The four University of Kentucky fraternity brothers didn't know much about writing or photography or advertising or marketing or magazine publishing. And all they knew about bourbon was that they enjoyed drinking it.
Sitting around a Lexington bar one night in late 2007, the Delta Tau Delta alumni were trying to come up with ideas for a business they could start together. They kept talking about the California wine magazine where one of them had done financial work.
"Wine magazines are a dime a dozen, so we were thinking, 'What could be our niche?'" Seth Thompson said. "How about bourbon?"
That discussion led them to start The Bourbon Review, which is both a fan magazine for Kentucky's native spirit and a visitors' guide to the distillery region between Lexington and Louisville, where 95 percent of the world's bourbon is produced. The Bourbon Review will soon publish its 10th quarterly issue.
Thompson said the four scraped together enough personal savings to print 10,000 copies of the magazine's first issue in May 2008. The business has grown steadily since then to a press run of 25,000 copies.
Most copies are given away through advertisers and at selected shops and bars, or they are sold at Liquor Barn and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The Bourbon Review also has more than 2,000 paying subscribers in 48 states and two foreign countries, Thompson said.
The four young men have earned respect within the bourbon industry, where distillery executives have started calling them the Bourbon Boys.
"We've been very impressed with those guys," said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. "The magazine is pretty well done."
Bill Samuels, president of Maker's Mark distillery, said the magazine is becoming an important player in efforts to leverage Kentucky's bourbon industry into a major tourism phenomenon.
"What The Bourbon Review did early was give a focus to that content beyond just distillery tours," he said.
Thompson said the magazine appeals to aficionados who want to know more about bourbon, including new ways to mix, drink and cook with it. Readers also want to know more about the people who produce bourbon, and how and where they do it.
"We want somebody to look at our magazine and say, 'Wow, this is beautiful. How do I get there?'" he said.
Thompson, 28, who grew up in Powell County, handles much of the advertising and marketing. His brother, Justin, 30, is the magazine's chief editor. Their fellow co-publishers, Lexington natives Bob Kenney Eidson, 30, and Brad Kerrick, 26, help manage the company. All four write and take pictures, with help from several freelance contributors.
Art director Josh Rubin designs the magazine, which is printed in Shepherdsville. All but Eidson now live in Lexington and work out of their homes full-time for the magazine. Eidson lives in California, where he also does financial management for other companies.
Distilleries are the magazine's biggest advertisers, followed by restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses. But as the partners try to make The Bourbon Review more of a lifestyle magazine, they are appealing to other advertisers, too, including real estate agents, physicians and even firearms dealers.
The partners say they put a lot of emphasis on social responsibility. The magazine's masthead reports that the company contributes at least 50 hours of manpower and 1 percent of profits each year to philanthropic work, and it donates advertising space to promote Kentucky land and water conservation.
Thompson sees a lot of growth potential. Bourbon is developing the kind of national and international following that wine and Scotch whisky have had for decades.
The magazine's current cover story is about bourbon culture in San Francisco. An upcoming issue will feature bourbon bars in Chicago.
The partners are redesigning their Web site, www.thebourbonreview.com, which they hope to turn into a major e-commerce destination for bourbon-related merchandise.
"It is an interesting and scary world in publications these days," Thompson said. So far, though, The Bourbon Review's success has exceeded the partners' expectations.
The three who still live in Lexington are supporting themselves with the magazine. The partners own all of their company's equity, and, so far, Thompson said, "we haven't had to borrow a dime from a bank."
The Bourbon Boys know a lot more about writing, photography, advertising and marketing than they did three years ago. And they know a whole lot more about bourbon. After all, frequent sampling is now just part of the job.