Awards & Events

A true boon in Kentucky

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is one of the year's whiskey highlights. Damian Riley-Smith brought back a suitcase full of fond memories
By Damian Riley-Smith
The rollercoaster ride that is the Kentucky Bourbon Festival more than met expectations yet again. Kentucky, often mistakenly left off the US tourist map, is the heartland of hospitality, subtle beauty and historic charm.This year began with a trip embodying a ‘historic’ experience, and one that I had passed up annually, not having the opportunity to try it.My Old Kentucky Dinner Train runs from Bardstown several miles into the countryside, to Clermont at the Jim Beam Distillery, where it conducts a gentle loop and then retraces its steps to Bardstown.Trundling through the woods and corn fields, meadows and scrub that make up the landscape of Kentucky, the train provides one of those rare views of the real Kentucky. The trip is made all the more memorable as a splendid three-course dinner is prepared, served and consumed, all brought together by the energetic crew led by Bob Perry.And on that evening we were never further than a moment away from Bulleit bourbon – either neat, on the rocks or served as an enticing cocktail.‘Let’s Talk Bourbon’, hosted by and at Four Roses, is one of those great opportunities for anyone with any level of knowledge to ask any question they wish about bourbon.With Jim Rutledge in the hot seat, and guests from all over the world, this truly international event leaves us all with a sense of greater knowledge and understanding. This year was also special for Four Roses as its future has been secured with new owners.Kirin Distillery, led by the vision of Teruyuki Daino and Yoshiharu Furumoto, has taken up the chance to bring this once leading US brand back to life, and this was the start of that renaissance.Distances are not small in Kentucky, so I had to rush off to Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, venue for the Master Distillers party and Hall of Fame presentation. The Oscars of the bourbon world, here you can witness all the leading bourbon stars.After Ed O’Daniel had explained the aim of the day, a representative of each bourbon business was presented with a stunning still replica, a testimony to the impact each individual has made on Kentucky and its bourbon.For those who believe heaven is filled with bourbon and cigars, heaven was here in the form of the Heaven Hill way. The bourbon and cigar dinner is a fantastic, memorable experience.Held in My Old Kentucky Home State Park Great Hall, guests are greeted with a cigar on entering, a seemingly never-ending supply of Heaven Hill bourbon (from Elijah Craig to Evan Williams), a splendid dinner and then the chance to dance away the evening.Not even the torrential downpour, which lasted all evening, could dampen the cigars or the spirits of all concerned.Saturday started with a more gentle pace. The stalls at the Spalding Hall lawns bustled with visitors from all over the state and beyond, thousands of families looking to enjoy the pleasures of the fair and the bourbon.The highlight of the day was the fiercely fought barrel relay, a bizarre affair and clearly unique to the whiskey world, this year won for the men by Jim Beam and for the women by Heaven Hill.The pace builds up with a private tasting in the back yard of Booker Noe. The friendly welcome and personal touch of being ‘at home’ with Booker is lost on no one. Booker and his son Fred lead us through their extraordinary range of Small Batch bourbons, filling the backyard with their warmth and humour.After tasting Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek, to name but three, Booker then heads off the to the roaring barbecue where he coats the 100 awaiting steaks with a dose of Booker’s.The Festival builds up to its finest moment with the spectacular Gala Dinner. You will never see so much well-presented bourbon in one place or have so many opportunities to enjoy it.Before dinner, each producer had created his own unique bourbon experience with booths and the chance to meet the master distiller. Queues wove throughout the venue as guests waited to meet Bill Samuels, Booker Noe or Julian van Winkle III in the flesh.And if you don’t meet them at the booths then you’re just as likely to see them over dinner or on the dance floor.Pam Gover, the irrepressible organiser of the whole festival, dashed from table to table ensuring all was well, never breaking for a well-earned rest. Perhaps, like the rest of us, she waits until Monday morning for her chance to come up for air.However, I for one intend to relive the experience as often as possible until next time – in the traditional Kentucky way – sitting in a rocking chair on my porch and sipping yet another fine bourbon.