Louisville Distilling School Offers Students a Hands-On Learning Experience
When Colin Blake attended high school and college in Louisville years ago, like most young adults, he was chomping at the bit to move away after graduation.
“Back then there was nothing to do,” Blake says. “If you walked downtown past 5 p.m., it had turned into a ghost town.”
So when he left, he vowed to never come back. Well, it’s funny the way things work because years later, life’s winding path ultimately led him straight back home.
With a degree in photography, Blake worked for several years touring around with bands snapping photos. Next, he landed a job at Getty Images in Seattle before attending film school and moving to LA where he worked for six years as a production designer for film and television. Then came the age-old story of “boy meets girl” and life turns upside down. Or, perhaps in this case, it turned right-side-up — leading Blake back to his roots.
“It turns out Regina was also from Louisville and actually grew up not far from me,” Blake says. “When we got engaged, we didn’t want to raise kids out west, plus our families were still in Louisville, so we moved back home to St. Matthews.”
Although Louisville wasn’t a good fit for his production experience, Blake made a connection that changed the course of his career. He met David Dafoe, the owner of a company called Flavorman, which develops both alcohol-based and non-alcoholic drinks. He hired Blake in a freelance capacity to work on writing code for a special project. When that was done, he hired Blake as Creative Director for Flavorman, doing copywriting and graphic design work.
About this time, Dafoe couldn’t help noticing a craze in the industry. It seemed as though everyone was fighting to be the next Red Bull Energy Drink. After attending a Distiller’s Conference in Portland, Dafoe recognized that there was about to be an explosion of craft distilleries. He had been sitting on the building next door to Flavorman, which was an old automotive shop in downtown Louisville, and when he returned from Portland, he decided to open a distilling school in that space.
It took about a year and a half to get everything done and permits in place. In 2012, Moonshine University opened its doors.
Shortly after being hired at Flavorman, Blake started showing up in the distillery at Moonshine U to watch their first distiller go through training. Eager to learn as much as he could, he quickly found he didn’t like the physically intensive labor of distilling. He did, however, find a new passion.
“I fell in love with the science, application and community behind the process,” says Blake, who asked Dafoe if anyone was in charge of heading up the courses at the university. The answer was “no” so Blake volunteered his services.
“Dave said ‘great!’ and he handed me the keys and let me go off and get real nerdy about spirits,” says Blake, who became Director of Spirits Education at Moonshine University.
“I’m likely the only person in the world who has that title because I completely made it up, but it really does showcase what I do,” he says, insisting that they are more than just bourbon at Moonshine U. “We are all things spirits beyond production, including ancillary things like root-to-market and brand marketing.”
Around the time Moonshine University opened was the beginning of the craft boom. They started with a six-day flagship distiller course that invites more than 30 presenters to come in over the course of that week who are all experts in their field
“We’ve had people come from 39 different countries and 48 states, and we’ve helped open 160 distilleries around the world,” Blake says. “We’ve become a hub not only as a place where people learn how to run a distillery but also where people send their staff to learn the industry overall.”
In addition to the six-day course, they also offer two and three-day workshops in a variety of topics, including gin, whiskey, root-to-market, agave spirits, nosing for faults and barrel aging classes.
Blake heads up all of the university’s programming, working with industry experts to develop classes and workshops. Blake teaches many of the lower-level introductory courses and is the primary instructor for the Stave and Thief Society, a bourbon certification program that launched in 2015 and is backed by the Kentucky Distillers Association.
“A stave is what the sides of a barrel is made of, and a whiskey thief is the historic way to pull a sample out of a barrel so we tried to develop it very much with the feeling of a secret society,” explains Blake, noting that they had planned to offer the Stave and Thief Society twice a year for local bartenders as a way to help the local community learn about spirits education. But right out of the gates, it exploded in popularity. When they saw that the second class consisted of 80% enthusiasts, they knew they had something on their hands. And it’s just kept growing.
“Last year we added more people in the first six months than the previous two or three years combined,” Blake says.
Now they have more than 5,000 members from all over the world.
Offering two different levels, people can either study at home or, if they seek a higher level of learning, they can come to Louisville and spend a day doing hands-on bourbon making in the distillery.
“We do sensory training where we take students through a whole litany of everything in the world of bourbon in an unbranded perspective,” Blake says. “We strip away all of the branding and marketing so people get the true deep roots and explanations of how everything functions from labeling to production. It’s a super fun day.”
Last year, they conducted 22 classes in three different states — Louisville, Chicago and New Orleans. This year they added New York.
“It’s a program we’re really proud of and passionate about,” Blake says. “We try to have all of the offerings here so people can get trained in whatever they want.”
The program has grown organically simply by word-of-mouth as bourbon enthusiasts hear about all of the cool stuff one does in class. For instance, once they become an executive bourbon steward, they receive a challenge coin, a lapel pin, and a 36-scent aroma training kit so they can practice.
“It’s a fun, involved program that, beyond just getting a check-mark certification, actually trains you to be better at doing sensory as well as all aspects of bourbon,” Blake adds.
Above all, they make sure the experience is hospitable and all-inclusive.
“We’re not trying to create the whiskey snobs,” Blake says. “We want it to be a fun, engaging society.”
Blake can’t help but laugh when he thinks about how desperate he was to escape Louisville years ago — and the fact that he returned to the same area and bought a house that’s 1.5 miles away from the home he lived in as a teenager.
“I love it now,” he says. “The city has changed so much in the last 15 years. The food scene and support for the arts is just tremendous. It’s turning into a world-class city.”
Moonshine University is located at 801 South 8th Street in Louisville. For more information, visit moonshineuniversity.com or give them a call at 502-301-8139.