Travel

Festival time

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is normally a safe bet.This year,though, there was an unusual excitement to it,too. Dominic Roskrow reports.
By Dominic Roskrow
There are many words to describe the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, but ‘evolutionary’,‘progressive’and ‘dynamic’would not normally be among them.In Bardstown they pride themselves on tradition and consistency and they don’t fix what ain’t broken.So in any given year you can pretty much rely on the barrel rolling competitions, the cigars and jazz evening, the cook offs and the grand Gala, which wraps everything up on the Saturday night.But this year was different.Perhaps it was the influx of guests down for the Ryder Cup in Louisville;perhaps it was the political backdrop of a looming election; or perhaps a devil-maycare recklessness stimulated by the rocky economic landscape.But this year there was a frisson, an electric under-pulse that I like to think is due to the growing feeling that Kentucky’s bourbon industry is undergoing a transformation of epic proportions and repositioning itself off the bottom shelf.For the producers in Kentucky this requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand it would be bad business not to service the demand for special bottlings and rarer bourbons. On the other, they need to stay true to their loyal consumer base, much of it used to paying low prices for their whiskey.To do both means supporting the popular brands while taking the opportunity to put small batch and single cask offerings out when the opportunity arises.This idea was best on show at Heaven Hill,where a new single cask offering by the name of William Heavenhill was unveiled.Launched to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the birth of the distillery’s founder, it has been matured for 225 months, retails at a significant $500 and there are only 225 bottles on sale.Or there were. Even before the festival is fully underway the total available had fallen to under 200.For Lynne Grant, who played a key role in its conception and launch, its success is a surprise and a mean “Putting a bourbon on the market at this price was a risk and gave me a few sleepless nights,” she says.“We’re amazed that so many people have been coming through so early and there has been so much interest.” Clearly the price prohibits many customers but Heaven Hill does a roaring trade in more moderatelypriced bottles of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig.The 12 Years Old of the latter, says Grant, is arguably the best value bourbon currently on the market.New launches traditionally weren’t part of the festival.They tend to come in October,when Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace roll out special bottlings from the likes of Evan Williams,George T Stagg, Eagle Rare and Weller.This year, though, it’s been different. Four Roses released Mar’iage, a stunning citrus-infused small batch offering, and Beam unveiled plans for a new rye.Woodford Reserve, too, will be launching what it says is the first sweet mash bourbon, a whiskey free of backset.It wasn’t just new bourbons that were being shown off either.Maker’s Mark proudly unveiled its stylish new visitor reception area a few months ago, but this year’s festival really put it through its paces. It contains a modern counter bar and tasting area, a merchandising area and a facility at which you can dip your newlypurchased bottle in the famous red wax seal.After the pretty and quaint tour round the historical distillery the new area is a surprise and a delight.There was also a flurry of genuine news stories, too, the biggest of which came from Beam Global. In recent years there has been an opening up of distilleries and an investment in visitor facilities but throughout the transformation the world’s biggest bourbon producer has remained removed and aloof, to the frustration of bourbon fans across the world.They have had to be content with the distillery’s Beam Outpost and a stroll around the gardens.Now that’s about to change.Beam has announced to invest a whopping $14 million for an ambitious plan to make the site safe for tours and to open up to the public.Elsewhere there are plans to reopen the Pogue distillery after a version of the whiskey was launched some years back.And on the edge of Bardstown the word is that Kentucky Distillers,who have been building a new distillery brick by brick for some years now so as to not incur debt, look set to open around the end of the year.According to local bourbon archivist and expert Mike Veach there are plans to allow the public to make batches of bourbon to their own recipes and in their preferred mode of production.Best of all though, is the news that the old Barton Brands Distillery on the edge of Bardstown has been renamed Tom Moore, after its founder, and has been added to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.There are plans to allow tours through what is one of the state’s most intriguing distilleries.Now part of Constellation Brands,hopefully it’ll mean a better distribution for the distillery’s Ridgemont Reserve 1792, a truly delightful eight year old bourbon.Such momentum in Kentucky is being excellently supported the Louisville Kentucky Convention and Visitors bureau, which has woven bourbon into the state’s tourism plans and has backed the rural distillery trail with an urban bourbon trail – a collection of bars and restaurants where bourbon is integral to the offering.The bureau’s work has given the distilleries a seat at the tourism table, elevating them to status they deserve.It makes for an impressive overall offering.The Ryder Cup may have dominated the headlines this year but the festival’s alive and kicking.Who says it can’t be dynamic? And on this year’s impressive evidence, there’s plenty more to come.