They call it Bourbon Fantasy Camp. Given that the Kentucky Bourbon Affair (KBA) is 6 days of exclusive tastings, behind the scenes tours, and open access to master distillers, that moniker seems pretty appropriate. The KBA started in 2014 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Congressional Resolution that designated bourbon as America’s native spirit. The event is organized by the Kentucky Distillers Association and is now in its successful 3rd year. I was a Golden Ticket holder, which means I had tickets to events all week-long. While I could truly write an entire post on any one of the 10 events I enjoyed, I am condensing my experience down to a two-part recap (pun intended).
The event kicked off Tuesday evening, and for Golden Ticket holders this meant an opportunity to visit Vendome Copper Works. If you’ve ever visited a distillery in the United States, there’s a good chance you’ve seen their work. Vendome is a 4th generation family business and is probably the most well-known of the 3-5 companies in the US that crafts copper stills. Copper is relatively fragile as far as metals go, which means all of those stunning stills are formed by hand. Vendome isn’t open to the public; we thought the opportunity to visit was a treat. Then we learned that the real treat was to see a demonstration of how the copper is formed. We watched a couple of pros heat up copper and begin to forge it into shape. That night they were crafting onions, which is the balloon-like bulge near the bottom of the arm on a pot still. Soon we learned that the real, real treat was that we got to try our hand at forging ourselves. No time was wasted in assuring us that this is indeed Bourbon Fantasy Camp.
Next, we headed over to Copper & Kings distillery for the main event which featured several local craft distilleries. One of the standouts was O.K.I bourbon from New Riff Distilling. They are based in Cincinnati and currently bottling sourced distillate that was selected to match their desired flavor profile. O.K.I stands for Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana – the only places where they source ingredients. Another interesting find was St. Elmo’s Fire from MB Roland, a spirit featuring both cinnamon and cayenne – I can’t wait to work this into a molten chocolate cake. A perennial favorite, Art Eatables, was also there to showcase their famous bourbon truffles. It’s no wonder that the founder, Kelly Ramsey, can pair bourbon and chocolate so perfectly: she holds an Executive Bourbon Steward certification from the Stave & Thief Society.
Read about Chicago Bourbon’s Executive Bourbon Steward certification, click here
For my first day event on Wednesday morning, I headed to Wild Turkey for skeet shooting. I selected this for my first event because I’m impatient and couldn’t wait to do this. Our day began with a distillery tour led by Master Distiller Eddie Russell. This was not your run of the mill tour. We had a couple of bonus stops along the way, plus the entire journey was peppered with anecdotes. Believe it or not, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, now in his 62nd year, wasn’t too quick to adapt to change. When the distillery was recently expanded Jimmy didn’t want to give up is 60 inch diameter still, nor did he want two stills. The result? A massive 52 foot copper column still.
Throughout the tour, Eddie spoke quite a bit about a couple of topics. One was the close-knit and family like nature of the various distillers in Bourbon Country. Jimmy, Booker Noe (Jim Beam), and Elmer T. Lee (Buffalo Trace) were all great friends who grew up together. They spoke practically daily, whether socially or to ask for distilling advice. I can’t think of too many other industries where competitors are close friends. These legends were asked how they most liked to drink bourbon. Their response was “straight from the barrel” – can’t disagree there! This led to the launch of products like Blanton’s, Bookers, and Rare Breed, which all gave consumers a chance to taste product from a single barrel and (in the case of the latter two) at barrel proof. This brings us to the other recurring theme of the day: the role of cocktails. While Eddie credits single barrel bourbons with beginning to broaden the bourbon market by showing off just how delicious America’s native spirit can be, he credits mixologists for much of the current boom. He was amazed at how much thought, art, and science mixologists put into cocktails and how they can highlight key notes in bourbon while still making it approachable to novices.
Read about our coverage of the Chicago Cocktail Summit, click here
Ok, on to the fun/dangerous part. Out we went to an open field where we donned eye and ear protection. Everyone shot 10 rounds each and 4 attendees hit all 10 (we clearly had some professionals with us). I hit what I felt to be a respectable 7 of 10. While this didn’t earn me a prize, Eddie did give me an honorable mention, further evidence that he’s a true Southern Gentleman.
