standards, the whisky is worthless. As martial artists, I should hold myself to the same standard. Is there a technique, drill, or movement that I say is good enough but really isn’t up to my quality standards? I’m not saying throw the technique out – although that may be a solution – I’m saying that holding myself to a minimum level of quality is important. Why accept inferior quality when all we have to invest is time and effort. If they can throw away revenue generating product that is substandard, surely I can work a little harder to improve my quality.

Buffalo Trace’s six millionth barrel distilled since the end of Prohibition.


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