We were invited to attend this year’s inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a set of events put together by the Kentucky Distillers Association (the KDA) and its members. As KDA president Eric Gregory explained it to me back a few months ago, it was something they’d tossed around as an idea, and they put it up to the individual distiller-members. The challenge: come up with an event that would give the guests a fun, inside look at some aspect of the bourbon business, of the making, the people, the places. The twist was that while everyone wanted to know what the other distillers were doing…but the KDA didn’t let that out till all the ideas were in. The result was a one-upsmanship competition that delivered a set of somewhat over-the-top experiences.
I missed the opening event, an evening gala that was to be held outdoors at Hermitage Farm, a gorgeous horse farm northeast of Louisville; that is, until heavy thunderstorms were predicted (and accurately, too; they were violent) and the decision was made to shift to the art-filled and whiskey-savvy 21C Museum Hotel. I also missed “The Golden Affair,” the black tie wind-up at the Pendennis Club. What an evening, with an array of bourbons (including “premium and rare” bottlings), a panel discussion with master distillers, the premiere of a new documentary (“Kentucky Bourbon Tales”), and a performance by renowned Irish tenor, Anthony Kearns.
Poor me: all I got to go to were five memorable events that took place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (May 15-17). The fun started at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim distillery, where about ten of us (the lightest-attended event I would attend; the other times at Heaven Hill were sold out) started with a backdoor tour of this big, usually closed-to-the-public facility. We tasted mash, listened to the roar of the big beer stills, tasted new make right out of the spirit safe, and then boarded a van to the new Evan Williams Experience on Main Street.
After the impressively well-done multi-media program on the historical Evan Williams, we got a rare hands-on tour of the pot still-equipped microdistillery on the premises; one of the guests got to bung the day’s barrel of production (signed the bung, signed the log, pretty cool experience for him!). Then we sampled whiskeys in the speakeasy with brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers, and went up to the gift shop where the guests got a bottle of Heaven Hill’s “Select Stock,” an 8 year old wheated bourbon, finished in cognac casks (I took the opportunity to buy a bottle of Rittenhouse).
I had to run, and after picking up my car back at Bernheim, I drove down to Booker Noe’s house in Bardstown; I’d been there before, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect today. What we got was a chance to hang around in what the DIY Network show “Man Caves” had made out of Booker’s garage: big leather chairs, fireplace (good thing, because it was chilly that week in Kentucky!), big TV, and of course, a full bar. Mixology legend Bobby “Bobby G” Gleason was making drinks, and after I braced myself with a Knob Creek Rye Manhattan, we had the main event, another show of the long-running Great Whisk(e)y Debate, talking about Scotch vs. Irish vs. Canadian vs. Bourbon. It was a lot of laughs and good whiskey, and at the end, there was a nifty cocktail-making set handed out to all the guests.
After recovering overnight, I drove down to Lawrenceburg to the Wild Turkey distillery, where there were skeet-shooting traps set up right on the distillery grounds, and each of the guests got a chance to shoot some clays (after some excellent coaching, and before anyone had even the hint of a drink). I hadn’t touched a gun in over 20 years, and it all came right back to me; I had a blast! We went into the warehouses with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, rolled some barrels that were just arriving from the distillery, and sampled 101 and Russell’s Reserve in Warehouse A, the first warehouse on the grounds that dates back to the 1800s. Then we had lunch at the new Visitor Center, and Jimmy and Eddie answered any questions people had and signed bottles for the guests.
That evening I took in some craft distillery whiskeys at an event at Epicenter Distilling’s Moonshine University. This is where I noticed something pretty cool was happening. Not only did I get to taste some great whiskeys from the likes of Willett and Corsair and Old Pogue (and the bang-on accurate and fun taste of Limestone Branch’s Moon Pie Moonshine — I kid you not, it tasted just like Moon Pie!), I was running into people who’d been at the other events, and we were friends, we were bonded. I’ll tell you, you shoot skeet and drink bourbon in a warehouse with someone, and you’re catapulted into a certain level of friendship! (We also mixed up our own custom cocktail mix at the flavor lab next door; I made Dr. Lew’s Real Good Medicine, and it tastes pretty fair with a dose of rye.)
One more event was on my schedule — after an early breakfast with fellow writer Fred Minnick — a visit to the grounds of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the offices and grounds are being groomed and landscaped as a home for Bulleit whiskeys. Tom Bulleit was there to greet us, with a big bowl of punch that we were only too happy to partake of (at 9 a.m., hallelujah). The stillhouse is off-limits (I understand that there are problems with asbestos), but we did get to see the filling room, where the new make would flow from the distillery to be barreled. The workers had chalked up milestones on the wall — when the company was sold, when the last operational day was — and it was as if they had just walked away. In fact, we were allowed to nose a glass of “new” make that the folks from Diageo had discovered still in the pipes at the filling room when they started to do renovations last year. That’s what we were told, anyway, and it was a heady moment; pouring out a tiny bit of white dog and rubbing hands to release the still-fresh corny aroma. Stitzel-Weller juice! Diageo’s spruced up the offices, and while it was largely about Bulleit, there was one room dedicated to new product launches (currently done up in Orphan Barrel designs).
So…what did I come away with? First, this isn’t cheap; most events were at least $100. But that bought the kind of backdoor access and personal time that usually, to be honest, is the province of writers and media types. These few days, you could get in the same parts of Bourbonland that we do, and hang out with Jimmy, Eddie, Tom, and Fred. If they could give that kind of access to every bourbon drinker, I’m sure they would, but then it would be hard to make the whiskey! So this is a chance to get inside; as more than one person put it, a kind of fantasy baseball camp for bourbon.
If the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is wide-open and sometimes seems more about Bardstown than about bourbon, this is maybe the other way. This is bourbon for bourbon aficionados, people who want to get their hands into it, and, as I said earlier, maybe a bit over the top with it for some. I think there may be room for something in-between, but this does make a welcome addition.
As it stands now, this was an industry-controlled happening, not like the numerous “Beer Weeks” that have spread across the country recently. There were a relatively small number of events, pretty much ‘invitation only’ by arrangement with the KDA and the member distillers. It was also spread out very widely; from the western edge of Louisville well down into bourbon country, and loosely headquartered at the eastern Louisville Marriott, miles away from downtown. There was a lot of driving involved. I’m wondering what this could be if participation was opened to the growing number of bourbon-focused restaurants and bars in the area, with more effort to link the far-flung sites with a shuttle service.
But that’s for next year. This was the first year for the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, and it was a rollicking beginning. We’ll have to wait and see where it goes.