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BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE "BOURBON SASQUATCH"


Steve Akley, The Hardest Working Man in the Bourbon Biz



Tune in to "The Bourbon Talk Show" sometime and you will hear the distinctive bass tone voice of ABV Network founder Steve Akley, as he interviews a mind boggling line up of important people from the bourbon industry. The voice hovers somewhere between the expressive raspiness of the great Gene Shepard and the deeper, staccato tones of the Real Don Steele, putting his guests and listeners immediately at ease. Akley, a life long resident of St. Louis, was himself a voice actor and narrator in one of his many incarnations, and is widely respected in the spirits industry for his generosity, encyclopedic knowledge of bourbon, and old school work ethic. Writing and producing a wide variety of virtual events and podcasts weekly, his company also makes films, the latest of which, "Colorado Whiskey" he just wrapped, under the media arm of ABV Network, "Bourbon Sasquatch." If that weren't enough to wear out most 20 year olds, Steve and his partner Jim Fasnacht have opened a shop, which will sell exclusive barrel picks only, in addition to being an education and event center.


I sat down to talk with Steve recently via Zoom about his career in Bourbon, his transition from a dead end corporate job to entrepreneurship, why he's into the "Sasquatch" legend, and a whole bunch of other cool stuff he's done and is doing these days. The following are edited excerpts from our interview:


Barrel Strength Talent: So, Steve, I wanted to start the interview with a kind of serious question. It's been on my mind recently: When do you sleep?


Steve Akley: (Laughs)..Yeah, not a lot. But I feel like that's a super hero power, you know? So I, fortunately for one reason or another dont require a lot of sleep, so yeah, I tend to work a lot. You know, it's not uncommon for me to start at five in the morning and go til' midnight..largely working with a few breaks for meals or that type of thing, but that happens a lot!


Barrel Strength Talent: ... and it's obviously fueled by a great passion.


Steve Akley: Yes!


Barrel Strength Talent: So that really helps.. I mean, I don't think anyone that isn't as in love with what they do as you are, would be able to find that energy. You'll kind of lack energy when you don't love your job, you know what I'm saying?


Steve Akley: Yep! I know! (Laughs) I came from the corporate world and that was kind of a slow dwindle into that state. But once you go over that cliff, you start rolling downhill and I was definitely not in a happy situation and had no energy for work. And though I was working a side hustle pretty hard at the time, that's what ultimately turned into the (ABV) network.


Barrel Strength Talent: So, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that, because you have an insane amount of cool and exciting projects going on right now..but I think everybody out there, particularly in the political climate we're in, and as a result of Covid, people are really interested in how somebody transitions from the corporate world to a role of entrepreneurship, so I wanted to hear that story.


Steve Akley: Yes, so all the way up until five years ago I was in a corporate job in the moving industry, and I was in sales. I worked at the global headquarters for two of the biggest brands. So I worked for those two companies that were headquartered in St. Louis, and initially I would travel around the country and call on companies.


Barrel Strength Talent: Oh, wow. And you were there for a long time, right?


Steve Akley: 20 years!


Barrel Strength Talent: Woahh.. so what time period are we talking about here?


Steve Akley: So from when my daughter was born in 1997 to 2016 or so..


Barrel Strength Talent: What was the tipping point for you? I mean when did you finally say "enough," and what motivated you to leave a job where you probably had great benefits and you had started a family..


Steve Akley: Well, before I was in that role, I worked outta my house as a sales guy in the grocery industry, which I did for many years after working in a grocery store in college. I got a little burned out working out of the house.. not interacting with anyone other than when I would go to stores to sell things. When I got the job in corporate, I was so happy because I thought..this is great.. You get a desk, you get these great benefits, you get to interact with people. Yeah, when you go down to the cafeteria, I thought that was the greatest thing ever.(Laughs) I envisioned myself moving up through the ranks and getting promoted and you know, being vice president eventually and all that stuff. Yeah, sure. after awhile, it never happened, but they kept dangling a carrot, saying if you do this, then it'll lead you to getting it ( a promotion). So I went back to school and got my MBA, and then they're like, well, you gotta work on more committees. Then I started working on every committee and taking all this outside responsibility that was just extra. You keep doing all these things and it never happens though..


