For more stories on TikTok, check out our whole series here.
In late August 2020, Steve Higdon picked up his iPhone and went to delete his TikTok account. The 58-year-old Louisville-based finance professional had created his profile just three days earlier. His contribution to the platform extended to one 60-second clip of himself clumsily opening a bottle of Willett Pot Still bourbon, emptying a large pour into a rocks glass, and sharing some simple tasting notes.
But when Higdon opened the app to end his fling with the short-form video platform, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The review had racked up over 60,000 views. Higdon jumped out of his seat and turned to his wife. “Honey, if I’m reading this right, I think I went viral,” he said. “And I’m not even fully sure what that means.”
Needless to say, he did not delete his account. Six months on, and a cumulative 450,000 likes and 8.6 million views later, Higdon has instead become one of the biggest names on whiskey TikTok. To his over 50,000 followers, he’s better known as the man behind 60 Second Bourbon Review; to loyal viewers, he’s Uncle Steve.
Higdon continues to share his videos in the same low-production style of his first, fumbling to open bottles one-handed, and holding the camera too close to his face on occasion. Sometimes, he strays into comedy, poking fun at neighboring states or pretending that his wife used a cup of Pappy Van Winkle to make cookies.
He always comes back to bourbon, though, sharing short, easygoing reviews in a distinctly Southern accent with characteristic avuncular charm. Rather than use his TikTok fame for financial gain (besides the odd free bottle of whiskey), Higdon has built a separate online community. And through his new forum-meets-social-media-network, he aims to make bourbon more accessible and bring it to the masses, just as he does on TikTok.
Despite living in Louisville, Ky., and seeming to draw from an infinite well of bourbon knowledge, Higdon has never worked in the whiskey industry. Most of his professional life has been spent in global corporate marketing, for firms like UPS and Papa John’s. He also served as the CEO of the Louisville Chamber of Commerce at just 36, becoming the youngest person to ever hold such a position. Nowadays, he works with a local financial services firm.
Instead it was Higdon’s 30-year love affair with bourbon that ultimately led him to start his TikTok account. While the first 60 Second Bourbon Review video dropped last summer, the story really began three years earlier, when Higdon started filming the short clips to entertain his four sons, three nephews, and brother-in-law in a shared text message group. “I would deliberately review a bourbon in a very silly, irreverent kind of way, like you would think a boomer would,” he says.
Intentionally ignoring the selfie camera, and paying no attention to lighting or the volume of music playing in the background, Higdon would hold his phone in one hand, struggle to open the bottle with the other, then share some choice tasting notes with the occasional historical nugget thrown in. Without realizing it, he created the template for 60 Second Bourbon Review.
Having built up a library of goofy videos over the years, Higdon decided he wanted to post them online last summer. His 26-year-old son Connor suggested TikTok, explaining that posting on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube would be like sharing into an echo chamber. “We all enjoyed laughing at dad’s dumb videos,” Connor says. “We never knew it would grow to be the size it is today.”
So Hidgon set about opening his account and sharing his first video after first deciding on a handle. “I’m a marketing guy by background so I know there’s no brand equity at all in Steve Higdon,” he says. Given that all his videos lasted less than 60 seconds and were bourbon reviews, he kept it simple. “I thought it was so stupid, it would be easy to remember,” he adds.
A few days after confirming with his sons that his first post had, indeed, gone viral, Higdon shared more of his reviews. None quite took off in the same way as his original but each still notched up tens of thousands of views. Around a month in, lightning struck again. An old review of Kentucky Peerless Bourbon skyrocketed to 350,000 views in less than a week. “At that point I knew I was on to something,” Higdon says. “I didn’t know what I was on to, but I knew I was on to something.”
Soon, Higdon’s role on the platform evolved from fledgling bourbon reviewer to an on-demand source of whiskey knowledge. He’d receive 25, 50 questions per day, with topics ranging from what’s a mash bill and what’s the difference between rye and wheat to what time does Buffalo Trace open?
“Every single one of them I answered,” he says, noting that his marketing experience told him it would be the best thing for his brand as a content creator, and he assumed it would also please TikTok’s algorithm.
