When The Kentucky Bourbon Festival began 27 years ago, it was just a dinner for master distillers and industry insiders on a golf course. Over the years it has grown to include more than 40 events, some free and some ticketed, designed to attract visitors from all over the world. Everyone seems to have a favourite event, and whether you are brand new to Bourbon or you have a bottle collection that would make a master distiller blush, there’s something for everyone at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Tiny town, major economic impact
“Economically, the festival brings a huge impact to the community,” says Kentucky Bourbon Festival executive director Jill Hawkins. “During the festival, 55,000 people visit Bardstown. They stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, drink in our bars and they shop – on our Great Lawn and around town. They fill their cars with gas and visit the distilleries.”
Kentucky Bourbon Festival time is an all-hands-on-deck time of the year for the region, as visitors flock from all corners of the Earth to celebrate Kentucky’s native spirit.
“We don’t have exact data, but using industry calculations we estimate the economic impact to our community from the festival to be between $3 - $4 million annually,” says Bardstown-Nelson County Tourism Commission executive director Mike Mangeot. “Apart from the obvious economic impact, it’s a source of pride that people look forward to every year and an opportunity to showcase the Bourbon industry’s historic impact in our community.”
There’s something for everyone
“The very first Kentucky Bourbon Festival consisted of a dinner on a golf course,” says Hawkins. “We have grown from that single event, to a collection of events, 40 or more, that are spread over a five-day period. While we still have dinners, like our signature Black Tie Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting and Gala, and we also have classes, such as those in our Moonshine University series.
"We also have those at our Great Lawn, where you will find distilleries, Bourbon, music, food and our World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay. While the scope and breadth of the KBF has changed tremendously, what hasn’t changed is our mission: to promote and educate the public on the history and production of Bourbon and support local non-profit organisations.”
“The KDA sponsors the Kentucky Bourbon All-star Sampler every year at the Festival,” says Kentucky Distillers Association director of member & public relations Colleen Thomas. “It is such a great event as it brings master distillers and Bourbon barons together with their biggest fans. Guests can discuss their favourite brands and experience new selections with the men and women who create the best Bourbon whiskey on the planet. The generous, laidback hospitality of the event truly embodies Kentucky Bourbon culture.”
“From our point of view as sponsors, it seems the Festival is trying out new events to appeal to a wider audience while keeping fan favourites such as the Gala,” says Thomas. “It’s good to evolve with the consumer. The Bourbon fan of today is different from the Bourbon fan of 27 years ago when the Festival first started, and it’s good that the Festival organisers recognise these trends and are willing to change with the times.”
“We realise that our different audiences aren’t looking for the same type of experience, so we try to provide a wide variety of events,” says Hawkins.
Distillery teams train for the Bourbon Barrel Relay year-round
“I would say that our most unique event is our World Championship Bourbon Barrel relay,” Hawkins says.
“Watching the men and women, as individuals and as teams, quickly move the 500 barrels through the course and into the rack is a sight to behold. The skill, precision and strength these athletes exhibit is amazing!”
“The teams must manoeuvre a total of 10 Bourbon barrels down a track, clock and enter them into a rick with the stencil-head and barrel bung facing the proper direction.
"The competition is judged based on accuracy and timing,” says Heaven Hill assistant communications manager Lauren Cherry.
Heaven Hill’s teams have brought home numerous victories in the Barrel Relay over the years – an eight year winning streak for the men’s team between 2006 and 2013, and seven titles for the women since 1997.
Bettye Jo Boone, a 63-years-old maintenance technician at Heaven Hill Distillery, has been competing, and winning, since she joined the team in 2000. She starts endurance training at home a few times a week in June of every year on an elliptical machine until practice starts at the distillery in July.
“We usually start practice the last week in July, in the rick Max Shapira built for us behind Wesfalia, beside the William Heavenhill family graveyard,” says Boone.
“In August it’s usually very hot and humid so plenty of coolers full of Gatorade that go down quick. We have been a team with the same members for several years. We know our jobs very well, and when we make mistakes each of us knows what to fine tune.”
You can see this type of training session taking place between rickhouses throughout Kentucky in the late summertime. Preparation is seen as part of the job and these teams take their work quite seriously.
“Clocking the barrels’ bungs is specific to clock time in minutes on the face of a clock. Ten over, bung at two on a clock face, 20 over bung at four on a clock face; all ‘over’ sets are 5-25 called in increments of five if it’s in between we call it fast. We are timed from the start of the first barrel until the 10th barrel smacks the 9th barrel in the rick. They have a gauge that measures that the bung is close to bung up. All bungs up we can deduct 10 seconds for each.
"Run takes one minute 50 seconds, 110 seconds.”
This skill is, of course, crucial knowledge for those working in rickhouses ricking barrels. If you roll a barrel into the ricks at an odd angle, it can fall out. If you get the bung in the wrong position it can leak. Warehouse workers in the Kentucky Bourbon industry have long prided themselves on their ability to know exactly how many revolutions it takes a barrel to get to first position, second position, third position and so on.
The World Championship Barrel Relay competition is a natural extension of that skill.
“It’s hard work,” says Boone, who has been with Heaven Hill close to 28 years. “I really enjoy the competition. At near 63-years-old, I have children older than most all my team members, men and women,” she adds.
“Rhonda Vittitow, Vickie Clark, Paula Clark and myself were the original pioneers,” says Frankie Clark, Heaven Hill Bardstown warehouse supervisor. “We were the very first women’s team for Heaven Hill, started in 1998. That year I broke my foot a day and half before the competition and Mary Catherine Mcguirk filled in for me at last minute. It’s a lot of hard work, but yes I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun especially when we won, but it was also heartbreaking when we didn’t.
"We take the barrel roll competition very seriously.”
Clark was on the winning team five times in the six or seven years she competed, and she took second place once in the individual competition in her 26 years with Heaven Hill.
The World Championship Barrel Relay is perhaps the liveliest event of the entire festival, and there you can find master distillers, warehouse folk, and Bourbon fans all cheering and having a great time.
Why wouldn’t you go?
“In the last couple of years, we’ve organised more educational classes, like Cocktail Mixology, and some culinary elements, such as Bourbon and food pairings,” says Hawkins. “We’ve also added more events that are similar to our Bottled in Bond Fire event. This casual and intimate event combines Bottled in Bond Bourbons, bonfires and music. We also have some surprises up our sleeve for 2019!”
“We hope that folks frequently check our website,” continues Hawkins. “We offer Certified Bourbon Steward training several times throughout the year. We also hold several small events, such as our Mixed Drink Challenge, a cocktail competition to determine the official cocktail for that year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and themed dinners – one of which includes magic!”
“It is the true, authentic Kentucky Bourbon experience” says Mangeot. “Guests can visit our historic distilleries, taste their legendary Bourbons and enjoy true southern hospitality in the Most Beautiful Small Town in America and Bourbon Capital of the World. Why wouldn’t you attend? KBF started 27 years ago, long before the current Bourbon boom took off, as a way to celebrate all things Bourbon.
"It is the Granddaddy of Bourbon festivals. If you’re a fan you should experience it at least once.” KBF runs from 18-22 September 2019."