Exploring the 2015 Bourbon Classic

Exploring the 2015 Bourbon Classic

When Jen and I travelled down to Louisville last year for the Bourbon Classic, it was our first real foray into the larger bourbon culture, and the largesse of those involved (recap parts one and two here).  The blog was only a few months old, and our participation and education about bourbon had come from distillery visits, reading books by Cowdery and Minnick, and personal consumption.

We were blown away by the awesomeness – of the event, of the people, of the culture as a whole.  It kicked off a wonderful year where we made frequent trips to Kentucky: touring Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (again), Willett; visiting Louisville, Bardstown, Frankfort, Lexington; and eating and drinking at fantastic establishments.  For the Bourbon Classic 2015, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation – we were going again.

This year the Classic was a little later – the end of February (instead of the end of January), and we hoped that would lead to some good weather.  On that end we weren’t so lucky, and we drove into a Louisville that had been hit pretty hard by a snow storm earlier in the week.  We checked in to the 21c Museum Hotel – who have the most fantastic staff of any place we’ve stayed – and geared up for a wonderful weekend.

The first night of the Classic centers around a cocktail and small plate tasting.  Nine bourbon labels are represented – Barton’s 1792, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Michter’s, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.  Each brand selected a mixologist and chef to prepare the tastings.  We were pleased to see some of our favorite’s from last year returning, including Issac Fox of Volare and our favorite Louisville chef (and all around awesome guy), Levon Wallace of Proof on Main.

The setup is simple: attendees stroll the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where participating brands, chefs and master bartenders are set up against the walls, and sample to their heart’s content.

Setting up the judging area, Bourbon Classic 2015
Setting up the judging area, Bourbon Classic 2015

That’s right – you stroll the rooms, picking up cocktails and chef-prepared small plates as you go.  It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity.  Personally, I am more of a three-fingers-of-whiskey-neat guy, but these cocktails are so expertly made (and often unique), that I was happy to try many…and many more!  Of particular note was the Tallulah (a peanut tasting bourbon drink), a bourbon mimosa and a bourbon/beet juice/dill cocktail.  The first two I found fantastic, the last…well, it was certainly inventive.  Almost every dish was fantastic.

I avoided two mistakes I made last year as well.  First of all, I didn’t try to chronicle every dish and drink.  There is just an abundance of great stuff, and trying to write it all down is too much.  Secondly, I kept my imbibing to a slower pace, to more fully enjoy the flavors of the evening.

We were happy to run into some friends we had made from the last Bourbon Classic.  Greg and Chris from Virginia were in attendance again, and this time they brought more of their fellow alumni with them, making it a real college reunion of sorts.   We got to spend some time with Wallace (who is leaving Louisville for Nashville very soon), and I also met Eric Byford, who founded Beard Force Films and was there shooting some final footage for a documentary on Kentucky Bourbon (and it’s impact on the local culture) he has been working on.  He showed me a trailer and I am certainly looking forward to it.

Jen and I sampled dish after dish and drink after drink, and if the Bourbon Classic was limited to the Friday night event, it would be plenty enough reason to head down.  But the event gets even bigger on day two.

Admittedly, we skipped the first “Bourbon Classic University” session of the day to do a bit of bourbon hunting and get a good brunch (Toast on Market!).  The goal was to get good seating in the auditorium for the second session: The Bourbon Masters General Session.  The list of distillers that would be present was impressive, and it was MC’ed by Fred Minnick.

The Legends of Bourbon
The Legends of Bourbon: (left to right) Fred Minnick, Mark Coffman (Alltech), Wes Henderson (Angel’s Envy), Chip Tate (Tate & Co/Balcones), Ken Pierce (1792), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Harlen Wheatley (Buffalo Trace), Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Nicole Austin (King’s Country), Joe Magliocco (Michter’s), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey).

Last year, the Master’s session was a genial celebration of bourbon’s rise in popularity.  Anytime you get many of the more long-time distillers around each other – Russell, Noe, Rutledge and even Wheatley and Henderson – you are going to get funny anecdotes and good natured ribbing.  While the mood and spirits stayed high this year, however, Minnick asked a little more probing questions.

