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Check Out Steve Akley’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Steve Akley.

Hi Steve, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
My journey started with a tragedy. On December 12, 2012 (12/12/12), I lost my father. I actually had lunch with him that day, and that afternoon, just a few hours later, he had a heart attack and passed away. Gone in an instant. No goodbyes, no chance to tell him I loved him… he was having living his life and then it was over.

Facing the difficulty of the delicate balance of life, I almost immediately started pursuing a passion, something I wanted to do since I was a child but never could figure out the path to navigate and that was to become a writer. In 2012, things were so different than when I explored the idea of writing as a young man. You could now self-publish your work and it wasn’t like the old days where it meant finding a printer, paying to print your own books and then pedaling them yourself. You could write, set-up your book as print on demand and you could sell it on Amazon, the world’s largest bookstore, all by yourself.

So in 2013, I began writing. Forty-five years of wanting to write, but not doing so meant I had a lot of ideas and I just started writing. When I quickly learned just publishing a book wasn’t enough and even clever marketing didn’t necessarily help, I still didn’t care. I just wanted to write so that’s exactly what I did. I probably wrote 10 books the first year.

I was in a corporate job I didn’t like, and I was always hopeful maybe one day my writing could help me get out of that bad situation. I began exploring a lot of different topics and types of books, non-fiction, a novel, short stories, children’s books, cookbooks, I just kept writing.

I was always a bourbon lover. In fact, back in college, I didn’t drink beer like my buddies, I drank bourbon, usually mixed with Coca-Cola. The standard Beam and Coke. My parents weren’t drinkers when I grew up, but they would imbibe at family get-togethers and parties and it was always bourbon. Mixed drinks like bourbon slushes, highballs or eggnog at Christmas always had bourbon.

I had transitioned from a bourbon drinker to an enthusiast back in 2000 when I visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a group of distilleries that offered tours. Meeting the people behind the brands, learning about production and company history changed things for me so I became a person that had to learn as much as I could about bourbon.

As I began writing, I started to dabble into bourbon. I wrote a book called Small Brand America: Bourbon Edition about twenty craft distilleries and what it was like for them to compete against the large, heritage brands in Kentucky. That wasn’t a success. Nor was the spinoff from that first bourbon book which featured cocktail recipes from those twenty distilleries, but when I wrote a cocktail book featuring the signature bourbon cocktail from 50 of the best whiskey bars in the United States. Almost immediately, that book took off. I finally had a book people bought. I released it in the fall of 2015 and by the Holiday Season, if you searched “bourbon” on Amazon, my book as the third thing that popped up. I was outselling every single bourbon book by all of the great bourbon authors I had admired.

Everything changed from that point forward… but not immediately. I figured that having the top-selling bourbon book on Amazon would mean I could write for any distilled spirits publication or blog. I sent out 50 inquiries because I’m always all about setting a number that is high enough to ensure you will get the desired outcome. I was positive if I sent out 50 inquiries, I would get several writing gigs.

Not only was I wrong, I didn’t get even a single response. I couldn’t be down about all of the rejections because nobody actually rejected me, they just didn’t even acknowledge I existed.

I was determined to do things better and create an environment that gave individuals the opportunity to participate in the bourbon industry if they were fans so I launched my company, the ABV Network (ABV being a standard term for anything with alcohol, it literally stands for Alcohol by Volume, or in my mind, it could also double for Akley’s Bourbon Ventures). We kicked things off with Bourbon Zeppelin on June 1, 2016. A publication written, “for bourbon fans, by bourbon fans.”

This was a free publication that was literally all original material written by a staff of volunteers who were bourbon fans wanting to be in the bourbon industry in some way. We had a policy, if you want to write about bourbon, we want you. Nobody got rejected or ignored. The publication was instantly a hit. After the first issue published, a member of Jim Beam’s P.R. team reached out to me to see about getting an article in a future issue. Jim Beam, the world’s largest bourbon distillery was interested in what a band of bourbon friends was writing about. It was crazy to me, but Bourbon Zeppelin exists to this day. We’ve published over 125 issues with a new issue coming out the 1st and 15th of every month.

With the successful launch of Bourbon Zeppelin, I started podcasting. On September 1, we launched The Bourbon Show, which would evolve into a serious look at the world of bourbon. Each month we do two big interview shows (on the 1st and 15th of the month) where we talk to the biggest names in bourbon and four other “pint size” shows where we discuss topics from the bourbon industry. On December 1 of 2016, we launched a really big undertaking, The Bourbon Daily, a bourbon podcast that literally comes out every day. Unlike the serious approach of The Bourbon Show, The Bourbon Daily is a lighthearted and irreverent look at bourbon. It’s personality driven with each episode about 30-minutes in length and me splitting hosting duties with either McNew, or Miss Beka Sue, my longtime announcers. Between these two shows, we pull in about 100,000 downloads a month. This truly is one of the greatest success stories in bourbon.

I’ve continued to expand the organization over the years to do more. We have blogs, a Club, we’ve released two feature length bourbon documentaries with a third being shot in June. We also specialize in whiskey tastings via Zoom with us hosting at least two a week for the public or private groups. We also like to travel as a group. One of our favorite offerings is Bourbon Behind the Scenes where we use our friendships in the industry to gain access to distilleries like no one else gets. We have a yearly retreat to Key West, Florida in January and then we mix it up with other travel as well. For instance, in late June we’ll be heading to Maine with a group of bourbon fans from around the country.

