The world has long been waiting for a leadership lesson centered around bourbon. Thanks to a recent Hulu documentary on the story of bourbon (and in observance of National Bourbon Day on June 14), that wait is over. 

History in a Glass

During the YOBW (“Year of Binge Watching” a/k/a 2020), I happened upon a wonderful documentary on the history and making of bourbon called “Neat: The Story of Bourbon.” (For non-drinkers, “neat” refers to a method of drinking bourbon straight up, without ice or other accompaniment.)

As someone born and bred in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I had my own history with the amber-colored spirit—enough to know the difference between “rot gut” and “the good stuff” and that while mixing it with Coke is acceptable in most quarters, mixing it with any kind of diet soda is a sin anywhere. 

I knew surprisingly little, however, about the history of bourbon itself, including how it became America’s only native spirit, how it was popularized as a way to preserve the surplus corn produced in the New World by distilling it to make bourbon rather than letting it rot, and how a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig was the first to store newly distilled whiskey in charred oak barrels, giving bourbon its distinctive color and taste. 

I learned all this and more in this fascinating documentary, including how best to taste bourbon to bring out its natural flavors, how an evangelist for bourbon named Booker Noe turned bourbon from being considered an “old-fashioned” (the insult, not the cocktail) drink for our parents’ generation into the small batch stuff that fueled the craft cocktail craze, and how bourbon-making and bourbon-drinking are both family affairs. I learned that the natural, time-honored method for storing and aging bourbon led to it being described as “history in a glass.”

The most important thing I learned, however, had nothing to do with drinking bourbon and everything to do with what the making of bourbon teaches about leaving a legacy for future generations.

Third Batch Legacy

The unquestioned star of the documentary is a tour guide at the Buffalo Trace Distillery named Freddie Johnson, whose smooth, warm voice sounds like how I suspect bourbon would sound if it could talk. Johnson learned the art of making bourbon and picking out the proper oak barrels from his father who learned it from his father before him.

If you watch nothing else, the segment between 36:00 and 37:24 provides a master class on the importance of leaving a legacy to future generations. Here’s what Johnson says:

  • “If you come to this whiskey business in your early 20s and with everything you know about making whiskey, you make the very best batch of whiskey you know how to make . . . When your last barrel from that batch reaches maturity, you’re now 45 and that was your FIRST batch.”
  • “So you make another batch based on everything you learned from your first batch. By the time you go through that process again and your last barrel reaches its maturity, you’re about 75 years old.”
  • “In this industry what most people don’t realize, it’s very, very rare that an old whiskey guy like us ever gets to taste his third batch to its final maturity. That’s the legacy you leave for the next generation. You get to think about that and you’re thinking, ‘I’m tasting what they didn’t get a chance to taste.’”

If bourbon were capable of dropping the mic, this would be the time to do it.

Paying It Back and Forward

As a proud member of the perpetually aggrieved Generation X, I confess my immediate reaction upon hearing Johnson’s deep wisdom was to say, “Yeah, Boomers, he’s talking to YOU! You already cleaned out the first two batches” (metaphorically, if not literally). “Leave the third batch for the rest of us!”  (For a longer rant aimed at the appetite of the Baby Boom generation, check out this one, which will make you wince: Boomers: The Vandal Generation | National Review.)

Once I climbed off my generational high horse, though, I realized that the message of storing up the third batch for others transcends generational rivalries and stereotypes. I also realized it points us in two directions: backward to the realization that the batch of privileges, rights, and prosperity we’re currently drinking was harvested, distilled, and stored away by a previous generation no longer around to enjoy it; and forward to the knowledge that future generations will be sipping our collective third batch someday—that is, if we do the work necessary to distill and store it away. 

The first direction leads to a sense of gratitude and deep appreciation for the sacrifice of those who came before. The second direction leads to just as deep a sense of responsibility to pay that sacrifice forward.

Your Third Batch

When applying the art of making bourbon to our own lives, whether you’re working on your first batch or your third, the reality is that we are all storing barrels of something by the choices we make, the actions we take, and the way we live our lives. These weighty questions occurred to me as I was mulling over Freddie Johnson’s words: 

  • Whose batch am I drinking from and how can I show my appreciation? Jibes at Boomers aside, I recognize I owe a great debt of gratitude to those who came before me who stored up the metaphorical batches I’m drinking from—the men and women who provided me a first-class education, built my community and place of worship, and enabled me to live a healthier and more balanced life than previous generations were able. 

In modern-day America, we spend more time criticizing those who came before for their mistakes than we do honoring them for their sacrifices, but it’s not too late to turn that around.  Who can you honor for storing up the fruits of their labors for you?

  • Who are you distilling and storing your batch for? Maybe you’re not the equivalent of a master distiller like Freddie Johnson and maybe you’re still working out your first batch. Regardless, you still have the opportunity to begin pouring into others in ways that will shape them for years to come. Don’t wait, look around to see who you are in a position to influence right now
  • What are you storing in your batches? This is the scariest and most convicting question of all for me, whether I’m thinking about my family, my coworkers, my friends, or people who share my faith. It’s not a question of mere economic contributions or even how they will think about me when I’m gone, but about what lasting impact I have on their lives and the lives of those they touch. How would you fill in the blank in this question: because I lived, the people around me had the blessing of ____? 

At one point in the documentary, a younger bourbon aficionado noted that bourbon “is not meant to be shot, it’s meant to be enjoyed. Intrinsically, bourbon is a great pause button that is direly needed in today’s environment.”

If you will pardon me, I believe it’s time to hit that pause button myself as I consider what to store in my own third batch. 

Mike Tooley is a Co-Founder with Upstream Principles LLC, a coaching and consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals, leaders, and teams go upstream to discover solutions for their leadership and employee development challenges. As a certified Leadership and Strengths Coach, Mike is committed to serve as a guide to help others discover, and live out, who they are designed to be.

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