As a woman in an industry that is traditionally a boys’ club, Sam Montgomery helps pave the way for other females to excel in the world of bartending and bourbon. After bartending and managing the beverage team at the Louisville restaurant Decca, she has become the beverage specialist and national brand ambassador of Bardstown Bourbon Company and its in-house eatery, Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar. Meet this inspiring FACE of Louisville!
How did you become interested in the bourbon industry?
I was born and raised in Peoria, IL, which was once the largest whiskey producer in the world. That’s a fact I didn’t learn until I was 16. My behind-the-wheel teacher would have me drive him around downtown Peoria, and he’d share all these stories about when he was growing up. One of those stories was about how Peoria used to produce a bunch of whiskey, which doesn’t happen at all anymore. It’s something I found to be very surprising and intriguing. I really was kind of fascinated by the fact that this boring town I grew up in — because everybody thinks the town they grow up in is boring — was once the largest whiskey producer in the world.
When I started bartending at 21, I thought it only made sense that I should drink the spirit Peoria once produced. I was drinking whiskey — which has always typically been a man’s drink — so it also became this rebellious act to prove I could drink whiskey just like the boys and know a lot about it, too. When I started drinking, it was all Jack and Cokes — which I think is everyone’s introduction to whiskey, unfortunately. But when I started bartending, my first whiskey I had straight was Maker’s Mark, and I totally fell in love with it — the agriculture behind it — what it says about our culture, our land, our soil … things like that. It really told a story.
What brought you to Bardstown Bourbon Company?
I bartended for a while and was looking to make a career out of bartending. I’d visited Louisville a couple of times and realized it was a very unique city; it is probably the only city in the country surrounded by some of the largest spirit producers in the world — specifically whiskey, which I’ve always loved.
In 2017, I decided to pack up my car and move to Louisville. I started bartending in downtown Louisville at Decca. I began getting into craft cocktails and really diving into bourbon production and the history of Kentucky. It was really fascinating to me. It was from working there that I got to know a lot of people in the industry, and just a year later, I was offered a position at Bardstown Bourbon Company to help build their cocktail program. At that time, there was no brand and no product. There was a distillery and we were making whiskey, but nothing had been released yet. I saw a great opportunity to see a brand grow from the ground up, and I was the cocktail influence on the brand. It’s been an incredible journey to see how the brand is growing and not only be able to build the cocktail program but help make the products, too. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life; I get to actually blend the products that go into the bottle.
What is it like being a woman in the industry?
It’s interesting because we have a really good culture here at Bardstown Bourbon Company — we have so many female leaders. It’s truly not an issue here, aside from sometimes being the only woman in the room. The biggest difference in being a woman in the industry comes from the consumer. There have been countless times when there’s an older gentleman who is looking for the bourbon expert at the bar. I’ll be bartending with a male barback, and a customer will say, “Excuse me, can you ask the bartender to walk me through this bourbon list?” I’ll just kind of say, “Well, that would be me!” They’re kind of taken aback at first, and sometimes they feel embarrassed because they have this natural inclination to think men drink whiskey and know more about it. I think the good thing about the industry is there are so many companies that do celebrate women.
The biggest struggle is getting women to apply and seek careers in the industry because they think it’s a man’s world. It’s not so much the fact I’m the only girl in the room because they want one girl in the room — it’s just that when you look at a stack of applications, there aren’t very many women applying. One of my biggest goals is to talk to women about bourbon, get them to try it in a cocktail, get them to like it, and get them to not associate it with manly things. You can be feminine and like a whiskey drink! At the end of the day, it’s an American spirit and everyone should get behind it.
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What is the best advice you’ve been given or received?
First, ask for help before you need it. I feel like so many people think they have something to prove or asking for help is a sign of weakness, but it really is a sign of strength. You should ask for help before you need it instead of waiting until there’s a problem. Nobody gets by in this world alone; it’s all about using the resources of the people you have to help you.
Secondly, meet as many people as you possibly can and ask them questions. Even if you work in different industries, how a person has learned and what they’re doing can be a lesson for yourself.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My dogs — if I couldn’t come home to them every day, I don’t know if I’d be able to make it. Also, something I’ve learned this year: social interaction. I realized socializing isn’t just a luxury; it’s a necessity. I’ve really begun to value the friendships I’d taken for granted, people I haven’t been able to see all year. Finding ways to socially interact amidst the pandemic has been a really good learning experience. Lastly, food! I love food more than the average person. Obviously, we can’t live without food; but I can’t live without good food. Food cannot just be something that keeps me alive. It has to be something I enjoy and look forward to. I’d rather not eat unless I can enjoy it. I think food — whether you’re making it for yourself or someone else — is an act of love.
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