Kentucky Bourbon Festival Review - Not all whiskey is bourbon

The Bourbon Capital of the world is nestled amidst the green hills and valleys of Bardstown, Kentucky. And, each September, this small town’s population of about 10,000 swells to more than 45,000 as visitors invade Bardstown searching for the best of Kentucky’s signature bourbon. Rich in history, Bardstown is a community with strong spirit and a lot of hospitality. A six-hour drive from Atlanta, Bardstown is Kentucky’s second oldest city, dating back to 1780. And while the city has a great deal of history, it is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival that beckon most visitors in mid-September.

You can meander along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail any time, but the Kentucky Bourbon Festival only takes place in September. Recently, the 19th Annual Festival came to a close, with record attendance at many of the events throughout the six-day event. What started out 19 years ago as a one-day event, with roughly 250 attendees, is now a six-day event, with attendance estimates for this year close to 55,000. From barrel rolling and historic tours, to tastings and distillery tours, there are so many events to choose from that everyone can find something to enjoy.

While attending the Festival, or touring one of the many distilleries in and around Bardstown, you will soon learn that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. More on that later.....Driving in and around town, you pass many large structures that look like abandoned, moldy old buildings. These are actually “ric houses” that are essential to the bourbon industry. Barrels of bourbon are aged in these warehouses. The black on the outside is not mold, but “tarula” that develops from the aging bourbon—actually, it comes from “Angel’s Share,” or the evaporating alcohol that creates the fragrant aroma. If you stand outside an open window of a ric house, the smell is wonderfully potent. (I did ask, and you cannot get intoxicated from the smell!) According to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, more than five million barrels of bourbon and other whiskeys are currently aging in Kentucky.

When planning your trip for next year, keep in mind the variety of options for lodging in and around Bardstown. Of course there are hotels, and bed and breakfasts, but camping is another option. My Old Kentucky Home State Park has nice wooded sites and is close to many of the events. Camping is a great way to meet people from Kentucky and all over the world. But you need to make reservations early, since available spaces fill up quickly!

This was the fifth year that Kentuckian Pete Hehman and his wife, Kathy, attended the Festival, and camped at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. This year, Pete and Kathy met a couple from Switzerland that decided to vacation in the U.S., and bought an RV, drove it to the Florida Keys then up to Alaska, and on their way back they stumbled into the Bourbon Festival. They were so impressed, they decided to store the RV until next year, and come back to enjoy the Bourbon Trail along with the Festival.

Randy and Debbie Lipp, from Ball Ground, Georgia, attended last year’s Festival for the first time, and were determined to bring a larger group of people back with them this year. The result: 13 Georgians, 11 of them newcomers, all enjoyed the Festival events, and all plan to return next year!  

Many of the events during the Festival are free, and some are free but require reservations, and others are paid events. Some of the free events that do not require reservations include demonstrations of “The Ancient Craft of Barrel Making,” and the “World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay,” which includes individual and team races by experienced barrel rollers. Music on the Lawn, behind City Hall, can also be enjoyed free, with a variety of great bands playing in the evenings on the weekend.

Another Festival freebie is Spalding Hall, which dates back to 1826 and houses two museums. Gain insight into the history of bourbon and how it shaped this region by browsing through the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History with its vast collection of antique whiskey bottles, unique old advertisements and other artifacts, as well as exhibits on Presidents Washington and Lincoln. Some of the antique liquor and memorabilia are for sale. Spalding Hall is also home to the Bardstown Historical Museum.

The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.

A “Master Distiller’s Auction” is held in Spalding Hall as part of the Festival, also free of charge, but donations are appreciated. Rare bottles of Kentucky bourbon, some of which are autographed by the master distillers, are up for bid, along with other vintage items.

Sprawled out on the lawn of Spalding Hall are arts and crafts, hands on activities, distillery booths, and a variety of food and other items available for purchase, all related to Kentucky and/or bourbon.

One of the free events that requires planning is the “Barrels of Country Music” concert. You need to register ahead of time, since space is limited. This year’s concert featured Rodney Atkins.