Right off the bat, a highlight was the presence of Texan Chip Tate.  Last year, Tate seemed to be the talk of the whiskey world, as he fought with investors over the future of the distillery he founded – Balcones.  The debate about craft versus investment swirled around the proceedings, while headline grabbing words like ‘gunplay’ and ‘banished’ abounded.  Since then Tate has left Balcones and started a new distillery, and this was the first time he spoke to the public.

Settlement agreement in place, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail Tate could go into regarding the saga, and he downplayed the media accounts. That said, he did talk about the difficulties with reconciling the spirit of craftsmanship with the drive of commerce, as well as say that many of the facts that he was accused of by the Balcones board simply were not true.  He is looking forward to producing brandy, and after the non-compete agreement expires, whiskey, under his new name of Tate and Co.

A few other edgy topics were discussed.  Henderson and Magliocco were asked about ongoing lawsuits against ‘sourced’ whiskeys and label information (Magliocco refused to comment, but Henderson spoke openly about how he finds them frivolous and unethical, equating the lawyers involved as whiskey ambulance chasers).

The popularity of flavored whiskey was talked about.  Russell was proud to say that when he pushed Wild Turkey to start offering flavored drinks in the 70s/80s, he was well ahead of his time.  Wheatley – who’s Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, makers of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey – pointed out that it was made from Canadian whiskies (not bourbon), and those sales helped him finance Buffalo Trace experimental offerings.  Rutledge said Four Roses wouldn’t offer flavored whiskey as long as he is the master distiller, and Magliocco warned that flavoring whiskeys could lead down the path taken by vodka in the last 15 years, where flavors and gimmicks made the spirit itself lose credibility.

Other topics included the “whiskey shortage” (consensus opinion – if you are a distiller, there is none.  If you are sourcing, good luck!), new products, and the rise of women in bourbon demographics.  This last one was a bit sticky – Nicole Austin, from King’s County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York, was the only woman on the panel, and her…annoyance…with being asked about being a ‘woman’ in whiskey (rather than a person in whiskey) was funny and well received.  Further questions got a little more tense, as they discussed marketing whiskeys to women, and it became harder to tell if Austin, whose distillery is the first post-prohibition distillery in Brooklyn, was seriously upset or just sarcastically funny.

Bourbon Icons: Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey)
Bourbon Icons: Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey)

Either way, the session ended jovially, and we kept our seats for the second session, a “Bourbon Icons” discussion with Noe, Russell, Rutledge and Freddie Johnson, tour guide extraordinaire of Buffalo Trace, who told of his family’s three-generation deep involvement in the Kentucky Bourbon industry.  It was a captivating hour with four true legends – all of whom shared stories, and a few jokes.

Finally, the main event.  Tables upon tables of fine bourbon – neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.  Again, there were again small plates as well as a buffet style presentation and, while a bluegrass band played from atop the stairs, the goal was to stroll and sample.

A Bourbon Classic ice sculpture representing the host city, Louisville
A Bourbon Classic ice sculpture representing the host city, Louisville

…and sample we did.  Saturday has more varieties than Friday, with Jefferson’s Reserve, Old Forester, King County, Bulleit, Copper and Kings, Angel’s Envy and others joining the festivities.  The distillers were mingling as well – I spoke with Jim Rutledge for quite some time about the difficulties resuscitating the Four Roses name in the Untied States after Seagrams had almost destroyed it.  Jen spent some time laughing with Wes Henderson about his irreverent sense of humor (always a point winner with my wife).

Chatting with Jim Rutledge of Four Roses
Chatting with Jim Rutledge of Four Roses

When Greg and Chris let us know Heaven Hill was pouring its Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey, we made a beeline there, and each enjoyed sips of one of our favorite drinks of 2014.  Many more drinks followed, and by the time we retired at 9:30, another fantastic Bourbon Classic was put to bed.  Let the countdown to 2016 begin!

Bluegrass music from the top of the stairs
Bluegrass music from the top of the stairs
Old Forester making a presence
Old Forester making a presence
Blanton's: always a favorite
Blanton’s: always a favorite
Michter's at work
Michter’s at work
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A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

So as I mentioned before, Jen and I had an amazing time at the second annual Bourbon Classic last year (for a recap of 2014, please read Part One and Part Two here), and decided to return to Downtown Louisville for the event again last week.  Tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and last Friday, we made the drive down from Detroit.

