Our very own Texas whiskey correspondent, Nico Martini, heads to the Bluegrass State to experience the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for the first time.
I, admittedly, don’t know much about Kentucky bourbon. I mean, I feel like I know as much as any other whiskey fan growing up in the United States who’s in an absurd amount of online whiskey groups and spent their pandemic writing about the whiskey in their home state of not-Kentucky. Before the pandemic, I had only heard rumors of this “Bourbon Secondary Market” and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what a BTAC was. All I really knew was that Kentucky was where the whiskey came from and that I liked a ton of it.
Essentially, my slate could not have been much cleaner. I had only ever been to Kentucky once and it was back when Maker’s Mark still only made one product, so I knew I had a lot of catching up to do. Coincidentally, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival was in the midst of cleaning their slate as well. After spending the past 28 years as a free, family friendly event and last year putting forth their best efforts as a virtual experience during a pandemic, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival was charged with a massive overhaul to celebrate their 30th year.
From what I’ve been told, this Kentucky Bourbon Festival was unlike any other. To me, this seemed like a familiar trip to a craft beer festival except with bourbon. The set up was efficient and from the onset you knew the goal was for the attendees to taste bourbon, especially considering that all attendees must be 21 and up. We were also asked to show our vaccine cards, which was a welcomed surprise. The opening night event was fun, even though there were dozens of vendors missing and there was a bit of a wandering feeling as you passed empty set ups that you assumed would be the following day (and they were). It was evident that whiskey would be the star of the show.
The main events and the grounds the following day were livelier and more bustling. Justins’ House of Bourbon was doing morning releases, so the longest line of each day was dedicated to exclusive whiskey purchases. Among the vendors, whiskey flowed freely and the brands were able to engage in conversation directly with consumers, as long as they weren’t too close to the music stages.
The events in the premium tent were exactly that. The highlight, for me, was the Challenge of Blending seminar where Brent Elliott of Four Roses walked the audience through the thought process behind the various Four Roses blends. We then were tasked with coming up with our own blend, looking for some of the same flavor profiles that he used for his specific versions. It was this whiskey nerd’s dream come true.
The Main Stage events were presented well and it was certainly interesting seeing barrels built in front of your eyes, but the thing that felt missing was the history. I was hoping to be overwhelmed by the sheer greatness of bourbon. This festival was a celebration of a spirit that has driven America creatively, economically, and culturally since our inception, but it lacked the grandeur of the subject. As a first-time visitor, but longtime fan of Bardstown, I was hoping to feel a bit more in awe of the greatness of bourbon. The history of the spirit seemed to be secondary, but I’ll absolutely admit this could have very well been a personal bias.
There also seemed to be some heavy hitters that were nowhere to be found. Obviously, Heaven Hill wasn’t there and their striking employees made sure everyone knew that on their way into the festival, but there were some of the largest producers in the state that were noticeably absent. Again, it could have been my personal bias, but I had hoped for a full picture of all things Kentucky Bourbon. Those who were there, however, had an incredible opportunity to connect directly with whiskey aficionados and gain some new fans of their own.
Overall, the festival accomplished what it set out to change. This event was about tasting whiskey, and it was done in an straightforward, entertaining manner. This is no longer the “Bardstown County Fair” as past versions have been described to me. For those who know and love bourbon, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival was a perfect opportunity to experience both new and old producers highlighting their most available spirits. The entire festival was a buffet of whiskey and gave consumers a way to try a variety of styles of Kentucky Bourbon. This felt like a new beginning, kinks and disappointments and all, but the festival itself has every opportunity to become the premiere bourbon tasting event in the world. Kentucky deserves an incredible, celebratory festival and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is on its way there.
Photos Courtesy of Kentucky Bourbon Festival/The Grizzly Media