Barrel Strength Talent: They're just leading you along..


Steve Akley: They lead you along and suck the life out of you.. its' what they do in corporate. And uh, eventually, I got mad, and I had a boss who finally at some point got sick of me asking about being promoted. He just said it's never gonna happen: You wanna get promoted, go find a different job..like you know what your'e doing..


Barrel Strength Talent: Right, right, I understand that.. and how old were you at this point, if you don't mind me asking..


Steve Akley: I was 49 years old. Oh wow, yeah. You get some protections at 50, I was 49 and they let me go. I didn't leave. I'll be honest, my attitude had just gone down and soured a bit. Soured, and I wasn't happy and I knew I wasn't ever going anywhere. I wanted to do something, but I was afraid to do it, cuz of the salary and all that, and my daughter was in college at that point. I was scared to leave!


Barrel Strength Talent: I can totally relate. So were you into Bourbon then? And if so, were you seriously into it, or just sort of experimenting with it?


Steve Akley: I was seriously into it. It was just what I grew up with. My parents weren't drinkers, but when they would drink, they'd drink bourbon at parties In the summertime it'd be bourbon slushys, and in the fall they'd make a cocktail called "The Godfather"..and yeah, yeah, yeah, there was eggnog with bourbon at Christmas.


Barrel Strength Talent: My parents also! I grew up in Virginia, so that was what they had at parties as well. Do you remember the brand your parents drank?


Steve Akley: Yes. It was David Nicholson 1843.


Barrel Strength Talent: I've never heard of that before!


Steve Akley: Oh yeah! That was big in St.Louis, and it's a brand that's around today. It's owned by LCO, which is now owned by MGP, but yeah.


Barrel Strength Talent: That's super interesting. So just going back to the time when you were about ready to leave your job..


Steve Akley: Yeah, so I decided that because I had a corporate job and I was smart with my finances, I had set myself up and positioned myself to get out early, but I wanted to get my daughter through college first...and once she was out of college, I felt like, okay, maybe I can look at doing this bourbon thing I'm playing around with on the side. I was doing podcasts and all that already. That started in 2016, and I thought maybe I could have this nice little side career, as I'm doing the corporate job...and if things continue to go well, I'll just do that full time when I'm retired. But then they brought me into the conference room. You know, what they try to do in corporate is they let you go, but they give you a severance package. And I talked to my wife and said, Hey, I have this pile of money. Can I try to see if there's anything out there in Bourbon for me? That's how it happened.


Barrel Strength Talent:.So the seed was planted in your mind.. one of the things I didn't know about you, Steve, which really blew me away when I started looking into your bio, was that you've published so many really cool, fascinating books! I went, oh my god, I never knew this about this guy. I especially like the books you did about the struggle of small brands to get their products on shelves, and it goes back to your days working in grocery stores, yes?


Steve Akley: You know, I never understood how those little brands could exist on the shelves with these big companies that have millions of dollars to spend on advertising... If they can find a way to make it, I wanna know that story. So I just started calling up these businesses and getting their stories and documenting them for a book.


Barrel Strength Talent: One of the books that really resonated with me was the one on small brands in Hawaii: Did you spend time there?


Steve Akley: Yeah, yeah, I did!... It was my first win as a writer because I got some publicity down there, and a bit of a local following in newspapers and stuff like that. That was kinda cool.


Barrel Strength Talent:..and the other thing that surprised me about you is that your'e a jazz fan!


Steve Akley: I love jazz music, yes.