The next chapter is going to be the biggest one yet. I’ve partnered with Jim Fasnacht who ran the single barrel program for one of the large box retail liquor stores here in the St. Louis market. Jim’s job was to taste single barrels at distilleries, pick the best of them and sell the bottles from those barrels at the liquor chain he worked for. Together, we’ve partnered up using his retail liquor experience with all of my contacts in the bourbon industry to open the ABV Barrel Shop, the world’s only liquor selling just barrel picks. The relationships I have made from my six years owning a bourbon media company affords me the luxury of access to things other people don’t get. My distillery-owning friends from across the country are offering barrels the market hasn’t seen before. Currently, we are building out the store located at 6 Fox Valley Center, Arnold, MO 63010 to add a tasting bar, a classroom that seats 24 and retail space to sell our barrel picks. This will be a totally unique experience for shoppers. Don’t expect to come in and buy some bottles of your favorite bourbons or beers and maybe a bottle of wine. We only will sell barrel picks… bourbon we’ve tasted right from the barrel that we know is special. We literally will only have 10 to maybe 25 items at any given time to sell. This model is going to have a big impact on the bourbon world because the craft distilleries are going to lead the pack here. It’s a home that can feature the best bourbon has to offer and we are pleased to bring it to the St. Louis market.

One side note, I am a Kentucky Colonel. Kentucky Colonel is the highest honor that can be granted by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The most famous Kentucky Colonel is Colonel Sanders. This isn’t a military designation at all. It’s about charitable work and what you do to promote Kentucky. Being a Kentucky Colonel has long been tied to the bourbon industry. Jim Beam, Albert Blanton, EH Taylor and Jimmy Russell are just a few of the big names from bourbon that were are are Kentucky Colonels.

Being a Colonel is something I was always interested in after being fascinated with Colonel Sanders as a child. With my work in the world of bourbon, I met one of the key criteria to being a Kentucky Colonel. That combined with my charitable work and a nomination from a Kentucky Colonel I was made a Colonel back in 2016.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It definitely hasn’t been easy. Ultimately, I started all of this as a side hustle while I was working my corporate job in the transportation industry. I was hopeful that after my daughter Cat graduated high school, I might be able to get serious with the bourbon stuff and turn it into a full-time retirement job if I built it up gradually.

Then, in July of 2017, still facing two years of college tuition for my daughter, and after twenty years in a corporate job I became the victim of company downsizing. I was a 49-year-old with no job and this weird set of skills… I was a creative individual and writer that made a living in sales. I honestly had no idea where I would turn so I talked to my wife Amy. What if I could take my severance and see if the bourbon world was for me. If the money runs out, I’d go back to the corporate world.

Fear of going back to the corporate grind is one helluva motivator to work hard. I always said I, “worked scared” because I literally did. I worked with a fear of having to try to find job in the corporate world, something I detested.

Luckily, I did find my way. I no longer had a regular paycheck, but a series of revenue streams from personal appearances, educational classes I did at a local liquor store, book sales and ads on my podcasts. Things were going great. We were on this unbelievable upward trajectory until March of 2020. With the start of the global pandemic, most of my revenue streams immediately went away. Every single sponsor on my podcasts, pulled out, citing uncertainty. We lost live events, personal appearances and educational classes.

I remember looking at my bank account and realizing in March of 2020, I could keep the company going until June 30 with my cash reserves. Without any further money coming in this dream was about to be taken away from me.

Then, I saw a new story about Zoom. I got my team together. We tested the software with mock events to see if it made any sense for us to use. We liked what we saw so we started promoting whiskey tastings via Zoom. We’d get creative and pull in our bourbon friends and not only did it work, the company was soon doing better than it was doing before the pandemic. As things started to get better, our other revenue streams also started coming back and the company was in such a good position, it set the stage to open the ABV Barrel Shop we are preparing to open today.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
We are known for sticking to what we know and that’s bourbon. Everything we do is centered around this one distilled spirit. We do podcasts, live events, movies, blogs, an eMagazine, merchandise, a Club and now a store, all around America’s Native Spirit… bourbon.

What sets us apart from others is a few things:

1). We do this full-time. Most people in the “bourbon media” are simply fans wanting to access the industry because they either want some free bourbon or access to the people and distilleries. We treat everything we do as a business because it is our business.

2). We are bourbon fans. Everything we do comes with the tagline, “Created for bourbon fans, by bourbon fans.” That means something to us and we hope it does for you. We are doing this because it’s what we love. If you love bourbon as well, join us because its our passion and it shows through in everything we do.

Can you talk to us about how you think about risk?
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur but I never did it because I was scared. I was trapped in that mindset of that even though I hated my corporate job, I couldn’t live without it. Not only did I like the money, I like the benefits and the paid vacation and the 401(k).

Had they not laid me off, I’d probably still be there today, thinking about how great it would be to work for yourself. When they kicked me to the curb after a 20-year career, I was forced to realize I had a unique opportunity. I could try to live my dream on the corporate dime… severance package that in some ways represented my soul. You give it all to the company, they work. you until they decide they can do it cheaper with someone else, then they write you a check and tell you to go away. I took that “go away” money and created the ABV Network. Hard work built it to the largest bourbon media company in the world but that hard work was fueled by the idea of once again selling my soul to work in a corporate environment again.

I now live by the mantra, “bet on yourself.” I wish I would have done this 10, 15, 20 years earlier, but we can’t change the past, we only use it to learn for the future. Now, I’m doubling down on my bet on yourself philosophy by opening a retail store. I hope bourbon fans see the passion we have and visit us at our new store.

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Image Credits
Rebekah Neeley (main photo)

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