We wrapped up the day with a lunch and bourbon tasting. Our place settings had three pours all ready for us. The first was the “Diamond”, a mix of 16 and 13 year old bourbon created in honor of Jimmy’s 60th anniversary as Master Distiller. Next was “Master’s Keep”, a 17 year that was aged in unique brick warehouses. The final one raised some eyebrows. “Decades” has yet to be released, and features a blend of 10-20 year old bourbons. It was certainly the favorite of my table, which says something given the competition. Can’t wait for its release in 2017!
That evening it was off to Louisville’s Water Tower Park for the Bourbon Women event called “He Said, She Said”. In addition to small bites and cocktails from local mixologists, the event featured 12 blind tastings. Participants scored each selection on a provided worksheet and submitted their sheets for Bourbon Women to tally. At the end of the night the bottles were all unmasked. The most notable moment was when one of the bottles was revealed to be Parker’s Heritage Malt. The outrage! How dare someone provide not-bourbon at the Bourbon Affair! Full results are posted on the Bourbon Women website, but it looks like there were some differences of opinion. Elijah Craig Small Batch topped the men’s list, while Pikesville Rye and a Four Roses OESK tied at the top of the women’s. That outrageous malt ranked 3rd/4th for men and women, respectively, so no we know why everyone was so embarrassed: they liked it!
Thursday morning: off to the Bulleit Experience at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery. The distillery originally opened on Derby Day 1935 and was home to one of the most famous names in bourbon: Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. The distillery was shuttered in January 1993 and KBA attendees received an exclusive peek at the old facilities. It truly was a peek – the abandoned buildings are not considered safe, so we peered in through windows. When the distillery closed, everyone just walked out, leaving everything intact. It looks like a distillery graveyard! Part of the old still was rescued, but much of the equipment is still in place.
We had quite an amusing lunch and tasting led by Tom Bulleit. His dry sense of humor cracked everyone up; even the caterers couldn’t contain themselves! Similar to Eddie Russell, he also spoke about bourbon comradery. It’s well known that Pappy and T.W. Samuels, founder of Maker’s Mark, met and talked about wheated bourbons. What is up for debate is who knew more about the subject. When the Van Winkles tell the story, Pappy was pretty knowledgeable, but the Samuels’ version goes a little differently [insert Tom Bulleit’s wry smile here]. Either way, it’s another example of friendship even between competitors.
After lunch we headed over to the mini working distillery used to try out experimental recipes and also home to the rescued still from the old Stitzel-Weller operation. Next, we met with Ebony Major, a master blender who works to maintain flavor profiles in each Bulleit product. Her background is in Food Science, and each day she uses her nose to select which barrels should be mingled based on the specified standard (she also made me realize that I definitely picked the wrong major in college). Her treat for us was a sample from a 26 year old barrel found in the warehouses from the old Stitzel-Weller days. This stuff looked almost like coffee in the bottle. Despite its 142 proof, it was surprisingly smooth, balanced, and not over-aged. Wish there was more where that came from!
Thursday night’s event was a garden party hosted by Michter’s at the historic Whitehall Gardens. Throughout the evening, the Michter’s team’s attention to detail was evident. The grounds were beautiful, we were able to enjoy them during an outdoor reception. The reception featured hearty Michter’s pours, passed bites, and eucalyptus chilled towels to keep us cool in the Kentucky heat. Everyone was in white, and it was a spectacular scene. The important role of cocktails in the current bourbon boom was highlighted here as well. Our four course dinner was prepared by Chef Patrick Roney of Harvest and each course was paired with a specialty cocktail by Louisville mixologists from Hub, Meta, Proof on Main, and Down One, respectively. Attendees voted on 4 different cocktail distinctions and the choices were tough! Another outdoor reception followed dinner, where each of the mixologists deservedly received an award.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my recap, featuring a cornhole tournament with Fred and Freddie Noe, customizing a barrel of bourbon with Heaven Hill, and much more!