We arrived midday and, since the Classic doesn’t begin until 7pm, looked to enjoy a little more bourbon culture prior to the main event.  We were staying at the 21c Museum Hotel close to the event, so we decided to stay close and check out the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience that opened in 2013 right on Main Street.

No, it's not real bourbon - the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
No, it’s not real bourbon – the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is part of the official “Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” but it is not a distillery.  Rather, it’s a sort of museum dedicated to the history of Evan Williams Bourbon – and whiskey in general – in Louisville.

A tour of the EWBE starts with a short film.  Wall sized projection video is a very big part of the EWBE, and it starts with a bit of background about the bourbon namesake, Evan Williams, himself.  Williams, as the legend goes, was the first commercial whiskey producer in Kentucky, settling in Louisville and starting there.  Like so many of the ‘facts’ around the history of bourbon, the details of William’s life are less than clear, and they are presented in a less than canonical way.

Rather, the show sets the stage for a walk through ‘Louisville past.”  The short film explaining the importance of Louisville as a port (and stopping point on the Ohio River) leads to a room showing what the small town of Louisville might have looked like in 1800, when the whiskey business was just starting in earnest.

This is the ‘experience” part alluded to in the title – Evan Williams Bourbon is actually made at Heaven Hill distillery nearby, before being bottled in Bardstown, KY.  It is not actually made at this location – the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is more of a beginner’s guide to bourbon.

That said they have created a very small micro distillery, that illustrates the wall-scale, step-by-step “How Bourbon is Made” multi media presentation.  Approximately one barrel of whiskey is created there a day, and tour participants are encouraged to sign  the guest book to be alerted when the whiskey of their visit day is matured.

The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery
The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery

Subsequent floors (exhibits) show the 1800’s distilling equipment and methods, which serve as a good intro primer to how bourbon is made.

The upper floors focus on Louisville, and Bourbon, through the eras.  A nineteenth century saloon is recreated.  The third floor showcases the “Bottled-In-Bond” Act and it’s importance at the time.  Some Prohibition-era bottles are displayed, along with some recreated era-appropriate storefronts.

Finally, the tour resolves in a tasting of different Heaven Hill products – we had Evan Williams, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and the wheated bourbon Larceny – in the recreation of a 1960’s bar where we learned about the history of Heaven Hill, and by proxy, the Evan Williams brand.  We exited through a gift shop, and our time at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was done.

All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour – the cost wasn’t prohibitive, and it was fun.  It certainly wasn’t as in-depth as an actual distillery tour, but in fairness, it didn’t claim to be.  What it certainly did do was serve as the perfect primer for the main event – The Bourbon Classic!

scrooge
A text exchange between myself and friend/bourbon enthusiast Josh McAllister…

 

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

It may only be Wednesday, but it feels like it has been a full week already, and there’s plenty more to come!  In Michigan, we are steeped in snow and in the midst of another Polar Vortex, but we are not alone – a good swath of the country looks to be frozen along with us.

One place it’s not frozen is Florida, which is good because it’s Spring Training time!  My Tigers have a few new faces (Cespedes, Gose, Greene and Simon), a few question marks (the rotation) and some injuries to see through, but few things can bring warmth to a sub-zero winter day like the thought of baseball.

This is also Bourbon Classic week, and  I will be going for my second year.  We had a wonderful time last year, sampling the wonderful dishes and drinks, and I am looking forward to it again.  I just wish it was a tad warmer in Kentucky…

So what to drink when the weather is so very cold?  How about trying something Barrel Proof?  And that’s exactly what I did, with a glass of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

The most recent issue of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is it’s sixth offering, although I haven’t been fortunate enough to run across the earlier five myself.  It is also the highest proof, at a little over 140.  No laughing matter here.

Heaven Hill barrels this direct – no char filtering – and it shows in the color.  Even in the bottle, it’s a very deep brown.  They have accented that with a dark label, and it is just distinctive enough to set it apart.  I have respect for 12 Year Elijah Craig, even if it’s not my first choice (it is, however, my first choice in baking – it’s spiciness adds much to pies, cookies and chocolates!). How would this one fare?