Barrel Strength Talent: Well, that makes total sense, because, I mean, Miles Davis is from St. Louis...and Josephine Baker, who is one of my idols, and although she wasn't a jazz artist, a lot of other famous musicians came from there... Cal Tjader..Clark Terry..Oh my god, Donny Hathaway who is another great.. it just opened up this whole other area of your personality. Do you know about these guys called Bourbon Turntable? They do a show where they pair a bourbon with an album they like, which I think is great fun!


Steve Akley: Yeah, I know them! Very cool, right?


Barrel Strength Talent: So, your'e publishing books and your'e starting a Bourbon network around the same time...


Steve Akley: Yes. Well, I started writing after my father passed away. He died suddenly, and you know, I'd always wanted to be a writer, even as as a kid, and I never explored it. I didn't know how to become a writer, so I just did what I knew I could do, and that was sell things. When my dad passed away suddenly on the 12th of December, 2012, I decided I gotta start writing, because you never know when it's gonna end, and if there's something you wanna do, you gotta do it today! So I just started writing.


Barrel Strength Talent: So inspiring...and it's my understanding that your'e coming on your tenth year running the ABV Network?


Steve Akley: Not quite.. I officially launched the network in 2016, and that's also when I started "Bourbon Zeppelin", my e-magazine, started my first podcast, and incorporated the business, too.


Barrel Strength Talent: And you were doing some voice acting and narration?


Steve Akley: Yes!


Barrel Strength Talent: That makes complete sense to me because one of the first things I thought when I spoke to you over the phone was that you have the most amazing voice! Now, I'm a little scared to ask you the next question, cuz I know we could possibly go down this huge rabbit hole we might not emerge from, but I have to ask: what is your fascination with the Sasquatch legend, and why did you name your film division Sasquatch Productions?


Steve Akley: I just love Big Foot!. I loved Big Foot as a kid and still do... It's one of those things, and you don't have to be a quote unquote "believer" to love Big Foot, in my mind. I also love Santa Claus, and I love Christmas time. (Akley has a picture of Santa Claus behind him over his desk)..and you don't have to be a believer to appreciate something. Of course, I grew my beard out when I left the corporate job...




Barrel Strength Talent: It's great because your look is easily associated with your brand!...


Steve Akley:..Yeah, so one day I was on a barrel pick, and Jason Brauner, who owns Bourbon's Bistro in Louisville..the great bourbon bar..he referred to me as the "Bourbon Sasquatch" because of my hairy look and my size, I mean.. I'm six foot four, and a big guy! So that's where it all started!


Barrel Strength Talent:...Great story and a perfect lead in to talk about the film division of ABV, named, of course, after the Sasquatch. Let's talk about that and what your plans are for the "Colorado Whiskey"documentary. I guess you guys are wrapped and beginning to edit now?


Steve Akley: Yes, so it is very exciting.We have five distilleries that are featured and then seven that are like mini features in there, too. So there's gonna be a profile of 12 distilleries all together....We wanted to tell the story of Colorado whiskey because we feel there are great stories to be told there. When you think of American whiskey, you immediately think of Kentucky, and while those are great stories, they've been told.



Barrel Strength Talent: How will people see the film?


Steve Akley: Well, we're kinda stuck right now, because we want to be very independent. The problem when you work with a studio.. is that they'll take over the process and even post production.. (their attitude is) "We'll tell you how this needs to be", and we refuse to do that. We would rather just make it real and just for Bourbon fans that follow us, and we're fine with that. Our fans are the ones that fund this, so we do some fundraising by selling different experiences and things like that...and then, to us, it's a pure movie. We will shop this one a little bit to the studios,and if they like it as is, we'll be willing to sell the distribution rights to it: If not, we'll just release it ourselves, which goes through Amazon and the streaming platforms.


Barrel Strength Talent: Have you thought about reaching out to the new "Distillery Channel?"


Steve Akley: That's a possibility, for sure. I was working with them early on, and another individual in the industry got interviewed, and I got sort of cut out.... That's just how the business is..


Barrel Strength Talent: It's all politics, at the end of the day! But Kudos to you for getting out there on the streets, with boots on the ground, and interviewing all the great distillers!