Besides taking up an increasing amount of Higdon’s free time, the slew of questions sparked a realization. There seemed to be a disconnect between the number of bourbon lovers out there and access to knowledge. When he heard from some followers that getting into bourbon was intimidating, he took it almost personally. As CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, he’d traveled internationally trying to sell Louisville, the capital of bourbon, to the world. And here he was being told by Americans that they found the country’s national spirit to be exclusive; that they didn’t have access to the stories and histories behind the most famous brands; and that they’d never been to Kentucky. So as a solution, he started an online bourbon club.
“Never once in my life did I ever think I wanted to be a part of a bourbon club. I’ve got all the bourbon I want and I drink with my friends,” he says. But this was not about himself. This was a chance to lower the barrier of entry to something he loved, and create an online community of bourbon lovers.
BIG Bourbon Club isn’t the type of boozy subscription service one joins to receive monthly or quarterly bottles. It is equal parts forum and social media network, accessed via smartphone app. Members enjoy virtual and in-person tastings (free or paid, depending on their subscription level), and professionally streamed presentations with brands.
Users can browse and post in different channels, covering topics such as “Bourbon Beginners,” “Unicorns,” and “Bourbon Women,” the last an attempt to create an inclusive space for female drinkers. Memberships range from free (“The Rickhouse”) to $125 per year (“Top Shelf), though Higdon insists this is no money-making venture. “I’m investing my own money into this thing,” he says. “If we can cover our costs, we would be very happy.”
It’s not just dollars he’s pouring into the platform, but time, too. Along the way, as membership has grown (now 2,500 and counting), he’s enlisted the help of others and set up communities to help share the workload.
Chris Randle, a Texas-based VP of sales for a radio frequency identification company, came across Higdon the same way his 50,000 other followers did. Scrolling through his For You TikTok feed, he encountered a bald man from Kentucky, sitting in front of a fireplace, cracking jokes, listening to ’80s music, and drinking bourbon. “This is my kind of guy,” he said to himself.
Like Higdon, Randle says he’s previously had no inclination to join a bourbon club. (“I’m not a big ascot, sippy, sip kinda guy,” he says.) Yet, he soon migrated onto the app and found himself posting regularly. When Higdon noticed Randle’s frequent activity, he reached out on the platform and asked, “You’re posting a lot, you’re interactive, would you like to help me out with this?” So Randle now chairs a 28-person committee overseeing the club’s investor program.
“In today’s world where everybody is shut in and there’s a lot of negativity, you go to this app and you just forget about it,” Randle says. “It’s awesome.”
Asked why he thinks Higdon has been so successful on TikTok and been able to create this growing community, Randle says it’s simple: “The masses relate to Steve because he doesn’t overcomplicate. There’s not too much flair, it’s basically, ‘This is what I’ve poured in my glass. Here’s what it smells like. Here’s what it tastes like. Go get this, it’s good shit.’”
Shana McGilberry, a St. Louis-based revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service, also found Higdon while scrolling through TikTok. When she realized they shared similar tastes in bourbon, McGilberry reached out with a specific request: Would Steve review the whiskey named in honor of her great, great, great grandfather Uncle Nearest? (Nathan “Nearest” Green was the slave who taught Jack Daniels the craft of distilling.)
Higdon uploaded his review on New Year’s Day, pairing the whiskey with a Kristoff GC Signature cigar and describing the duo as the “perfect match” for their shared clove and pepper notes. The two began emailing, and Higdon later invited McGilberry into the BIG Bourbon Club, asking her to join the platform’s women’s committee.
McGilberry has also found the club to be an unexpected breath of fresh air, and describes it as a safe space where everyone feels equal and everybody has something to offer. “Whiskey unites people,” she says.
When asked why she thinks Higdon’s been so successful on TikTok, McGilberry points to his easygoing educational style. The fact that he lives in the “whiskey mecca of the United States” and has access to high- profile industry professionals only adds to his credentials, she says.
Speaking with Randle and McGilberry about their experiences with Higdon in many ways echoed my own. The first time I emailed him, requesting an interview, I was partly worried that easygoing personality might just be his on-screen schtick.
But I needn’t have worried. Higdon called me within the hour and started chatting away as if we’d been friends for years. We’d be speaking about his account, and he’d use quirky exclamations like “holy sheep dip!” and drift off on entertaining tangents, like how his great uncle Carl Kaelin invented the cheeseburger. It was everything I hoped for as someone who enjoys his account.
In a later call, I asked Higdon whether TikTok fame has changed his life in any way, adding that for some people, that may change the way they carry themselves. “Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he says. “But it’s exciting as hell and I’m humbled, I really am.”