Dan’s Take:

The deep, dark amber-brown color of the pour lets you know right away that this is not a light and breezy pour.  But what really amazed me was the nose – a 140 Proof glass should burn, but this most certainly does not.  There are many wonderful, unique and often, sweet aromas in this glass.  Rich vanilla, caramel and the smell of warm baking, like a gingerbread man iced with maple frosting.  Does that sound unique?  It surely shocked me – there was no great burn, just the wholly unique smell of sweet baking in a wood fired oven.

The taste brought me back to earth and how.  The tip of the tongue held that sweetness of caramel before the proof hit.  In baseball, a pitcher might throw a fastball up around the batters shoulders to brush him back a bit, or get him to swing wildly at an eye level pitch – the ‘high heat.’  This drink is the ‘high heat,’ and the first sip admittedly knocked me back for a second.  The nose had lulled me to sleep, but 140 proof woke me up fast.  I caught my breath and tried again – slower this time.  There is a slightly burned sugar taste, brown sugar to be more specific.  Wood weighed in heavily, but not overwhelmingly, as the toasted oak blended well with the toffee, maple flavors.

(I handed it to Jen to sample, and she agreed with me on both the taste, and the kicks-like-a-mule effect of drinking too large a sip!)

It has a long finish, and a whole lot of burn.  THe wood is probably strongest in the finish, and I’ll admit, it went on a little too long for me.  Such a high proof leads to a long finish, and this one left traces of oak, alcohol bite and burnt toast on my palate for minutes.

So how do I rate it?  I thoroughly enjoyed it – not unlike a roller coaster that gives you a great start, but maybe by the end you wish was a little bit shorter, this version of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is a great ride.  I look forward to trying other, varied proof versions.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7

A trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival – Tasting and Gala

This year, I have been fortunate enough to head down to Kentucky for three separate bourbon related events.  In February, my wife and I went to Louisville to take in the second ever Bourbon Classic, a fantastic celebration of bourbon and its culture.  In June, we headed back to tour some distilleries and attend the “Pappy For your Pappy” tasting dinner with the Van Winkle family at Buffalo Trace Distillery.  And last week, we headed down for the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is a yearly event in Bardstown, Kentucky in the heart of bourbon country.  It started small in 1992, and has grown every year, as a week long full celebration of all things bourbon.  There are barrel making exhibitions, events for families, kids, tours of Bardstown, mixology lessons, cooking demonstrations – this is a full scale celebration!  As the week goes on, there are nightly events for the bourbon faithful – dinners and dancing, country and bluegrass concerts, all culminating in the big event, the Gala – a black tie affair.  It was for this event my wife surprised me with tickets, and for this event we headed down.

We stayed in Louisville, in the 21c Museum Hotel, which had treated us so well during the Bourbon Classic.  On Friday night, we had dinner at Proof on Main to celebrate our 2nd Anniversary, and the food (and drink) was outstanding!  One of the greatest parts was their offering of bourbon tasting flights:

Proof on Main Bourbon Flight Menu
Proof on Main Bourbon Flight Menu

I went with the KY Bourbon Distillers Flight, as it offered three products I cannot find in Michigan, the Johnny Drum Private Stock, the Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill.

KY Bourbon Distillers Flight
KY Bourbon Distillers Flight

We’ve sampled the good from Chef Levon Wallace‘s kitchen before, and this time was every bit as fantastic and delectable as expected.  Dining in Louisville is an exceptional experience, and Proof on Main may be the best of the bunch!

Saturday, we did some exploring of the stores between Louisville and Bardstown, looking for new, limited or fun bourbons that we can’t attain in Michigan, and finding a few of note.  Particularly wonderful were the people of Old Town Wine and Spirits – they had a fantastic collection of spirits, particularly bourbon.  After some perusal, I noticed they had two different store choice barrel strength Four Roses selections.  I asked a gentleman about the differences, and he was wonderful enough to not only walk me through it, but to taste each.  And by taste…I mean he poured me a glass of each.  That is hospitality!  With some new bourbon’s purchased, it was back to the hotel to get gussied up for the big Gala event.