Admittance to the Festival’s “Spirit Garden” is free, however you need to purchase a pin to get in. Once in, drinks can be purchased using tickets, and there’s a gracious plenty of bourbons to choose from—as well as beer, wine and other spirits, for those that haven’t taken a shine to bourbon yet!

Bourbon options at the Spirit Garden.

Another highlight of the festival is the “Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Inductions,” however this event is only open to the press. Induction is the highest honor in the bourbon industry. The Kentucky Distillers Association and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival announced three inductees for 2010:

Charles L. Beam (1922 to 2007) worked at several distilleries, and was widely known as a “Master” of distillers before the title Master Distiller was more commonly used. He retired from the Four Roses Distillery in 1984 after 22 years as a distiller, and during this tenure, he was responsible for several bourbon brands, including  the creation of the Eagle Rare brand. His widow, Mary Lee Beam, proudly accepted his award.

Ronnie Eddins began his career in the bourbon business at Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1962. Ronnie now manages more than 300,000 barrels of aging inventory, and under his tutorship, Buffalo Trace Bourbon brands have earned hundreds of awards.

Eddie Russell is the fourth generation of the famed Russell family to work at the Wild Turkey Distillery. He oversees Warehouse Operations, works hand-in-hand with his father Jimmy as an Associate Distiller, and travels extensively throughout the U.S. as an ambassador of Wild Turkey and the Kentucky Bourbon industry. Jimmy was on hand to congratulate his son as he received the prestigious induction.

Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame recipients: (l to r) Ronnie Eddins, Mrs. Charles L. Beam and Eddie Russell. (Photo courtesy of Ann McMichael)

Another event not to miss is “Maker’s Mark Ambassador Party.” This year’s event included a send off for Master Distiller Kevin Smith, who is leaving Maker’s Mark and will be joining Jim Beam as the Beam Global Spirits and Wine Director of Bourbon and Distillery Operations. Greg Davis, the new Maker’s Mark Master Distiller, is the youngest Master Distiller. Visit Maker's Mark website for information on how to become a Maker's Mark Ambassador (and to ensure you get an invitation to next year's event!).

Greg Davis, left, new Maker’s Mark Master Distiller, and Kevin Smith, outgoing Master Distiller for Maker’s Mark.

At the Maker’s Mark Ambassador Event: Kathy Friedman and Randy Lipp, from Georgia; Bill Samuels Jr., President of Maker’s Mark; and, Steve Zahn and Ron Friedman, also from Georgia.

Many of the ticketed events require advance registration, as they sell out. “The Kentucky Bourbon Festival Golf Tournament” includes lunch, a golf shirt and door prizes.

“Let’s Talk Bourbon” is hosted by Four Roses Distillery, and includes a Kentucky breakfast. Four Roses Master Distiller and COO Jim Rutledge presents a detailed look at the history and the process of making bourbon. Attendees then get a tour of the distillery.

Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller and COO, at "Let’s Talk Bourbon."

“Boots and Bourbon,” another ticketed event, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, with live music and all the country fun you would expect from an event sponsored by Wild Turkey: dancing, bull riding, cornhhole, a delicious buffet, and of course, drinks made with Wild Turkey products.

New to the Festival this year was the “Sip & Savor in the Spirit of Old Kentucky,” with an interesting look at how to pair bourbon with a variety of foods.

“The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting and Gala” is a great ending to the Festival. A black tie event, the evening begins as you sample the finest Kentucky bourbons from eight distilleries, keeping the signature glasses from each tasting. The Master Distillers are on hand, enhancing this formal but fun final event. Attendees at this year’s gala hailed from around the world, including Spain, Croatia and England, as well as California, New York and, of course, Kentucky. After the tasting, attendees are treated to a gourmet Kentucky dinner, special desert and of course, dancing.

Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller Jimmy Russell at the Gala.

Gala attendees from Spain

Kentucky’s heritage is steeped in traditions and bourbon-making. The people are among the most hospitable in this country, proud of their past and present. From oak barrels to ric houses, from rolling green hills to horses, Kentucky is an awesome place to spend a few days learning about an important, historical part of our country!

Coming soon: Part II—The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

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