Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Steve Cole, Whiskey Professor

I had lunch today with Steve Cole, Whiskey Professor.

Cole is quick to admit that "whiskey professor" is a marketing term. He doesn't have a PhD in Whiskey nor is he tenured faculty at Whiskey U. He is an employee of Beam Global and his job is more generically known in the industry as brand ambassador. Beam chose the whiskey professor title, according to Cole, because his job is education, not sales. He teaches consumer and trade audiences about whiskey generally and the Beam Small Batch Bourbons Collection specifically.

The Small Batch Bourbons Collection consists of four brands: Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's and Basil Hayden. The biggest seller of the group is Knob Creek and most of the time, that's the brand Cole and the other two whiskey professors talk about. He was wearing a Knob Creek fleece pullover when we met.

Steve Cole grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and went to college at Middle Tennessee State, where he discovered whiskey. His roommates happened to be from Lynchburg and patronized their local brand. Rebelling against that peer pressure, Cole became a Maker's Mark drinker.

In the course of post-graduate job seeking, Cole worked as a bartender and fell in love with that profession. He moved to Chicago and began tending bar at an upscale joint on the North Side that had a good whiskey selection. Fear of appearing unknowledgeable to his patrons fueled his desire to learn all he could about bourbon, scotch and other whiskeys. One day about three years ago, one of those customers happened to be a Beam brand manager and a new career was born.

During the next phase of his whiskey education, Cole was put to work at Beam Global distilleries in Kentucky and Scotland. Suddenly he was working beside one of his idols, Fred Noe, then digging peat on Islay. Heady stuff.

In addition to making presentations at whiskey shows, whiskey professors answer questions submitted to the Knob Creek web site.

As more and more audiences clamor for information about whiskey and other spirits, and the public schedules of people like Fred Noe and other distillers and blenders become overbooked, more and more companies are recruiting people like Steve Cole for the brand ambassador role. Diageo, for example, has its Masters of Whiskey, who perform a similar function.

As the saying goes, nice work if you can get it.

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