Awards & Events

The feast of Bourbon

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is starting to attract people from across the world. Dominic Roskrow went to find out why
By Dominic Roskrow
The party for Tom Bulleit at a private house in the suburbs of Bardstown was dead as a dormouse.We – Whisky Magazine managing director Damian Riley-Smith, myself and a Polish writer we’d adopted called Jaroslaw Urban, had missed Bulleit Bourbon’s brands ambassador earlier in the evening and had promised to return later - which we did.But when we entered the house there wasn’t a soul there. We tried the next room. Nothing. On to the kitchen. Zip. Then it dawned on us.“I think,” said Damian, “we’re in the wrong house.”We were.Given the ways things are in Kentucky, though, it really wouldn’t have surprised me if someone had appeared and said ‘how y’all doin’. Can I fix any of you guys a drink?”Kentucky in general and Bardstown in particular could put up a strong claim to be the most overtly friendly and hospitable place on the planet.Every local person welcomed us to their state with a genuine warmth. Everybody I spoke to from outside of it – and there were people who had travelled hundreds of miles to be there – had let the generosity and kindness rub off on them.I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many smiling people in one place.But there’s a tangible sense of excitement about Bardstown, too, a sense that something special is starting to happen for bourbon – that people from countries across the world are starting to appreciate what it’s all about.Certainly the people at Four Roses have plenty to be excited about.Friday morning they stage an event called Let’s Talk Bourbon, over a traditional Southern breakfast of grits, crispy smoked bacon, scrambled eggs and what I imagine to be turkey burgers.All week Hurricane Isabel has threatened to throw a tantrum and try and spoil the party – would such a thing be possible – but she never shows up, so we’re blessed with a glorious start to the day.We sit under an awning on the front lawn because they’re building a visitor centre round the back. There are plans for a gift centre too. Four Roses is a distillery on the move as it prepares to launch in to its own country for the first time in 40 years.“I have been doing this for 36 years,” says master distiller Jim Rutledge. “I have enjoyed every bit of it. But this is for me the most exciting time I’ve had.”Later that morning Buffalo Trade’s international vice-president Steve Camisa and its global brand director Ken Weber agree with the general sentiment.“I think what we’re doing is a good example of what’s happening in general,” says Ken.“We had all the bottom shelves in the supermarkets, all the cheap brands, and we’ve gone 180 degrees from that. In the whiskey sector we have started bringing out different brands, different recipes, different age statements. We’re addressing the niche premium sector.”Steve continues: “In the last five years we have seen a different attitude with regard to health, drink-drive laws and so on.“People are drinking less but better. That is exciting because we’re talking to a new type of customer interested in exploring new products.”What’s fuelling the development of bourbon is the growth in small batch and single cask bottlings.A whole plethora of new products have come on to the market, and will continue to do so. During the festival itself Ridgewood Reserve 1792 from Barden was given its official launch.And there is some serious debate taking place about older bourbons.Because it matures faster than Scotch due to the heat and the nature of the barrel, three or four year old bourbon is quite normal.The more traditional bourbon makers such as Jimmy Russell and Elmer T Lee favour whiskey aged between 10 and 13 years, but a growing number of whiskeys are being bottled at 17 year or more.Julian Van Winkle sells premium whiskey at 18 or even 20 years old. They’re powerful, woody and unmistakable.“But it’s all a matter of taste and choice,” says Ken Weber. “When you go out to eat you don’t necessarily want the same food every time. It’s the same with whiskey.“If you’ve had a nice dinner and you just want to be left alone and watch the sun go down, then an 18-year-old Sazerac might be the perfect thing. Before dinner, probably not. You’ll go for something lighter.”To prove the point we attend a jazz, cigars and bourbon evening where I first meet Jaroslaw. He’s written a book on bourbon and is something of an expert.He guides me away from an 18-year-old Evan Williams and to another excellent single cask bottling.