Mixologists Tell Us What Bourbon Summer Camp Was Like

By Lanee Lee

Inspired over a bottle of bourbon while watching the movie Wet Hot American Summer, the world’s first whiskey-centric summer camp for bartenders was born. Camp Runamok, the bourbon-brain child of Lindsey Johnson of Lush Life Productions and liquor chef Jared Schubert, was held in Kentucky, the heartland of American whiskey, in mid-September.

“We took another look at summer camps, and realized one important thing was missing: Bourbon. Truly, Bourbon and Rye are two of this country’s greatest accomplishments, and our bartenders deserve a full immersion into this spirit category,” says Johnson.

The competition was fierce as over 300 bartenders battled it out to be one of 100 lucky lushers chosen. The application questions were the first hurdle. Most creative answers to questions like these:  “Why should you as a grown adult with a good city job should be allowed in a camp in the middle of Kentucky Wilderness?” or “Camp requires pranking rival cabins. Tell us the best prank you’ve played on someone” were given top priority as well as excellence in the craft of cocktailing.

Cari Hah of Neat Bar in Los Angeles, one of the lucky applicants to be accepted into the first whiskey summer camp, reveals why it was important to come. “I never had a chance to go to summer camp when I was little, so this was my first experience at camp. It was tons of tomfoolery and fun.”

Days were filled with talks from whiskey luminaries like Michael Veatch (America’s only professional bourbon historian), pool parties, mixology classes utilizing a wide variety of spirits and Kentucky Bourbon Trail distillery touring like Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Makers Mark and Wild Turkey to name a few.

“My bartender highlight was stepping into the rick house at Heaven Hill distillery and inhaling. That smell is indescribable! It’s like a sweet, musty, woody, comforting smell of delicious bourbon taking a nap in these amazing barrels. And then to see how many barrels are resting, to witness the scope of aging bourbon…it truly is a labor of love and I was just blown away,” says Hah.

Camp Runamok camper Jaymee Mandeville, L.A.’s Drago Centro bartender, had a similar over-the-moon-for-mash moment. “Walking onto Buffalo Trace and taking in the sweet yeasty aromas that surround the property and seeing the waterfalls of mash and smelling the bourbon in the making…I could wake up to that every morning!”

Nights lived up to the camp’s name. Color Wars, talent shows and “some really badass bands,” in Johnson’s words, exemplified the moonshine madness. For those unschooled in the ways of summer camp games, I asked Hah to describe a few them. “We played Color Wars. Imagine running through the woods of Kentucky at top speed, slightly tipsy, trying to get to stations to complete different tasks…in the dark. And capture the flask (the flask was an oversized one).”

Mandeville relays her relay experience.

“One of the first nights, we had a relay race running through the woods with our cabin mates and completing certain tasks… as in taking a shot of Wild Turkey then spinning around and pinning a feather on the turkey. That actually wasn’t the hard part. Running in pitch black with a flashlight with the power of a reading light, keeping your team together, and dodging water balloons and silly string — now that was the real challenge!”

But it wasn’t all play, just like any other summer camp, each camper had to follow guidelines, wear “campy” uniforms, perform daily chores and community service. Two rules strictly enforced, according to Camp Runamok Sheriff, Maureen Hautaniemi, were as follows: 1. Don’t be a bitch 2. Water safety, both consumption of water and safety around the pool and lake.

Looks like Camp Runamok served its purpose by creating a new batch of American whiskey ambassadors. Campers like Elizabeth Powell tweeted from @sargep: Back at work tonight. Bringing a @BulleitUSA cocktail that I created at their home base during @camp_runamok.”

Photos courtesy of Camp Runamok/Lush Life Productions