Bob Eidson, Justin Thompson and Seth Thompson, publishers of the Bourbon Review magazine stand outside their soon to open bar, Belle's, named for infamous Lexington madame Belle Brezing.
As the economic downturn in the United States kicked into full gear in 2008, few people were embarking on a career dependent on advertising — typically one of the first places businesses cut during tough economic times.
The founders of The Bourbon Review, though, admit they probably did not hold the business acumen in publishing to be properly dissuaded from launching their Lexington-based publication five years ago.
And as it turned out the grim view of the publishing world belied the fact that bourbon was on the verge of an unprecedented popularity boom and in need of a Kentucky-based publication to discuss the finer points of the beverage — rather than just endlessly debate differences in taste.
“Whether a particular bourbon is good or not, we wanted to leave that up to the customers,” said Justin Thompson, one of three current publishers of The Bourbon Review, along with his brother, Seth, and Bob Eidson. “What we wanted to do through our publication is help our readers get a sense of all the other things that bourbon touches on. The bourbon itself is just one part of it.”
Things have gone well in the process. Since the magazine published its first issue five years ago, it has surpassed several milestones. Last year, the publication received its 10,000th paid subscription and just recently attained 42,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. About 20,000 copies of the publication are printed each month, with the other half set aside for single-copy sale. The publication was one of the first available on the Apple Newsstand application, which has provided circulation in about 86 countries.
The magazine is also continually expanding and promoting its catalog of bourbon events — both local and national — that feature food, distillers and other spirits in addition to, of course, various bourbons. The group recently held fifth anniversary celebrations in both Louisville, Ky., and New York City. The owners, in collaboration with longtime Lexington bar owner Larry Redmon, are also finishing work on their first bar, Belle’s, which is scheduled to open in mid-October on Market Street in downtown Lexington.
“There are times I really have to remind ourselves that we publish a magazine,” Eidson said. “It is easy to forget a lot of times that you have to meet a deadline and you have to get this issue out when you are dealing with all of these other things.”
Before five years ago, each of the three current publishers of The Bourbon Review was leading a very different life. Justin Thompson was working at a bar in Lexington. His brother, Seth, had a job in the food science field in Decatur, Ill. Eidson was getting his MBA from the University of California in Los Angeles.
But that all changed when Eidson came back to Lexington for a visit and spoke to Justin Thompson and Bradley Kerrick, another friend, about starting a bourbon magazine. The three had been fraternity brothers while earning their undergraduate degrees at the University of Kentucky and had always thought of starting a business together.
The group liked the idea, but they weren’t quite sure how to execute it. After all, none of the partners had any journalism or advertising experience. They also didn’t have the first clue about lining up advertising for a publication that they envisioned as so much more than just the latest review of new and rare bourbons.
In the end, the original three partners decided that, rather than raising the money from investors, they would put up their own money to produce the inaugural issues. Advertisers could then get a first-hand look at the magazine before purchasing advertising space.
“We knew the advertisers would have a lot of questions about the publication — especially given the fact that none of us had any experience,” Justin Thompson said. “But I knew if we could just get a copy in their hands and let them look at it, they would get what we were trying to do.”
Customers who got to take a look at the magazine were impressed. The publication of their second issue marked the last time they had to dip into their own pockets to publish the quarterly magazine. Shortly after, Seth Thompson left his career in the food science industry to join the business, while Kerrick left the magazine to pursue other interests.
Eidson, who continued to work full-time in the banking industry in Los Angeles and later Dallas while helping the magazine establish itself, left a lucrative job with a large bank this past spring in order to return to Lexington and devote himself full-time to the magazine and related businesses.
“It feels great to be back,” Eidson said. “I always knew I wanted to get back in Kentucky, and I think this is a great opportunity to do something that is unique to this area.”
In the five years since The Bourbon Review launched, one aspect of the bourbon culture that has come to prominence is the use of local food, particularly in the South. It is for this reason that the group is gearing a lot of its efforts toward promoting bourbon events with a culinary component.
The group hopes to expand its bourbon promotions to at least one event per month, with about two or three signature events each year, Eidson said. The Bourbon Classic, a weekend-long bourbon and culinary event held in January in Louisville, is anticipated to be the publication’s first signature event. The event features bourbon, food and other related products from distillers, chefs and hundreds of vendors. The second annual event is scheduled to take place Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2014.
“That event really kind of captures what we and the publications are about,” Justin Thompson said. “It’s not just an event to see how much bourbon you can drink. It’s about sampling and learning about all the different aspects of bourbon and American whiskey that you may not have known before.”