“Much better,” he says. “I find the 18 year old too woody, too much.”We finally make it to meet Tom Bulleit, whose company is now owned by Diageo before returning to watch a bluegrass band while drinking fine bourbon and drinking fine cigars.We end up in downtown Bardstown where an Australian band is performing. “They were on tour and they got here and never left,” someone explains.That figures. All in all, it’s the perfect way to end our first day.The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is now in its 12 year and it attracts 30,000 visitors. While it might seem obvious to state that its purpose is to promote bourbon, the weekend event has more in common with a fair or even an outdoor rock festival than it does about alcohol.It’s completely geared up to families for a starter, and there are any number of rides, games and attractions for children.It’s an American melting pot, too. Groups of ageing and leather-clad Harley Davidson riders mingle with wealthy horse-owning businessmen. Long-haired rock fans watch as skinhead army personnel try and sign up recruits and encourage visitors to climb up their artificial rock face.A myriad of stalls sell everything from bourbon bottle cheese boards to fudges, barbecue sauces and roasted nuts, all made with bourbon. In colour terms, everything is turned up to 11.And the constant flow of well-wishers is unrelenting. Escaping for a quick beer in the beer garden with a copy of Whisky Magazine, I am approached time and time again by people wanting to know more about the magazine, by subscribers just wishing to say hello, and by people enquiring about the produce from Scotland and throughout the rest of the world.Among them is Chris Sigmon, who is a fan of whiskey and who has travelled with his wife Cathy to soak up the atmosphere and perhaps pick up a bargain or two at the afternoon’s auction. As it turns out, he won’t be disappointed.The auction, sponsored by Julian Van Winkle and supported by most of the state’s distillers, is held to raise money for the Oscar Getz museum. Rare bottles, many of them from personal collections, are autographed and then offered for bidding.It is held in as serious an environment as anything in Kentucky ever is, which means not very seriously at all, with auctioneer Karl Lusk circumventing convention whenever it seems appropriate to him.“Don’t look at your wife, look at me,” he says to one man who is hesitating while he decides whether to raise his bid. “She might be your financial advisor but you make the decision. Hey, it’s only money.”Chris Sigmon buys a rare bottle of Evan Williams 107 proof originally available only in Japan and signed by master distillers Parker and Craig Beam. At $125 he believes he has got a steal.But his real coup is the box of prohibition whisky for which he pays $600 – the second highest bid of the day.It contains a 1917 Old Lancaster Kentucky Straight bourbon, 100 proof; a 1922 Crestmore for medicinal use; a bourbon deluxe 100 proof made in 1916, bottled 1934; Special Old Reserve, 100 proof, made 1917 and bottled 1932 for medicinal purposes; Mount Vernon Pure Rye whiskey, 100 proof, made 1915 bottled 1928; a 100 proof Old Taylor made 1916 bottled 1932; as well as a couple of books and tshirts.Afterwards he says he opened a 1933 whiskey the previous night to share with friends and promises to bring it down to the Ball that evening for me to try. And amazingly, he does.The Ball itself is the climax of the festival, and anybody who is anybody in Kentucky is there. We had visited the tent during the day and it had been spectacularly unimpressive - cold and soulless.But by evening, with the sun setting over Kentucky, the tables decorated and a constant stream of stretch limousines arriving outside, it’s a totally different place. Each distillery has a stand and you’re encouraged to sample at will.Nothing particularly strange in that, save for two things; one, that some of the stands are handing out whiskey cocktails – not something that would be likely to happen in Scotland – and two, you’re given a bag so that you can take away each of the individual glasses you are presented with.It is a black tie event and tonight is the debut performance of my Cornish tartan kilt. Before the event it had taken me 15 minutes to pop out to a shop because I was stopped five times by people wanting to ask where I was from. Every one of them welcomed me to their town even though I
had been there for two days.And it took me a further 15 minutes to get a drink at the Ball as well-wishers shook my hand and television crews insisted on interviews. If you ever want to feel like a rock star, wear a kilt in Bardstown.Finally, after two totally wonderful days, a big group of us make it back to the ‘down to earth’ Sharkeys Sports Bar, where we listen to karaoke and dance to AC/DC.And in the early hours – when they throw us out – we reluctantly go back to the hotel.That really should have been it. But it wasn’t. Not quite. For despite the late hour, Jimmy Russell is hosting a party at the hotel, and naturally he invites us in.I had caught up with him earlier in the day, but had been mindful of detaining him from the festival too long. It didn’t bother him, though, and he is happy to talk again.“Things have been going well for bourbon these last few years,” he says. “People are starting to understand premium bourbon in all sorts of countries. Wild Turkey is doing very well in countries such as Japan and Australia.“Everybody is working here to help get the message across. I think bourbon has got a great future - that really is exciting.”And with that, it’s time for bed. The whole event has passed far too quickly, the number of happy moments are almost too many to count.But it was an experience never to be forgotten. I can’t wait to get back. * With very special thanks to Ann von Roenn (festival pics on page 29) Pam Gover and Steve and Kim Camisa.