Now, I will be the first to admit, wearing a tuxedo is not exactly a point of comfort for me. By my count, I have worn one five times in my life: senior prom, standing up in three friend’s weddings, and now the bourbon tasting and gala.
Dressed in my best James Bond impression, and with my wife looking stunning in a new dress, we headed to Bardstown.

Jen and I at the Bourbon Tasting and Gala
Jen and I at the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

The first surprise was the location. Having not been to the festival, it came as a bit of a shock when we pulled into the parking lot of what appeared to be a massive distribution or warehouse facility. There was no doubt, however, that it was the right place to be, as the parking lot was full of shuttle and tour buses, and elegantly dressed people got out of cars to line up for the event. We took our place in line and soon enough the doors opened.

A welcoming site outside the Bourbon Tasting and Gala
A welcoming site outside the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

Inside the first massive room we went into lay a bourbon lovers delight. Each of the major represented distilleries had bar setups around the outside walls. Each one was unique and different. Upon entry, each attendant was given a bag – this would be where we would stash our collected goodies as the night unfolded.

A room full of beautiful people and beautiful bourbon!
A room full of beautiful people and beautiful bourbon!

Each distillery had a full selection of their products available to drink. Most would serve your drink of choice in a glass specially made for the occasion, which you were to keep (by storing in the aforementioned bag). Most of these individual bars would also have a choice of mixed drink cocktail, ice, water, or to have the drink neat.

In the center of the room was a long spread of hors d’oeuvres.

Bourbon Festival ice sculpture
Bourbon Festival ice sculpture

Our first stop was the Blanton’s bar. Always a favorite of mine, it seemed a great way to get the night started! We sipped our drinks, and moved around. Wild Turkey had a backdrop for guests to have their red carpet style photo taken. They also had perhaps the most ornate bar, practically a saloon set up there where I was short to procure a glass of the Russell’s Reserve I love so much.

In addition to a wonderful set of cocktails and a beautiful display, Makers Mark had an ice luge, where I enjoyed a glass of Makers 46, chilled in this most fun way possible.

Maker's 46 from an ice luge
Maker’s 46 from an ice luge

After some food, & a wonderful conversation with former Maker’s Mark and now Bardstown Bourbon Company master distiller and Kentucky Bourbon Festival Hall of Fame member Steve Nally and his lovely wife, we made our way over to the Heaven Hill set up, where Jen enjoyed a Ezra Brooks smoothie , and I indulged in a pour of Evan Williams Single Barrel.

Cheers!
Cheers!

Buffalo Trace had the most elegant glasses of the evening, with a raised Buffalo etched in the side. Ridgemont Reserve 1792 served a bourbon orange cream drink that would certainly fit as a dessert on any fine menu.

Ridgemont Reserve 1792
Ridgemont Reserve 1792

By the time I wandered up to the Jim Beam bar, we had only been there for about an hour and a half. I asked the bartender for a glass of my favorite Jim Beam product, the Jim Beam Black 8 Year. When he asked if I wanted a single or double, I laughed and said the night was so young I better keep it a single. He quickly responded that the night was so young, it was early enough for a double!

Bulleit had their 10 year bourbon available, and I spoke with one of their representatives about the recent reopening of the Stitzel-Weller distillery under the name that had occurred that week. It is certainly on the short list of places I want to visit soon.

The line at Four Roses was intimidating – they were also offering photographs – so I visited Michter’s and grabbed a few more munchies just as the lights flashed to usher us into the main room where dinner was about to be served.

They have a bag check so we wouldn’t carry around the impressive number of glasses we had collected during the evening, and we entered the large room for dinner.

The dining room part of the evening...
The dining room part of the evening…

As you might imagine, a room sitting what I estimated to have been seven or eight hundred people for dinner would be massive. And it was. There was a stage set up on the far side of the room, where the toast and a few short speeches would be given. Later in the evening, this would also be the bandstand for the dancing part of the night. We found our table, to the far side from the stage and took seats.

We were seated with two lovely groups. One group of four had come in from Atlanta, Georgia. One of the groups gentleman was celebrating his 50th birthday, to celebrate at the Bourbon Festival. What a fantastic idea! There was also a young couple from Cincinnati, Ohio at our table as well. With a bottle of Ridgemont Reserve at each table to toast with, we enjoyed talking to our fellow tablemates while eating our salads. I was particularly overjoyed to find out our new Georgian friends where sports fanatics as well! We talked about baseball at length, as well as SEC football. To my dismay, my Missouri Tigers fell that afternoon to the Indiana Hoosiers, a rather embarrassing loss.

