COLUMN: HIP FLASK

by Bill DiDonna

I Went Through Great Pains to Smuggle This Baby in, and When I Arrived They Were Dishing It Gratis
It’s a beautiful late summer day. As the sun sets, and the hills on Knobs State Forest darken, one of the country’s best bartenders is mixing a Boulevardier (1 part Rye, 1 part Campari, 1 part Sweet Vermouth, stir, strain, serve up with a twist). Only he’s wearing nothing but a Speedo and running through an obstacle course while a man dressed in a Captain America costume fires 200 mph paintballs at him. The crowd, already half a dozen drinks into the day screams for blood. Welcome to Camp Runamok.

I was a camp kid. First was Camp Van Schoonhoven, then, when my parents despaired of my unstable adolescent temperament, Camp Hebron. The Christian kids did it better, all fresh faced with devilish intent behind their baby blue eyes; there was cheap Mexican weed and a kid I’ll call Dickie (because that was his name) who brought dozens of bottles of Boone’s Farm in his luggage. The counselors were teens too, college kids going through their own crises of faith, sobriety and celibacy. They would gather nightly down by the lake and we were left pretty much on our own. It was a wild place to be an impressionable 14-year-old and I went back for three years until ‘the incident’ closed the camp down for a spell. Hebron and its 73 acres are currently on the market for under $600,000 if you want to move to the middle of nowhere and start a cult.

Camp Runamok in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky is an entirely worshipable drinker’s dream. For two weeks every year they host 300 of the country’s best and brightest bar professionals. Founded in 2012 by Lindsey Johnson and Jared Schubert—reportedly over a bottle of bourbon and a streaming of Wet Hot American Summer—their mission was simple; get pale and heavily inked bartenders out in the sunshine, equip them with unlimited booze and paintball guns, and let the rapture begin.

Instead of Bible study, or lanyard making, the ‘work’ part of Runamok is pure pleasure. The location in Kentucky is not an accident. Lebanon Junction is at the beginning of the Bourbon Trail; Johnson and Schubert wanted to make sure that bartenders all over the country were as enthusiastic about America’s native spirit as they were. Bulleit, Heaven Hill, Willett, Maker’s Mark, Angel’s Envy and other fine distilleries are all in the ’hood and all lay on the red carpet for the visiting drink slingers.

Enforced day drinking, gin and tonic pool parties in the afternoon, nights of cocktail competitions, bonfires and, of course, Wild Turkey Paintball. Jared Schubert in his video recap of the annual talent contest recalled; “Twerking for boys, twerking for girls, the whiskey slap, beards shaved for charity, Lindsey iced by a flying man and then shit got weird.”

Camp alumni Dustin Newsome, lead dog at L.A.’s famed whiskey bar Seven Grand disabused my notion that Runamok is only free-wheeling bacchanalia: “It is all about connection. Networking, team-building, education, tips and trends from the best bar talent in the world.” They are not just looking for your run-of-the-mill drink slinger. “The most important question on the application is ‘Describe what you do to give back to your community’, they are looking for people who are involved, who want to make a difference”. And apparently a good Whiskey Slap won’t hurt either. Applications open in early March, they take 1500 and then whittle it down to two segments of 150 campers. Contributions from distiller sponsors make the camp absolutely free to attend for those lucky enough to be chosen.

When I was drinking at La Mezcalera in Tijuana recently I met a guy who had developed a mezcal-based religion.  By our fifth chalice of the immaculate agave, I was almost converted. Think of the possibilities; $600,000 to establish a beachhead in Upstate NY at the old camp, then open tax exempt ‘chapels’ across the country where the sacrament is available for $8 a pop.

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