Steve Akley:...Documenting history.. That's what I love!


Barrel Strength Talent: So without ruining it for anyone that's gonna see the film, what do you think Colorado distillers are doing differently, or with more innovation, than distillers in other parts of the country?


Steve Akley: What I love about Colorado is, your'e talking about very passionate individuals in an environment which is very friendly for distilling, which allows them to experiment, and no one's told Colorado that column stills exist! They all make pot still whiskey. You know, you think Kentucky is it, and I love Kentucky and will never bash it: I think they make the best bourbon in the world.


Barrel Strength Talent: Well, you can't bash it because your'e a Kentucky Colonel!


Steve Akley: I love that place. And it's not "love this place and hate the other one": Hey, it's just there's more than just Kentucky, and that's what we are trying to convey...


Barrel Strength Talent: Exactly. The American whiskey category is just so exciting right now. I know you are not a big fan of Scotch,(laughs) but that being said, the American Single Malt category is smoking hot right now.


Steve Akley: I root for that! They're getting their arms around this and they're close to defining the category. I've been talking to people in the know, and they tell me that used barrels will be okay in American single malts, which is huge right now, because of the big barrel shortage. And it allows distillers to use those multiple times....I think it turned a lot of distillers into wanting to do single malt, which I think is going to change the landscape, right?


Barrel Strength Talent: Right, I have a colleague, Martin Purvis from Kelvin Cooperage in Scotland, and he says there is an insatiable thirst for new oak barrels right now that he doesn't ever see going away... So tell me, Steve, when should people look for your film to come out?


Steve Akley: We're looking at Spring of 2023..


Barrel Strength Talent: Great! Before we wrap up, I'm really curious to hear from you what your pet peeves are in the industry! I just read this great article by Steve Coomes in Whiskey Wash called "Enough with the Bottle Hunting - Just Drink the Whiskey", which certainly touches on a few of my peeves in this business..


Steve Akley: Every time I hear about something great, I have a running list of those, and can I find them? Nope! Never!, right? Or, probably never. So yeah, that's certainly part of the whiskey world right now. Is this allocated? I think we're all just tired of it. You hear certain stories and as soon as they announce it ( the release), I know I'll never get any..even from my "D" list! So that kind of drives me crazy...and they play games with some of that allocated stuff too. You can't find Weller in St. Louis, but I can go to Ohio where my in-laws live, and buy cases of it, so why is that?..


Barrel Strength Talent: Well, if you've seen my instagram page, you'll know my motto is "Sip, Don't Flip!" I hate that these people, these obsessives, are not going to drink the bottles, but maybe put it on display for when their rich friends come over and go "Look what I got"...Its a prestige thing. and its' driving the prices up for everybody else, making it harder to find these bottles that we really want to just enjoy. You know, in 2015 when I lived in Kentucky for a year, two blocks from my house, I could go to the Walgreens and there were shelves of great bourbon for sale, and I had never seen anything like that.. I dont know if its' still the same now, but coming from NYC to see a drugstore carrying pretty top shelf stuff was like, what!


Steve Akley: Pretty incredible. State by State laws are really weird.


Barrel Strength Talent: So tell me about your beautiful ABV Barrel Pick Shop, how it works, and what that's about.


Steve Akley: So it's part of an offshoot of what we were just talking about. The fact that allocated bourbon is hard to find, and the unique things your'e looking for as well, and barrel picks are the most unique thing in the world. It's really the taste of that barrel can never be replicated....one of my business partners, Jim Fasnacht, who used to run the barrel program for Total Wine here in St. Louis, where there are four stores in the metro area, would bring me in on barrel picks. So between the two of us, we've done over 500 barrel picks. We had a good following for the picks we made, so we decided we could do this as a model for a shop.


It's just like anything else.. somebody who wants to start a distillery, it usually happens over a couple of bourbons and (laughs) that's what it was like for us. It was like, hey, we do all these barrel picks and someone else makes the money.. what if we did this ourselves? And the good ting is I have so many contacts from the world of bourbon.