By this point, we all had noticed the lack of climate control in the facility. The temperature outside hovered around 85, and inside the lack of air flow had begun to take its toll. Many a brow was sweaty, and for the men, our tight collars and ties became slightly oppressive.

As the toasts and short speeches began, we found we were too far on the other side of the room to be able to discern what was being said. The sound system was not clear enough for us to here the toast itself, or any of the comments of Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell who had showed up and made some comments of his own. Unfortunately, all we could hear was a sound more similar to the teacher from a Charlie Brown cartoon.

By the time the delicious dinner was served, we dug in. A band playing Motown and classic soul favorites struck up, and some revelers, including ourselves, went to dance for a bit.

Time to dance!
Time to dance!

The gala goes on until 1 in the morning, but by 11, the heat had taken its toll and Jen and I were ready to retreat the distance back to Louisville. We bid our new friends farewell and safe travels, and beat the path back to Louisville, for a good night’s sleep.

Overall, the bourbon tasting and Gala is a fantastic event, and one I believe we will return to in the future. Next time, we would like to take in more of the entire Bourbon Festival. And hopefully it’s a few degrees cooler…

 

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Saturday morning opened with clouds in Louisville, but that did not put a damper of any kind on the Bourbon Classic, or our trip in general. We woke up relatively early, and went to meet a gentleman from whom I purchased a bottle of Weller 12 Year (unavailable in Michigan) for later review.

I would like to say this about Kentucky – I have now met with several third-party “craigslist” style sellers to procure bottles not available, or hard to find, in Michigan – and have found there is a genuine friendliness in these exchanges that I have not found anywhere else.  Maybe it’s just better manners, but my wife and I were chatted up, about bourbon and life in general by every ‘collector’s market’ person we met.  Here in Michigan, the same transactions are tense as a TV drug deal, and all of the friendliness too.

We wondered over to a store called Vault Liquor and added a few more bottles of more accessible bourbon to our hall with the help of the friendly gentleman behind the counter of this round, strangely set-up store.

From there, it was back to the Classic, and it did not disappoint.

Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel's Envy; Fred Noe, Jim Beam; Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace; Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon; Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery; Colin Spoelman, King's County Distillery; Willie Pratt, Michter's; Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon; Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey
Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel’s Envy;
Fred Noe, Jim Beam;
Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace;
Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon;
Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery;
Colin Spoelman, King’s County Distillery;
Willie Pratt, Michter’s;
Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon;
Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey

The Classic kicked off with a panel discussion where some of the biggest and most famous Master Distillers, as well as some younger up-and-comers, talked frankly about bourbon trends, tastes, the future of the industry, how to maintain quality but be inventive, and many other topics.  It was extremely fun, but also incredibly informative.  Some of the things I noted:

  • They all were in agreement that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with micro-distilleries or start-up labels outsourcing the actual alcohol production, but that the quality comes into question depending more on which supplier they use, and how involved they were in the recipe (as opposed to buying bulk leftovers).
  • They also agreed that there is an incredibly high demand for all bourbon right now, so it will be very hard and expensive for new micro-distilleries to start.
  • Fred Noe from Jim Beam said he truly doesn’t anticipate any changes to the Beam model, recipe or productions once the Suntory purchase is finalized, and that it has the most to do with expanding markets, not changing products.
  • Jimmy Russell, the legendary Master Distiller from Wild Turkey, pointed out the changing demographics of the bourbon audience.  “It used to be old men, going into the backroom at the bar, and having a cigar…playing poker,” he said, then pointing out the audience is now as diverse as the brands themselves.
  • There was some disagreeing over whether or not the aging process could be hurried or enhanced by other methods.  Most of the panel felt strongly that you can’t rush aging and attempts to do so are failures.  Daniel Preston, from Cacao Prieto, disagreed, and pointed to investments made in limestone mines where the barrels can be heated and cooled daily, and therefore, aged faster.  This was met with much skepticism.
  • A reminder that, as bourbon is an aged process, true market research is difficult – higher production today takes years to hit the market, and if the market is slower, there can be significant financial loss.

