Adventures in Bourbon Country

UCLA Anderson grad makes media meaningful with a socially responsible lifestyle magazine

written by Zak Stone
photography by Justin Fantl

 

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Ask Kentucky native and The Bourbon Review cofounder Bob Eidson ('09) to talk about his career path, and the narrative unfolds like that of any ambitious entrepreneur who took a whiff of the "business-for-social-good" zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium—except his story has a boozy twist.

Eidson applied to UCLA Anderson School of Management with the goal of landing a job in finance or real estate. While there, he enrolled, on a whim, in an introductory class on social entrepreneurship—the business philosophy that views the market as a means to alleviate social ills. The course, which includes case studies on TOMS Shoes, Honest Tea and Whole Foods Markets, was akin to a conversion experience.

"Business shouldn't be just about making money," Eidson explains. "You should want to make an impact, do good, do well, create importance for people. And also: Have fun and be creative."

It was settled: Eidson would start a social enterprise. Though 2008 was a notoriously bad year for publishing, he set his sights on creating a regional lifestyle magazine focused on the Bluegrass State's famed bourbon industry, the profits from which would help preserve his home state's land, support its local businesses and celebrate its culture.

With 180 years of family history in the state, Eidson says he always "knew that [he] wanted to own a business that was based in Kentucky, that created employment in Kentucky." Building off the successful and historic bourbon industry wasn't a bad way to get involved. It was Bourbon County, Kentucky where, legend has it, Scottish immigrants first distilled their own brand of whiskey more than 200 years ago, by aging a corn-based mash in charred-oak barrels. Today, the state's 19 major distilleries and handful of craft ventures yield 95 percent of the world's bourbon, providing nearly 9,000 local jobs.

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"Bob was very strategic and saw the opportunity to build a venture that would address the growing market of casual consumers and more sophisticated connoisseurs," says Jonathan Greenblatt, Eidson's social entrepreneurship professor at UCLA Anderson, who currently directs the Obama administration's office for social innovation. "Yet, at the same time, he was driven by a desire to support his home state and nurture an appreciation for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail by encouraging tourism and driving economic development in the region."

The idea of founding a publication had arisen before Eidson arrived at UCLA Anderson, while he was working a stint at Destination Wine Country Magazine, a lifestyle magazine in Santa Barbara. With three of his former fraternity brothers from University of Kentucky—Seth Thompson, Seth's brother Justin and Brad Kerrick—Eidson began dreaming up Lexington's answer to Destination. A print and digital quarterly—the content would be a mix of industry news, travel tips, bourbon-tinged recipes and the occasional profile of a jockey, bluegrass musician or master distiller. "We just felt in our hearts that bourbon was really the next frontier to have this kind of experience," says Seth Thompson, The Bourbon Review's publisher. It's "… almost like Napa in the 1960s, when the Valley began its transition into a lifestyle brand and globally famous tourist destination."

Eidson was just finishing year one of his MBA when they launched in 2008. Though the economy was floundering, the timing was oddly right for a bourbon-themed publication. After decades of marginalization by Scotch and Irish whiskeys, the libation was having a moment. The trend of speakeasy-themed cocktail bars, the local food movement and increased awareness of the high quality of Kentucky's craft distilleries had set the conditions for a resurgence of all things bourbon, America's only congressionally recognized "native spirit."

Not unlike the wine connoisseurs who flock to Napa to immerse themselves in vineyard life, bourbon fans increasingly want more than just their drink—they want to visit its old Kentucky home. More than 1.7 million tourist visits were paid at the state's distilleries in the past five years, and about 9,000 travelers completed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 2010, a seven-distillery tour, including stops at Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey Bourbon.

The Bourbon Review is now available at those distilleries, which has helped the magazine establish a print subscriber base of 15,000 (plus a couple thousand more digitally). "They're acting like a concierge to the bourbon industry," says Griffin VanMeter, a lifelong Kentuckian whose creative agency collaborated with The Review on a video series.

Eidson's ultimate goal is to make clear that bourbon's rich culture extends beyond the walls of the distilleries to Kentucky's natural resources. The Review's environmental mission is fundamental to its existence, since without Kentucky's healthy ecology, there'd be no bourbon. "Bourbon is very much a fingerprint of this area," explains Seth. "It's very important to have the water supply. The barrels and corn come from the surrounding areas."

To that end, The Bourbon Review supports organizations like the Bluegrass Conservancy, a non-profit land trust that preserves Kentucky farmland and open space, by donating one percent of product, profit and time—what Eidson calls a "1-1-1 model"—to environmental work. Every year, The Review hosts stream cleanups to maintain the quality of the very water that will one day go into bourbon.

Celebrating its five-year anniversary this year, The Review is on its way to becoming a full-fledged media company and lifestyle brand. Eidson is delighted that his venture is already doing well enough to be able to fulfill its social mission. Their success means good things for the state and one sweet reward for Eidson: After years of living in California and Texas, where he currently works a corporate banking job, Eidson will soon realize his dream of moving back home to Kentucky to go full-time with The Bourbon Review.