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Through My Eyes: The Kentucky Bourbon Festival 2012

Posted on by Eric Burke

Me (grinning like a happy fool) and Four Roses Master Distiller, Jim RutledgeIf you've been reading for the last month, you'll know that I spent a week in visiting Kentucky in early September. (And yet I've been able to get a month's worth of blog posts out of that one week, weird.) I've been writing about visiting the distilleries. Those are the sexy topics that might get blog traffic when people search, but honestly I didn't go to Kentucky primarily to visit distilleries. I chose that week for one particular reason. That was the week of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, KY.  

It was my second time in Bardstown. Last time I was there I stayed right in Bardstown. I like Bardstown, but I don't want to stay there overnight again. It's a small town, everything closes at 5 pm and if you are staying there you can go to one of a handful of bars or watch tv in your hotel room. Sadly I did both on my first trip there.

I'd never been to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) before this. But, I kind of gathered from the reading I did ahead of time that things wouldn't be too far off from my first visit. At least not until the festival started. The grounds opened on Friday afternoon and I was going to be there starting Sunday. So I wasn't going to be staying in Bardstown. I stayed in Shepherdsville, KY, a town about a half hour toward Louisville from Bardstown. This was the best decision I made because it also meant I was only a half hour or so from downtown Louisville. And I found enough night life there to keep me from being bored on a Wednesday night. I was on vacation after all.

So the KBF itself was basically a small town festival with a few ticketed bourbon themed events. And honestly, I grew up in a small town. I love that about it. They took the typical beer garden and replaced it with a spirit garden. They took out the silly rides and replaced it with a bunch of bourbon or Kentucky themed t-shirt shops or local product booths. Love that. But other than that, if you picture a small town festival in a park you'll be really close. There are food trucks, there's a fenced off place to drink and exhibits. I spent an entire evening just sitting on a bench outside the Wild Turkey booth watching people go by. It was nice. 

But the ticketed events were where we had the most fun as first timers. I hear if you're a repeat visitor you have a few unofficial events that the same people go to and see the same people who they consider friends. I didn't have that so paid the money and I went to some of the ticketed events. I went to the All-Star Sampler, Let's Talk Bourbon, and the Bourbon Cocktail Mixology class. Most were fun and I'd go again, one in particular I would not. So let's dig into them a little.

The Kentucky Bourbon All-Star Sampler

Little groups of people chatting and eating and drinking at the Kentucky Bourbon All-Star Sampler™

This was such a fun event. It was held in what looked to be an industrial park on the north side of Bardstown. Inside a very large open building all the members of the KDA set up booths. From Jim Beam and Wild Turkey to little guys like Town Branch and my good friends MB Roland. They provide a nice spread of hors d'oeuvres. A bag to put things in and let you loose to talk to the distilleries. Or at least the employees of them. The micros mostly had the distillers on hand for you to talk to. Four Roses and Wild Turkey had Jim Rutledge and Jimmy Russell respectively. And then the best part—they all give out samples. Heaven Hill and Makers Mark gave out very nice glasses that now sit on my shelf. Woodford Reserve donated the money they were going to spend on glasses to charity. Others had disposable logo glasses or not as they wanted. 

I loved this event. It was so much fun. My wife got her photo taken with Jimmy Russell. I got my photo taken with Jim Rutledge. My buddy from MB Roland got interviewed by BourbonBlog. Heck, I got interviewed by BourbonBlog (though another lady threw me by hijacking the interview and I was drinking...sigh). There was a good sized group of people in attendance, but because it was a big space and there were a limited number of tickets sold, it felt intimate. I would totally go back, but if you go to this, remember there are 6 big guys and around that number small guys, and they all give samples...arrange a driver. Please.

Let's Talk Bourbon

This was held in a tent in the parking lot. But was so fun I had forgotten that until I saw the photos.

Oh my god! If you love bourbon, have a car and only can choose one event—make it this one. This is a very nice breakfast. Then there is a seminar on bourbon making by Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge. I've read a lot about making whiskey and I still learned so much. I was in the front row, taking notes and loving every minute of it. After (and during) the talk, Jim took questions from the audience. Everything from simple questions from novices to more in depth questions from those who had more knowledge. And all of them were answered in the same honest and earnest way. None were deemed too simple. 

After breakfast, the seminar and the questions, there was a tour. It was a bit rushed because of the sheer number of groups they were trying to get through, but still fun. After that (or during if you didn't take a tour) was a social gathering with cocktails and samples. We met new friends and found others in person for the first time. It really was so much fun. I can't say enough. But I run the risk of rambling because even though it was the best event, it was also the simplest. 

Bourbon Cocktail Mixology

The samples and nibbles for provided at the cocktail mixology class. They're arranged pretty.This was the class I was most excited about before I left my house. It's described as a way to learn why certain ingredients bring out the flavors of bourbon. I didn't learn any of that. I learned that Joy Perrine was very entertaining. I tasted about a dozen cocktails. All well made, some to my tastes, some not so much. I got a free autographed copy of her book. Which was nice. But it was not what was described to me. It's an expensive ticket. 

I would have been really happy with this if it were half the price and the description were worded a bit more accurately. But as it stands, I wouldn't go back. I'd drop the $15 on the book on Amazon and skip the event.

Joy Perrine and the cocktails she made during the Bourbon Cocktail Mixology™ class.

So what were the highlights that you can only see during the KBF? The exhibits were cool. The people watching were cool. The ticketed events were mostly cool. The Angel's Envy pop-up bar was cool. I actually enjoyed the BBQ from one of the food trucks. (I went back twice.) I enjoyed the crowds. I enjoyed the live music. I enjoyed meeting with friends, old and new.

What were the misses? I couldn't find the spirit garden (it was hidden behind the food trucks in a baseball field). I had the most fun in Louisville, not Bardstown. I enjoyed the distilleries much more than the festival itself. While I enjoyed the barrel rolling and the cooper demonstration, I didn't understand one and had the same demonstration while at a free tour at the cooperage for the other. Lodging in Bardstown is expensive, but that's to be expected.

Overall the positives outweigh the negatives. I might not go back next year, but I will certainly go back in years after that. I had so much fun. If you haven't gone, I recommend it. If you have, you already have your own ideas, but I still recommend it.