We left this fun session and went to the first of our breakout sessions, Bourbon Flavors with chef Ouita Michel of the Holly Hill Inn.

Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles
Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles

Now, I had expected this session to be more about recognizing flavors in bourbon itself, but it was more of a lesson in taste pairings between bourbon and food.  Using a variety of different tastes, and Woodford Reserve bourbon, we sampled and noted how sharing each sip with a food taste enhanced the overall experience.

Food pairings with Woodford Reserve
Food pairings with Woodford Reserve

As we sampled dark chocolate, Parmesan cheese, orange, dried cherries, hazelnuts and sorghum, we tasted Woodford and enjoyed.

Next, it was a more formal food session with Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University.  Here, Chef Schmid walked us through some do’s and don’ts of cooking with bourbon, and showed us two recipes that we then got to sample – a bourbon chicken and Woodford Pudding.

Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University
Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University

Both were delicious (we got to sample each), and when it adjourned, it was time for the Ultimate Bourbon Experience.

This is an amazing thing – there is plentiful delicious food – beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin, corn pudding, sausage stuffed mushrooms, and on and on – and you walk through the lobby and main areas with a bourbon glass, getting samples from and chatting with representatives from almost all of the major and many smaller distilleries.

For review purposes, this isn’t the best way.  But for sheer enjoyment, most definitely! We started at Angels Envy, sampling the A.E. Rye, then moved on to the Western Spirits display, makers of the Calumet Farm bourbon I’ve spoke highly of.  To be honest, the representative there was not very helpful in talking about the bourbons, and didn’t particularly seem interested in it.  Disappointing, but I had a drink of their Lexington bourbon and moved on.

Nelson’s Green Brier distillery has a great story, and it was a pleasure hearing Charlie Nelson tell it.  The Belle Meade bourbon was distinctive, and I hope to get a bottle to review here in Michigan soon.  From there we wandered longer, stopping for a bite, then a drink. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Prudence dictated we head back to our hotel at a decent enough time to take off for home bright and early (to prepare for a Super Bowl party we host), but I cannot say enough great things about this event.  It was truly a great time, and I hope to return next year.  Fantastic.

bourbon. Mmmmmmm
bourbon. Mmmmmmm

Bourbon Classic Day One: Cocktails for two

Bourbon Classic Day One: Cocktails for two

After a month of anticipation, I am here in Louisville Kentucky for the Bourbon Classic, and so far it has been tremendous fun. We got in late afternoon yesterday, with enough time to check into the beautiful and unique 21c Museum hotel, and get ready for the event itself starting at 7:00.

Welcome to the Bourbon Classic
Welcome to the Bourbon Classic

This is the Bourbon Classic’s second year, and the presentation last evening was fantastic. For last night’s sampling and competition, several different bourbon brands pared up with some fantastic chefs and mixologists to prepare small plate tastings and cocktails.

Each distillery/chef had a table serving area, and visitors were free to walk up to each one and try the dish, cocktail, or ideally, the pairing of both. The bourbons represented some of the best and most well known in the industry: Angels Envy, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Michters, Blantons and Wild Turkey. We started out on the far side of the convention hall, with Angels Envy, who served up a beef satay with green chili grits, a deviled egg, and paired it with a Boulevardier cocktail. A delicious pairing for, A.E. and Chef Terry French (winner of the Food Network’s “Extreme Chef” contest in 2012).

Chef Terry French at the Angel's Envy table
Chef Terry French at the Angel’s Envy table

The treats kept coming – Highlights included the Sable Manhattan mixed by Issac Fox of Volare using Jim Beam black (delish!), Woodford Reserve and Chef Bobby Benjamin paired up for a chicken and waffles that was truly breathtakingly good, and the work of Blantons and Proof on Main Chef Levon Wallace.

Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main pairs with Blanton's
Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main pairs with Blanton’s

Now, my love of Blanton’s is known to readers, so it’s hardly shocking I would find this to be my favorite pairing. But the taste of Chef Wallace’s Lamb scrapple with red eye hollandaise and cornbread fried in duck fat, paired with a Blantons based Fancy Free was the highlight for Jen and I. Both were delicious, and went together so nicely, that we had to give Chef Wallace our compliments – and it was our great pleasure to find him to be a fantastic guy to boot! Suffice to say, we look forward to eating at Proof on Main next time we are in Louisville, and enjoying the fantastic foods.

