Awards & Events

Kentucky calling

Whisky musician Robin Laing experiences the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for the first time and finds a home from home.
By Robin Laing
Oh, the buzzin’of the bees and the cigarette trees and the soda water fountain.At the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings, in the big Rock Candy Mountains’ Bardstown must be one of the few towns in the USA to still have an old-style, drug store soda fountain. I sat in there with some friends having milk shakes and root beer. It’s that kind of place – the smiling face of small-town America. For special occasions you can hire horse-drawn limos from Jonesie’s carriage depot, people greet each other down on Main Street, the churches are in immaculate condition. It’s a very historic town, worth a visit at any time.It also happens to be the bourbon capital of the world. Dawn Ballard, tourist officer, says “Bardstown is to bourbon what Napa Valley is to wine”. It has five distilleries; Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Barton and Willett’s. The town also boasts the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History and the Bourbon Heritage Centre, established by Heaven Hill. Surely then, the natural home for a Bourbon Festival.And the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is some party. This year 55,000 visitors came to watch hot air balloons go up, race pretend horses, ride steam trains, listen to jazz and country music, enjoy bourbon breakfasts, stroll around craft stalls, see lots of art, visit distilleries, do ghost tours, have bourbon and cigars in ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, taste endless bourbons, eat great food and dance on air at the grand Gala dinner. Even all that wasn’t enough for the notorious Gazebo Club – bourbon aficionados who like to party till dawn.“In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never have to change your socks and the little old streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks” Things tend to quieten down on the Sunday as alcohol is not usually on sale.Scotland used to be like that of course, and things are also relaxing a little in Kentucky now – I was the first person ever to be able to buy whiskey on a Sunday at Maker’s Mark distillery – nothing special about me, I was just there at the right time.Being devout Christians has never prevented either the Scots or the Kentuckians from making, and enjoying Whisk(e)y.Heaven Hill’s premium brand whiskey is named after the Rev. Elijah Craig. Craig’s mother moved to Virginia from Scotland and he ventured west to Kentucky in the 1770’s. A true frontier man, he was an engineer and a preacher who made whiskey – what could be more Scottish, or Kentuckian than that?Bourbon always seemed to me quite different from single malt – the main ingredient is corn, rather than fermenting wort the solids are left in, it involves continuous distillation and its ‘sour mash’ system means that part of the spent beer is mixed with the next mash. All this is quite different from single malt, though interestingly not that different from how some grain whisky is made in Scotland. Finally, Bourbon is always aged in barrels of charred, new American oak.I have always approached bourbon differently, drinking it with ice, usually while watching my DVD of the Dixie Chicks in concert. However, at an informative nosing and tasting experience in the Bourbon Heritage Centre, Lynne Grant, the centre manager insisted that good bourbon can be approached the same way as single malt – in nosing glasses and with drops of water to activate the spirit of the drink. She didn’t say anything about the kind of music to listen to.One of the high points for me was the tour round one of Heaven Hill’s 47 warehouses. Each warehouse, or ‘rick’, is seven stories high, containing around 20,000 barrels of bourbon. They are made entirely from wood and have to be loaded and unloaded very carefully to maintain even weight throughout the structure. Carelessly constructed they may tilt or collapse. On the other hand, properly built, they can withstand the power of tornados.Bardstown is surrounded by ricks full of maturing bourbon. The average evaporation rate is above 4 per cent per annum. Standing in the middle of this lake of bourbon you can smell traces of it on the wind. Maybe that’s why it’s the smiling face of small town America and why people greet each other in neighbourly fashion down on Main Street.