The second annual Bourbon Classic was held last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. The event drew bourbon fans from around the country to join with distillers, bartenders, restaurants, and media representatives in celebrating all things bourbon. I was lucky enough to be among them and I left feeling very lucky to be living so close to bourbon country.
The event began Friday night with “From the Barrel to Bar,” a cocktail-centered event. Teams of master bartenders were paired with a local chef and a Bourbon Classic sponsor distillery to compete for the title of “perfect cocktail.” A select panel of media personalities and industry experts evaluated the cocktails individually and as pairings to select the winner. I was really impressed with level of food at this event. The small plates included things like short ribs in bourbon sauce, bourbon ice cream with apple tarts, and a plate of chicken and waffles that was so good I went back for seconds. The cocktails were a nice mix of classic and contemporary offerings and there were few I wasn’t willing to finish. Throughout the night we were able to both mingle with friends, break off to explore on our own, take in the cocktail competition, and relax in the VIP lounge so we never felt like we had run out of things to do.
Saturday was when the event really started to get interesting. The first event of the afternoon was a welcoming session from the master distillers of the event sponsors. As we sat down in the theater and began to take in the line of up bourbon legends in front of us there was a definite feeling of excitement in the air. MC’ed by Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women and bourbon authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum, the question and answer session featured Wes Henderson, Fred Noe, Jimmy Russell, Harlen Wheatley, Tom Bulleit, Drew Kulsveen, Willie Pratt, Daniel Preston, and Dave Schmier. Some of those names may be less familiar than others. The lineup was an interesting mix of legends of the bourbon business and the heads of newer distilleries who have been in the business for only a few years. Some bourbon fans were less than pleased to see non-producing brands being put up as equals to people like Noe and Russell, and I saw more than one angry twitter flying around that weekend. But it did make for a very interesting, if not at times slightly tense, question and answer session. The distillers were asked about sourcing, truth telling, and force aging, although tone was always respectful on behalf of both the MC and the guests. It was a fascinating hour, with Russell and Noe talking about the dark days of the 80’s and telling stories about their lifetime in the industry, Bulleit explaining their focus on cocktails and bartenders as a way to grow their brand, Henderson talking about his dad, and Preston and Schmier talking about the process of starting a small distillery.
For those who couldn’t get enough of the stories the rest of the session provided a chance for even more. Guests got to attend two classes during the “Bourbon Classic University” including ‘Bourbon Recollections…A Trip Through Time’ with Fred Noe and Fred Johnson, as well as a variety of other classes like bourbon pairing with cheese, entertaining with bourbon tastings, bourbon and beer, bourbon and chocolate, and home bar essentials. Every session I attended was educational and entertaining and they gave me a chance to get to know some of the other attendees. I met people who came from Texas, Florida, Maryland as well as more local bourbon aficionados, and most of these people were not in the industry. They were just bourbon lovers who were willing to fly across the country to learn more about their favorite drink.
The final event of the weekend was an evening devoted to bourbon. There was a book fair with signings from renowned authors like Charles Cowdery, Joy Perrine, Fred Minnick, and Kara Newman. But the main event of the night was of course the tastings. Once again restaurants were paired with distillers and once again the food was amazing, but this night definitely belonged to the bourbon. The sponsor distillers of the Bourbon Classic represented a nice mix of both historic and up and coming bourbon brands and distilleries; although Four Roses and Heaven Hill were noticeably absent. The number of bourbons are growing so quickly that even the most dedicated bourbon lovers will have a hard time trying every new brand. Bourbon events like these give us a chance to try several different distilleries and bottles, putting the new kids on the block against the historic brands face to face. Of course it can be hard to remember which ones were your favorite after a night of drinking all of them. But even if you forget to take notes, the experience is well worth it. The balance of wonderful food and drink in the evenings and solid education combined with storytelling from the masters made this the most interesting whiskey weekend I’ve had so far. If you can get to next year’s show, you should.