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Recap: 2020 Bourbon Classic

The 8th annual Bourbon Classic was held in Louisville, Kentucky this past weekend. The four-day event kicks off with two nights of special dinners and tasting events. The main attractions are the Friday night cocktail and small plates competition and the Saturday classes and grand tasting. For the cocktail and small plates competition, culinary talent from across Kentucky showcase local ingredients while representing their restaurants and a bourbon brand while vying for the best classic or contemporary small plate, cocktail, or pairing. Saturday features classes, distillery tours, cocktails at local bars, and more.

Friday night cocktail and small plates competition winners

The winner of the Best Classic Cocktail category was Dante Wheat of The 502 Bar and Bistro representing Heaven Hill Distillery. His cocktail was the Taiwanese Manhattan.

“Whenever I go into competitions my mentality is always to outdo my past drinks,” says Wheat. “As long as I do that I’m good. Winning is always a welcomed bonus.”

The winners of the Best Classic Small Plate category were Chef Damaris Phillips and Chef Coby Ming of the Bluegrass Supper Club representing Rabbit Hole Distillery. Their dish was Cavehill BLT Grits which featured grits from Weisenberger Mills in Midway, KY. and tomatoes from Field Day Family Farm in Louisville, KY.

Phillips’ and Ming’s team representing Rabbit Hole Distillery also won Best Classic Pairing for the Cavehill BLT Grits along with Bluegrass Supper Club bartender Barret Cooper. Cooper’s classic cocktail was a Mint Julep.

The winner of Best Contemporary Cocktail was Butchertown Grocery bartender Josh Anderson, who represented Michter’s with his cocktail called Green Beans.

The winner of the Best Contemporary Small Plate category was Chef Zach Chancey of RYE, representing Buffalo Trace Distillery. Chancey’s dish was Smoked Pork Cheek Sausage featuring pork cheek from Marksbury Farm in Lancaster, KY.

The winners of the Best Contemporary Pairing category were Chef Zach Chancey of RYE and bartender Kelsey Hofmann of RYE representing Buffalo Trace. The combination included Chancey’s winning Smoked Pork Cheek Sausage and Hofmann’s Water Buffalo cocktail.


Saturday night Bourbon Classic university sessions

The Saturday evening sessions are broken up into classes and a grand tasting. There are two class sessions with four options each. The first session included Whiskey and Food: The Unbelievably Overlooked Pairing, Taste the Best Whiskies in the World with the Sazerac Company, Let’s Take Manhattan, and Everything You Wanted to Know About Craft Distilling, But Were Afraid to Ask. Both sessions also included the option to take an excursion to a distillery, local business, or whiskey bar with several options from which to choose.

The second session included Bourbon Flights for the Thoughtful Drinker, Cocktails We Can Thank Prohibition For, Cask and Ye Shall Receive: The Risks and Rewards of Cask-Finished Bourbon, and 160 Years In The Making: The Story of Nearest Green. 

Molly Wellmann, owner of Japp’s in Cincinnati, and Paul Clarke, Executive Editor of Imbibe Magazine, hosted Let’s Take Manhattan, in which the pair discussed variations on the classic Manhattan including The Preakness, The Boothby, and The Saratoga.

“I’ve been making them a lot at my bar in Cincinnati and I’ve been loving them,” Wellmann says. “Our most popular cocktail is the Manhattan and I wanted a way to zhuzh it up so that people who love Manhattans could have something new for them to want.”

“The Manhattan is one of the most amazing but also malleable cocktails out there,” Clarke says. “This class was to show people that their interpretation of the Manhattan didn’t have to be the only one. There are lots of different ways to interpret the drink and do cool new things or cool old things to it, as well.”

The Manual Food & Drink Editor and Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum? author Sam Slaughter hosted the Cocktails We Can Thank Prohibition For class.

“Prohibition was especially important to the development of cocktails when people were using poor grade alcohol and didn’t have access to a lot of things,” says Slaughter. “The Great Depression happened almost at the same time and in fact helped to end Prohibition because of jobs and the economy, but the bartenders who were working at that time needed to get creative. Using what they had or making it up as they went along, we got a lot of interesting things out of that time.”

The four-day event wrapped up with a grand tasting in the ballroom of Louisville’s Henry Clay building. Much of the time the space was elbow-to-elbow, and as demand grows the event will likely need to scale up to accommodate its own popularity.

After eight years this event is still growing and evolving, so it will be exciting to see what they come up with next.


Taiwanese Manhattan by Dante Wheat

1.5 oz Elijah Craig

1.5 oz Carpano Antica (infused with a Taiwanese spice blend)

2 dash Black Walnut Bitters 

1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitter 

4 dash Bourbon Barrel Aged Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and serve.

Dante Wheat pouring his Taiwanese Manhattan

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

Maggie Kimberl is a spirits journalist focusing on whiskey culture in the United States, though she considers herself to be 'geographically blessed' to live in the epicenter of the bourbon world, Louisville, Kentucky. When she's not covering the bourbon beat you can find her browsing through vintage vinyl with her kids or tending to her homegrown tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and check out her blog.

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