The Gamecock Bourbon Society hosts events partnered with the Garnet Trust and other groups that give back to the Columbia community. (Photos by Caroline Barry)

G.C. Ramey was just looking for a group of friends to drink bourbon with in Columbia last year.

Hundreds of South Carolinians responded to his call, and thus, the Gamecock Bourbon Society was born.

In Columbia, Bourbon is more than just a drink – it’s the core of a tight-knit community

And Ramey, a lifelong University of South Carolina fan, had found his niche by matching Gamecock fans with those who have a love for bourbon.

The group gets together to watch Gamecock games and enjoy good drinks.

“Bourbon collectors and Gamecock fans have so many similarities because the passion is incredible,” he said. “And most of the time it’s almost unreasonable because bourbon fans will sit outside in the rain at 4 a.m. waiting for a liquor store to open so that they can get a release of some rare thing.”

The connection?

“Gamecock fans are just as unreasonable because we will sit there and suffer through loss, after loss, after loss, but we still show up and we sell out stadiums,” he said. “It’s just the passion for those two things.”

The group also has been focused on philanthropy, giving back to The Garnet Trust, which supports the university’s student athletes through name, image and likeness opportunities. 

The Gamecock Bourbon Society is just one of the Bourbon fanbases working to do good in the city.

Meeting community needs 

Gamecock Bourbon began about a year ago.

It is joined by the Columbia Bourbon Collective, which was established in 2018. 

The Bourbon Collective is a barrel-picking group that focuses on charity as well as the social aspects of enjoying the drink. 

Barrel picking allows the collective to go to a distillery to sample different barrels of bourbon and select what they would like to bottle.

Different barrels feature unique flavor profiles, and barrel picking is another way the group finds time to get together.

Whether it’s building houses with Habitat for Humanity or donating to SisterCare, giving back has always been a main goal, according to co-founder Rubén Salas.

“The most rewarding thing is definitely giving back,” Salas said. ”That was very important for us early on.”

The Bourbon Collective has blossomed and at one point had around 1,000 members.

Salas said the community always has been vibrant in Columbia, but mutual-interest groups like his have helped bring people together. 

“For us, we actually had to reduce our member size just because one barrel is 178 bottles on average,” he said. “So if you have 350 people, that means somebody’s not getting the bottle.”

The group has made connections with local and out-of-state distilleries as well as through the barrel sourcing process. Members travel to Kentucky occasionally and try to bring a diverse range of bourbon back to the public.

“Over the years we have made relationships with the distilleries so … they’ll say, ‘These guys in Columbia that we’ve been dealing with for the last five years, please at least give them one barrel,’” Salas said. 

Different groups, similar goals

A large part of why both groups have continued to thrive is due to their ability to make bourbon accessible to members of the public.

Bourbon tends to have a hefty price tag, which can deter those just beginning to drink it. 

Both the society and the collective have worked to get members accessible prices and have seen the Columbia community rise to the occasion of supporting others who want to learn about the history and drinking of the spirit.

“We had a guy who was not able to afford the tickets (to an event),” Ramey said. “A member, who was a local lawyer, donated not just those tickets, but bought tickets for three or four other people who were interested in going.”

These groups have become so tight-knit, in fact, that members have become intertwined in each others’ lives. 

Both Ramey and Salas reflected on watching relationships blossom within their groups. 

“We see … a friendship was started between these two unlikely people, and now they’re best of friends that go to basketball games, football games together,” Ramey said. “And so we’re seeing, (that) there’s people from all over – all kinds of different walks of life – just becoming best friends through just a little connection they have through this group.”

The Bourbon Collective has seen a similar effect.

“We’ve always had our own journey, but we are very tight,” Salas said. “You know, people are getting married, they’re having kids and we’re seeing all this happen, and we’re all staying in touch and it’s been really good.”

Younger, vibrant and diverse

All you need to get involved is to be of legal drinking age, have an interest in bourbon and a desire for community.

Membership in both groups has skyrocketed, with numbers in the hundreds, featuring individuals from different backgrounds and ages.

Ramey said that although his godfather and his buddies turned him onto bourbon, the old stereotype of a “typical” bourbon drinker no longer exists.

“We have members, male, female,” Ramey said. “We have members from all ethnic (backgrounds), all races. We have members from just about any socioeconomic level.” 

That also helps break down the price barrier.

“Bourbon is typically a more expensive liquor, and so you would think that it would only be those who come from wealthier backgrounds,” he said. “But, I mean, we have people from just about every group.”

Salas has seen the community thrive and become more interconnected. 

“It’s very vibrant, and they’re very vocal,” he said. “So, you know when we started our group, I didn’t anticipate a thousand (members), but it grew very fast.”

The groups have thrived off inclusivity and a shared passion.

Kristian Niemi, owner of Bourbon restaurant and bar on Columbia’s Main Street, has had a front-row seat to the continued growth of the community.

Niemi opened the restaurant in 2014, which serves a broad selection of bourbon and cocktails along with a Cajun-Creole influenced menu. 

“Now (bourbon’s) back and popular, I don’t really see it going away,’ Niemi said. “And I still feel like we’re just riding the wave right now. Almost 10 years after I opened Bourbon, it hasn’t shown any signs of the market for bourbon going down.”

G.C. Ramey has found a common ground between those who love the Gamecocks and bourbon – and has helped create a close-knit community.

Bourbon clubs and societies in Columbia draw a diverse group of members – and even local celebrities like Shane Beamer.

The local clubs and societies make bourbon more accessible by offering giveaways, tastings and special events to allow a wide audience to enjoy it.

Vendors and experts come to local bourbon tastings to help explain the attraction of bourbon tasting and provide advice as to what to try.

Bourbon: Building community in Columbia