By Fred Minnick

The Bourbon Affair

Fred makes a plea for the Bourbon community to work together
In the whiskey community, we all sit around and ask: How, when and why did Bourbon take off like it has? Was it the bartenders, the distilleries or brilliant whiskey writing? We have our theories, but nobody really knows and nobody should take complete credit. At the Kentucky Bourbon Affair organised by the Kentucky Distillers Association, I realised we're only in the beginning of the boom. Whether things slow down in five years or 50, the inaugural event dubbed "fantasy camp for Bourbon drinkers" illustrated just how passionate whiskey enthusiasts are and that was never more evident than at a trash dump.You read that correctly. A trash dump. The KDA member distilleries (Sazerac is the only major distillery company not a member) were charged with creating special events that would wow consumers. After skeet shooting and a tasting in a rickhouse at the Wild Turkey Distillery, attendees were taken to a barrel graveyard, where used barrels were tossed aside and stacks of staves rotted with tree branches. It looked like a great place for a snake to hide, but the consumers dove into the graveyard as if it were a gold mine. They were ripping off heads and having master distiller Jimmy Russell sign them. They grabbed thick staves, swollen from rain, with plans to barbecue. One guy was picking up every loose piece of wood he could to build his home bar. All the while, I'm thinking to myself: "Dear god, please no snakes.... Or rats." Obviously not concerned with wildlife, they tugged and pulled on staves, hoops and bungs until finally Wild Turkey officials had to tell them hurry up. Twenty years ago, you couldn't give away a used barrel to a consumer. Now, people are digging through woodpiles for scraps.Michter's hosted an intimate cooking experience with celebrity chef Edward Lee, where attendees watched the renowned chef cook with Bourbon.Woodford Reserve's resident-in chef Ouita Michel, a perennial James Beard nominee, also taught a Bourbon class. "I used to be offended when people drank Bourbon with my food," Michel said, "now, it's one of my main ingredients." In Kentucky, Bourbon has always been a little like salt and pepper. Now the rest of the world is fascinated with the spirit's caramel and spice notes ameliorating bland dishes.But at the end of the day, Bourbon is for sipping. And the Bourbon Affair gave consumers better Bourbon-tasting access than the top-level trade and major writers receive, giving them samples straight out of the barrel and nips of extremely rare stuff. At the Brown-Forman headquarters in downtown Louisville, several security guards watched as we walked atop the roof and stood underneath the famous Old Forester water tower. We later sipped an extremely rare 1950s-era President's Choice Old Forester privately selected for an individual and now kept in the Brown-Forman archive.The whole event was a fete of epic proportions, juxtaposing Bourbon's legacy and future. But there was a consistent question at The Golden Affair's tasting tables: "Where is the Pappy?" Or, "Have you seen Blanton's?" See, both Pappy Van Winkle and Blanton's are produced by Sazerac, which owns the Barton 1792 Distillery and the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Sazerac is not a KDA member, and the Bourbon Affair only showcased KDA members. Consumers paid good money to attend the Bourbon Affair and all those I talked to said the admission fees were worth every penny.If Bourbon can bring a Democrat and Republican together at such a dynamic event, Bourbon political compromise is surely on the horizon. After all, in 1996, when the Heaven Hill fire demolished the company's warehouses and distillery, the Bourbon community offered warehouse space, still time and support instead of revelling in a competitor burning to the ashes. The Bourbon Affair has the potential to give a kumbaya moment for the industry. The bottom line is it's time for all distillers to work together. The consumer demand is not going away. Let's not give them a reason to go back to vodka.