Awards & Events

A blue grass state of mind

Now in its 16th year, this annual event has become the gathering for bourbon fans. Rob Allanson went to find out more.
By Rob Allanson
Now the crown jewel of the recently titled National Bourbon Heritage Month, It’s a pilgrimage you should make at least once as a bourbon lover.Once you have made that taxi ride from Louisville airport into Bardstown – the heart of the festival – everything you could imagine is there from vintage bottles to tours round your favourite distillery.The event has grown from essentially a bourbon tasting and dinner to attracting more than 52,000 people from 13 countries to bourbon’s heartland.There are so many events it is a good thing to spread yourself thinly and get to as much as possible, it may hurt a bit but in the end you will leave the bluegrass state with a deeper appreciation of the amber liquid.Since 1776, the people of Bardstown, Kentucky have been making bourbon. Their dedication to the fine art of distilling eventually gave Bardstown the title of Bourbon Capital of the World.The Kentucky Bourbon Festival gives you a weekend full of smooth bourbon, delicious food, and great entertainment, with a healthy dose of Kentucky hospitality thrown in for good measure.On Friday afternoon, events included “Let’s Talk Bourbon” at the Four Roses Distillery. Here a detailed seminar and distillery tour by master distiller Jim Rutledge on the history and process of making Kentucky Bourbon enlightened festival goers.A private tour of the Jim Beam distillery was one of the highlights of the festival for me, full of smells and interesting cereal notes which could be picked up in the bourbon later.One of the other great moments was kicking back at the Knob Creek guest house with two of Beam’s top men, CEO Tom Flocco and master distiller Fred Noe, and some choice selections from the Small Batch collection.Meanwhile, the Festival continued. The “Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz” event was great for bourbon and cigar aficionados – it featured premium cigars, Heaven Hill bourbons, lots of food and live jazz.Another of my great bourbon moments came during a tour of Maker’s Mark. I have been round the distillery a few months before but as my guide hinted there was a surprise round the corner.Boy he was not wrong. A new demonstration rick house has been created, and then you walk down past the sleeping whiskey and through a door into a massive, cavernous tasting room.This is quite a shock after the enclosed darkness of the rick house to emerge into the reds and yellows of the tasting area, complete with bar and bottle dipping area.The surprise did not stop there. What was the gift shop has been turned into Mrs Samuels’ old farmhouse. Look out for an authentic 1950s kitchen, talking pictures and some unusual wax dipped toys.And don’t forget it’s not your average museum, if you want to pull up a chair in the kitchen or see how it feels to sit behind the distillery manager’s desk, don’t hold back.Saturday was a big day. With myriad bourbon-related events during the day, including the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay (with 500-pound barrels). I keep thinking it might be time for a Scottish team to enter and make it a true world championship.But the way those men and women handle the hefty barrels is quite impressive, it almost looks easy – I am assured it’s not.The real lure of the festival was The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting and Gala.Ablack-tie event only, this affair was truly the belle of the whole ball – with Kentucky’s finest showing up in penguin suits and ball gowns, ready to, well, hit the barrel and sample some of the best Kentucky’s finest had to offer.It was all there including Heaven Hill’s storming new release under the Parker Heritage collection, Four Roses Barrel Strength Limited Edition and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon to name a few.Each producer tried to outdo the other with some impressively decorated stands.Maker’s Mark opted for the airline feel complete with stewardess, Old Rip Van Winkle had a great comfy study feeling to its stand, Beam had a porch effect going on and people were queuing round the building for a prom picture with Jim Rutledge.It’s a chance to let your hair down and meet some of the great names and people behind the brands.If you’ve got some time next September, buy yourself a ticket to Kentucky and join in the fun. You’ll never look at bourbon the same way again, promise.