Chef Levon Wallace talks with Jen and I
Chef Levon Wallace talks with Jen and I

After the first pass through, many of the brands and chefs started rolling out second options, and dear reader, that’s where my notes fall off. We met some wonderful people, like the aforementioned Issac Fox and Chef Wallace, and made some new friends. We spent a good portion of the evening chatting with Gregory and Chris, two very nice gentlemen from Virginia who headed here for a bit of a college reunion. We also met a pair of ladies who are are close to launch on a Bourbon-lifestyle centered website, and who kindly directed us to some other local cuisine to try.

Today is day two, with some learning sessions and more tastings this afternoon and evening. We drove around Louisville a bit today, procured some future bourbon of the week bottles, and ate lunch at the fantastic Garage Bar. We’ve met some wonderful people – from knowledgeable collectors who have helped me augment my own, to the chefs, restaurant managers and people here at the hotel, so far everyone has been fantastic. On to day two!

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

T-minus two days until I head to Louisville, KY with my lovely wife for the Bourbon Classic.  I could not be more excited – and I will be posting updates all weekend as I partake in all the bourbon culture this weekend promises.  Plus, I will get to escape the Polar Vortex madness that has settled on the great lakes!

For those curious, the Bourbon Classic is a (now) annual convention/conference/event bringing together distilleries, writers, speakers, master distillers, chefs, mixologists and just about anybody else interested in bourbon for a two day event in downtown Louisville.  This will be my first time going, so I am ready for a weekend of learning about and thoroughly enjoying all it has to offer.

With such a fine event on the horizon, it seemed the best time to pick a sure thing for my bourbon of the week.  And today, that means none other than the legend itself, Pappy Van Winkle. In this case, the 15 year.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

 

I won’t waste your -or my – time recapping the Pappy Van Winkle story. What I will do is review this elusive bottle for those who, like me, have had a *difficult* (read: impossible) time procuring the drink. Hopefully, it can help someone decide for themselves – is it worth it?

When I say “worth it,” I am referring to the hunt for Pappy, or to pay the increasingly higher prices enthusiasts find when searching. For taste alone, I’m not sure ANY bourbon is worth the hundreds of dollars PVW commands. Many of those who are dropping hundreds of dollars for this, or any other rare whiskey, are doing it more for the prestige of having the bottle in their collection than the taste or quality. But that does not mean that PVW does not have those things. It actually has them in spades.

My take: I’ve had the PVW 15 before, and have actually had this bottle for a year and a half before reviewing. Most notably, I had it at Buffalo Trace Distillery at a Pappy Van Winkle tasting event last year, where I sampled the 12, 15, 20 and 23 year. For my taste profile, the 20 year was best (a little smoother, a bit more stately) but many say the 15 year is the perfect bourbon, and I can see why.

It’s nose is unparalleled. At 107 proof, you expect the bite of alcohol, but won’t find it here. Instead, a sweet mix of cinnamon and honey, maple syrup, honey and a bit of sharp oak comes forth. I held the glass to my nose again and again, absolutely in love with its aroma.

The first sip is sharp – the charred oak mixes with a delightful caramel and it’s creamy texture almost separates on your tongue. There is that sweet thick vanilla caramel on the front, and toffee. In the back, the cinnamon pours out, with more oak and a husk spice that is unique in a wheated bourbon. It’s not harsh, but rather, smooth and strong. Clove and more oak come forward if you hold your sip a bit longer.

Then the finish – very very long and warming. Still smooth, but with warming oak flavor and the lingering of caramel.

I found waiting between sips made it even better. The second didn’t catch me off balance, and the sweetness increased with each subsequent sip, the sugar mingling with that smoky oak char.

Did I love it? Yes, even more this time than before. I can’t in good conscience leave it out of my top five, although I still prefer the softness of the 20 year. Is it worth $500 a bottle? Again, I’m not sure anything is. But a glass at a bar is worth the asking price, and if you have the means, you won’t regret it from the taste.

Yum.

Dan’s Rating: 9.1