LEXINGTON, Ky. — Alexa Narel remembers growing up in a household steeped in the history and tradition of the spirits industry, but in the middle of her pursuit of a certificate in distillation, wine, and brewing studies at the University of Kentucky, she found herself struggling to afford her education. That’s when she learned about a unique scholarship funded by a former president of the UK Alumni Association, Hank Thompson, and his wife Kathy.
Narel would often sit with her father in his office looking at a wall full of interesting bar taps and neon bar signs from his career and travels. Her favorite was a Johnnie Walker Red sign he saved from a flooding basement in his teenage years. He told her stories of the restaurants with bars that he owned and the souvenirs he collected.
The Hank and Kathy Thompson Scholarship Fund was created specifically to aid students pursuing studies and careers in the spirits industry. The Thompsons graduated from UK in 1971. Hank Thompson’s father managed three distilleries in Frankfort, so he grew up in the industry. They wanted to find a way to honor his father’s legacy.
Narel is a senior in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment studying food sciences and earning the Distillation, Wine, and Brewing Studies Certificate. She’s already had an internship with Bell Flavors & Fragrances, the makers of the flavoring in Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. This semester, she is interning with James E. Pepper Distilling Company in Lexington.
UK Professor Seth DeBolt, director of the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, said gifts like the Thompsons’ are large contributors to student success. The Beam Institute is in the process of building a distillery and maturation facility on the UK campus to serve as a living, learning environment for students like Narel.
Narel, from Des Plaines, Illinois, is the second recipient of the Thompsons’ scholarship. The first student was Tyler Thompson (no relation). Tyler began his college career as a nursing student, but after taking a job at a distillery in his hometown of Loretto, Kentucky, he realized he wanted to work in the spirits industry. He landed in the bottling house at Maker’s Mark, then as a night-shift distillery mill operator. But he could not shake the feeling he needed to go back to school. Tyler talked to DeBolt about the certificate. After hearing his story, DeBolt thought he might be a good fit for the Thompsons’ scholarship.
The Thompsons are happy about both recipients. They feel the students were a perfect fit for what they hoped to do with their gift.
The Hank and Kathy Thompson Scholarship Fund is open to students attending UK from Jefferson County or who are pursuing education in distillation and have exhausted their efforts for financial assistance.