July 17, 2015

Kentucky Bourbon Festival Sep 15 to 20 - a "must do" for bourbon fans

Kentucky Bourbon Festival official glass
According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, more than 620,000 visitors explore the Kentucky Bourbon Trail annually, visit the distilleries, and taste the elixir widely considered to be America’s National Drink. At the centre of Bourbon land is Bardstown, Bourbon Capitol of the World and, according to a 2012 Rand McNally and USA Today competition, the most beautiful small town in America. Bardstown is also the location of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival – a weeklong, fun filled, delicious, bourbon centric event, oozing with Southern hospitality. 
One of many distillery booths on the City Hall Lawns
Last September, I headed to Kentucky, to take in the Festival and immerse myself in bourbon culture. Whiskey, or whisky, depending on where it’s produced, is fiendishly difficult to perfect, but is a thing of beauty when crafted with knowledge, care and creativity. 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, where 5 million barrels are purportedly maturing. Regulations dictate that, for bourbon (a type of Whiskey), at least 51% of the mash bill must be corn, the rest usually comprised of rye or wheat and some malted barley. 
Whiskey grains
Maturation must be in new, freshly charred, oak barrels, which contributes greatly to the rich colour, aromas and flavours and, coincidentally, ensures a plentiful supply of used barrels, with a smidgen of bourbon residue, for maturing other whisky, including Scotch. 

Warehouse at Woodford Reserve
While Bourbon is delicious on its own, it is an exquisite element of countless cocktails and a key ingredient in Southern cooking. The Festival week offered up a myriad of cocktail tasting opportunities, including the challenge between acclaimed restaurant and distillery mixologists to select the official 2015 Kentucky Bourbon Festival drink. The winning concoction, by mixologist, Jason Stark, involved bourbon, rum punch bitters, ginger, pomegranate, orange, apple, champagne, and a flaming orange peel garnish!
Mixologist Jason Stark
Joy Perrine, the veteran Bad Girl of Bourbon, chatted to capacity audiences imbibing delicious cocktails. At the Kentucky Bourbon House, I tasted Rosemary’s famous Mint Julep, using mint that she grows herself, of course.
Rosemary's mint - for Juleps
A fabulous Bourbon cooking school evening showcased Chef John Varanese from Louisville, who whipped up a four course meal, featuring various Jim Beam bourbons, while instructing, telling anecdotes, flambéing, mixing and creating in front of about 300 guests. An entourage in the kitchen created the same meal for everyone, along with another collection of tasty cocktails.
Cocktail hour!
No dessert is safe from bourbon!
The Kentucky Bourbon All Star Sampler offered up food, music, an opportunity to chat with Master Distillers, and a wide array of whiskeys from the big distilleries, as well as head turning products like quinoa and barley whiskey from Corsair. This event, as well as “Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz”, and “Boots and Bourbon” are hot sellers at the festival.
Quirky displays are everywhere!
An appliance store - decked out in bourbon
There’s no shortage of outdoor and free events – concerts, 550lb barrel rolling competitions, arts, crafts, food stalls, distillery booths, barrel making demonstrations, hot air balloons, contests and a whole town decorated in “bourbonalia”. Add some great September weather and safe ride programs and it’s very difficult not to get into the spirit! 
Cruiz Raney can make a barrel in 45 minutes
A glamorous closing gala kicked off with two hours of mingling, cocktails, bourbons and hors d’oeuvres, followed by a tasty bourbon-laced meal, live music, a bottle of bourbon on every table, and bourbon bars around the perimeter. About 600 people attended the event and, as far as I could see, there wasn’t a glass of wine or a bottle of beer in the building! Now that’s a bourbon festival!
Roses in ice at the gala
Outside of festival events, I spent two days with some other Kentucky Bourbon Trailblazers, touring eight distilleries, where it wasn’t all about bourbon. Pecan topped, cream filled, bourbon laced chocolates appeared on a regular basis!
Tranquil grounds at Maker's Mark
At Maker’s Mark distillery, an expansion project to duplicate capacity and meet increasing demand was underway. The mash bill here uses wheat rather than rye; labels are printed by a hand operated press; and bottles are hand dipped in 360 C red wax, at rates up to 30 bottles a minute!
Hand dipping my own bottle
Warehouses or rick houses are similar at most Kentucky distilleries and can store about 20,000 barrels. Our tour guide at Barton’s described how temperature variations on the different floors create completely different maturation conditions. On the top floors, summer heat, expansion and contraction, and pressure build up can result in alcohol increase – a reverse “Angel’s Share”!
Aromas from Barton's waft through Bardstown
At Heaven Hill, a large family owned distillery, over one million barrels are aging in warehouses. 88 different whiskeys are produced and 1200 different spirits are bottled and distributed worldwide.
One of the tasting bars at Jim Beam Distillery
Jim Beam is the largest distillery in the area, and produces a wide range of well respected bourbons, most of which can be tasted in the Enoteca style tasting room. Another set of dizzying statistics include rack house capacity of more than 650,000 barrels, and 90 million bottles of spirits bottled and shipped annually to 100 countries.  
Everything's gleaming
At Four Roses the emphasis is on distillery recipes, yeast strains and mash bills, offering many possibilities for different expressions. As well, this is the only major distillery in the area to use single storey warehouses, with different maturation results.

Beautiful pot stills at Woodford Reserve
My visit to Woodford Distillery, with its impressive old buildings, brand new visitor centre and triple distillation copper pot still production, was superbly timed to absorb lovely aromas from a batch of barrels being opened and poured over charcoal for filtering.
Bourbon flowing from the barrel at Woodford Reserve
Buffalo Trace is the home of Sazerac Rye, Pappy Van Winkle, Blantons, and other fine whiskeys. Also produced here is a liqueur called Bourbon Cream, surprisingly delicious over ice, with copious amounts of root beer.
Buffalo Trace
Wild Turkey has a funky and fabulous new visitor centre and a Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, who still goes to work every day after 60 years in the business!
Tasting bar at Wild Turkey
On my last day in Bardstown, I wandered around my new favourite American small town, smiling and waving at now familiar faces, and chatting to new found friends. There’s something about whisk(e)y that encourages camaraderie and friendship, and that’s not a bad thing. If the 2015 Kentucky Bourbon Festival (September 15 to 20) is calling you, best to book accommodation soon. Bardstown is a small town, and over 50,000 visitors attend the Festival. Check out the link for all the details of this year's festival.
Bardstown's finest help keep everyone safe and happy
If you go.......

Fly to Louisville, Kentucky. Bardstown is an hour’s drive.

Accommodations:  www.visitbardstown.com

Kentucky Bourbon Festival: www.kybourbonfestival.com

Kentucky Bourbon Trail: http://kybourbontrail.com/

This article was first published in Taste and Travel International magazine Spring 2015


Local liquor store - partial bourbon collection