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 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…