Barrel Strength Talent: Oh my god, you really do!


Steve Akley: So I've been able to secure many unique barrels, and I always feel we have an advantage because they (the distillers) are giving us the best stuff they can to pick from, and we're picking the best of that:the best of both worlds! So now we have a shop that features only that. You can't come in and buy a handle of Jim Beam or a six pack of beer. We dont sell any of that stuff.


Barrel Strength Talent: (Laughs) yeah, if you want that, go down the road, dude!


Steve Akley: We do believe people should taste before they buy, so there is a tasting bar in the shop. And we are focused on education, and have a classroom that will hold 24 people....we plan to offer alot of different types of training.


Barrel Strength Talent: Oh, so exciting! Do you have to be a member of the shop, or can you just walk in?


Steve Akley: Anyone can just walk in...it's open to the public. The bottles will be displayed in the front of the store, in the retail area, and you know, we are different than any other store in that,our current inventory might only have 12 bottles at one time, but those represent 12 different offerings and you can buy up to a whole barrel of it. We also have a gift shop where you can buy ABV network merchandise, and it will also be the home of our podcast.


Barrel Strength Talent: You should do that right in the window so people can see you!


Steve Akley: Exactly! Like the Today show or something...


Barrel Strength Talent: Who's building out the shop?


Steve Akley: Well Jim is also incredibly creative, and a great craftsman. He did our tasting bar, and I've helped paint and do the things that I can do.


Barrel Strength Talent: So, just bourbon? Or will you do Rye picks and stuff too?


Steve Akley: Rye picks, yeah,it could be anything in a barrel. We'll occasionally have Rum.. we've already talked to a rum producer. We're gonna do an aged moonshine too. We got a bottled in bond aged moonshine from a pick I did years ago: They put moonshine in there (the barrel) after we did the pick, and that'll be kinda cool!


Barrel Strength Talent: Very cool! Love it! .. I know your concept is going to take off..do you ever foresee becoming a franchise, where you have shops elsewhere in the US?


Steve Akley: Possibly, possibly, yeah! I dont know what the answer to that is yet. As long as we are the ones who maintain control, and make sure that every pick meets our quality standards.


Barrel Strength Talent: So, great. And there will always be someone in the shop dedicated to really walking someone through the process..


Steve Akley: It'll just be me and Jim starting out, at first it will be Wednesdays through Saturdays and sometimes classes on Sundays. It's all about having conversations, your'e right on, there. We'll tell the story of the distillery, because these people are our friends... nothing will ever be bought blind, so yeah, it allows us to have these conversations.


Barrel Strength Talent: Well, I couldn't be happier for you! I have one more question:To what do you owe the longevity of the ABV Network show, knowing that since you started, the whole arena has just become so saturated: I mean everyone and their mother seems to have a bourbon podcast these days...


Steve Akley: (Laughs) I think that, while I didn't like my corporate job, it did train me well how to run a business, and how to run a show. Part of my job was to put together sales trainings, and you cant just stand in front of the room and talk to people: You have to have a curriculum, and the show is the same way, and our shows make sense, they're not just thrown together,... like hey, let's call a few people and start talking!...I feel like we've really captured the spirit of bourbon fans out there, and that's what I want to do: Just that!


Barrel Strength Talent: And what do you think that spirit is that you talk about capturing, in your show? What does that mean to you?


Steve Akley: I think its a combination of being real, being educated, and being down to earth. Not posing, trying to be cool, or down talking..We're just people who enjoy what we're doing, and our motto is "Content Created for Bourbon Fans, By Bourbon Fans: That Means Something to Us, and We Hope it'll Mean Something to You as Well." That's who we are, and that's gonna be on the window of the shop.



Steve and his partner in crime, Jim Fasnacht


https://www.abvnetwork.com/abv-barrel-shop




























































































































































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