Editor's note: This is the latest installment in a new mini-series on some of the most unusual and amazing jobs in the travel industry. Tim Knittel is the bourbon steward-in-residence at Kentucky Castle, a hotel and restaurant in Versailles, Kentucky.
When people learn about my job, the most frequently asked question I get is, “So, how much Bourbon do you actually drink?” With leading Bourbon tastings and developing pairings, multi-course dinners, cocktails and private label Bourbons, it seems like it could become a lot … but that’s why I like to differentiate between a tasting and a drinking!
Being the bourbon steward-in-residence at The Kentucky Castle is much like being a head sommelier but with a narrower focus. It requires having deep knowledge about bourbon, including the history, production, brands, flavor profiles and so much more, though there’s really no substitute for experience.
I’ve been in the bourbon business for over a decade. Previously, I was the VIP hospitality manager and brand education specialist at a major distillery. Then I started my own company specializing in bourbon education and industry consulting.
After new ownership in 2017, The Kentucky Castle wanted to develop a strong bourbon program, so they asked around for a Bourbon specialist in the area. I hold an executive level certification managed by the Stave & Thief Society here in Kentucky, as well as the title of “Adjunct Professor of Bourbon Studies” at nearby Midway University, so once the owners of Kentucky Castle learned that, the deal was sealed!
Originally built in the 1960s, The Kentucky Castle used to be sort of an oddity and mystery. It was rarely seen by the public until it reopened in 2017. The venue has 13 boutique rooms, a farm-to-table restaurant, an on-site farm, six regal event spaces and more.
The real joy as Kentucky Castle’s bourbon steward-in-residence is the time I get to spend with guests. Each month, our “Bourbon University” offers a different class, with themes ranging from bourbon 101 and history to palate training and brand education. Private bourbon tasting events are also hugely popular right now, so I lead sessions at weddings, corporate retreats and private parties. And when I can, I drop into the castle’s Bourbon Hall to provide guests with a little one-on-one bourbon education, offering recommendations and leading impromptu guided tastings.
We respect that bourbon can be perceived as harsh and bitter with a fair burn on it, so I teach people to approach the spirit in a way that allows them to overcome those challenges and get into the complex flavors. Some of these professional tasting techniques include retronasal breathing, triple sip and opening with a little water or ice. For many guests, our tastings are the first time they’re able to pick out the nuanced flavors in bourbon. Whether tasting bourbon for the first time or wanting to go deeper into the spirit, I offer experiences to match every guest’s bourbon background.
In addition to spending time with guests, I spend a considerable amount of time preparing for guest experiences. For example, I consult with the executive chefs on developing bourbon dinners and review cocktail submissions from the bartenders. Currently, I’m working with a local distillery on custom recipes for a private label product. I also have weekly meetings with the director of beverage to discuss which new bourbons to bring in and what vintage products we can add to our collection. We have the complete Van Winkle line, but we also have three original Stitzel-Weller bottlings! For most people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to stay at a Castle, so why not have a once-in-a-lifetime bourbon as well?
Being a bourbon steward is an amazing position because I’m not just teaching bourbon – which is great in itself – but I also get to do so at an authentic castle. And once guests receive my guidance into learning about bourbon, they almost always ask, “How do I get your job?”
But I don’t think there’s another job in the world like it.