Welcome to part two of my coverage of the 3rd Annual Kentucky Bourbon Affair. In part 1, I shared the first half of the week, including my experience forging copper at Vendome, shooting skeet at Wild Turkey, and enjoying an elegant southern garden party hosted by Michter’s.
(If you missed part 1, you can check out the recap click here!)
Friday morning was the fourth day of events and the day I officially wished I had packed a coffee pot. Luckily, I had an action packed day at Jim Beam motivating me to get up and at ‘em. Once we arrived in Clermont we headed straight to a rickhouse to sample Knob Creek straight from the barrel paired with country ham. I started on floor 3 with Freddie Noe, son of Fred Noe, grandson of Booker Noe, and likely the 8th face to adorn a Jim Beam bottle. The barrel entry proof was 125 and this 9 year sample had increased to 129.7. It had some unexpected heat and spice, which suited the fatty country ham quite nicely. We also took this opportunity to ask Freddie about some of his favorite things. We learned that Freddie’s favorite part about joining the family business is that something started so long ago is still popular and drawing people to come visit and learn about it. As far as bourbons go, he tends to lean toward Knob Creek in the winter months and Basil Hayden in the summer. He also enjoys Bookers, but “doesn’t like to drink that high-proof stuff too far from the house.” Wise words, Freddie, wise words.
“[I] don’t like to drink that high-proof stuff too far from the house.” – Freddie Noe
Next, we headed up to the 7th floor with Megan Breier, the West Coast Brand Ambassador. She treated us to an 11 year that had jumped in proof to 139.3. It was incredibly smooth and surprisingly had less heat than the barrel from floor 3. She also spoke about the similarities between country ham and bourbon. Much like a mash bill, the diet of the pigs affects the overall flavor of the ham. Sadly, country hams also suffer an angels share during the aging process. She closed by highlighting to us the significance of tasting bourbons from different locations in the warehouse. “Warehousing is part of the recipe,” she said, “sometimes people forget that.”
“Warehousing is part of the recipe, sometimes people forget that.” – Megan Breier
Finally, we went back down the first floor to try a 4-year-old, 117 proof bourbon with the legendary Fred Noe. As usual he was full of stories. He was never pressured to follow in his father’s footsteps at Jim Beam, and even after he decided to do so there were actually no job openings for him at the distillery. Meanwhile, he had developed a friendship with Hank Williams, Jr. and eventually offered the job of tour manager. When he broke this news to his father, a spot on the night shift at the distillery miraculously opened up. Fred mused that his life could have taken a very different direction, but as a fellow touree pointed out, things seemed to turn out just fine. Fred’s favorite part of the job? Seeing people’s eyes light up when they come to the distillery to learn more about the products. He is always amazed when he sees a bottle of Jim Beam on the other side of the world because he knows it came from “right here.”
After the rickhouses, we headed outdoors for a cornhole tournament. It was a bright day with thin cloud cover, perfect for a laid back afternoon outdoors eating barbecue and sipping bourbon. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it too far in the tournament. My team’s boards were unusually slick and after an extraordinarily long game we lost in the first round. If Fred and Freddie weren’t such nice guys we might have suspected them of rigging things! It was still a wonderful, relaxing afternoon, and the hospitality made us feel like we were part of the family.
That night I headed to an event hosted by Four Roses at Flame Run Glass Studio. Attendees were able to choose their desired colors for a hand blown old-fashioned glass and even participate in the glass blowing process. Afterward, we had the chance to enjoy Elliott’s Select, which was released earlier that day. It’s a 14-year-old OESK and if you’re a fan of Four Roses, you will be a fan of this special release. As is true for most of these events, one of the best parts of the evening was the chance to chat with the Master Distiller. We knew Brent had some big shoes to fill after taking over for Jim Rutledge last fall. It turns out an unexpected challenge was his signature. He first submitted his typical signature and the distillery rejected it! He had to go back and practice until he had something the distillery was willing to print on bottles and other merchandise. Don’t worry folks, he has it down pat now.
My final distillery event was a trip to Heaven Hill’s Evan William Experience in downtown Louisville. The event was called “Build a Barrel” and the group was given the opportunity to select many factors that go into a bourbon recipe: mash bill, type of barrel wood, warehouse location, etc. Our selections will be produced on site and aged according to our specifications. Knowing this meant there was a bit of pressure to make solid choices but luckily we were up to the task.
First, we learned about the “Magic of the Rickhouse” with Brand Ambassador, comedian, and musician Bernie Lubbers. He reminded us how barrels age differently at different levels of the rickhouse. Barrels on the upper floor gain proof because the water evaporates out at higher heat. While barrels near the floor lose proof since ground-level moisture finds its way into the barrel. Next we got to sample bourbons aged in barrels with 3 and 4 level char, as well as a barrel made of chinquapin oak, which has a tighter grain than standard white oak. Next, Larry Kass, Director of Corporate Communications, walked us through the grains that go into a typical mash bill. We had the opportunity to see and taste yellow dent corn, rye, red winter wheat, and barley. The grains were laid before us in their whole form, ground, and baked into bread. We also had a side by side tasting of new make wheat whiskey, wheated bourbon, high rye bourbon, and rye whiskey. Finally, Master Distiller Charlie Downs and Assistant Distiller Jodie Filiatreau took us behind the scenes at the mini-distillery. We tried a sample of mash (which a couple of us decided was our new favorite breakfast smoothie) and then Charlie walked us through the distillery. Despite its small scale, it is quite a manual process to operate.
After lunch it was time for a discussion and vote. Our group of about 30 attendees was pretty knowledgeable and nearly all had the same end goal in mind: an older, barrel proof bourbon. We experimented a little with our mash bill, opting for a higher barley malt content that should add a hint of sweetness. The mash bill ended up at 65% corn, 20% rye, and 15% malt with a lower entry proof of 115. We also experimented with the chinquapin wood which we charred at level 4. The wood was air-dried for 4 years to release many of the undesirable tannins from the oak, which should mean the bourbon can age for a longer period. Finally, we chose to age the barrel in the middle section of the Deatsville warehouse. This warehouse has a staggered roofline that creates a chimney effect inside. This Deatsville warehouse also happens to be one of Parker Beam’s favorites, we figured we couldn’t go wrong following his lead.
Heaven Hill is going to produce two barrels to our specifications and update us with progress along the way, including tasting samples. Hopefully in 10-15 years we will all have a smooth barrel strength bourbon we can sip with a great deal of pride.
The closing event Saturday night was the first ever Whisky Live held in Louisville. There were nearly 200 whiskeys to sample on the main floor and almost 20 more in the VIP room. Including Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, Jack Daniels Sinatra Select, and Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, 2015 World’s Best Single Malt Whisky. For all of us bourbon nerds, one of the highlights was the selection that Bill Thomas from Jack Rose brought for the VIP room. Between prohibition era dusties, 1980s era Old Forrester, first release Russell’s Reserve (then a Limited Edition), 2015 Four Roses Small Batch (just to list a few), we didn’t stray too far from this table. The main pouring room also gave us the chance to scratch a few bourbon’s off of our “to do” list. Including a 1792 Full Proof and I.W. Harper 15 year. Plus, the VIPs received what is likely everyone’s new favorite Glencairn, a gorgeous crystal cut version of the classic tasting glass.
Sunday morning the hotel lobby was filled with both heavy luggage and heavy hearts. Like kids at the end of summer camp, KBA attendees had a whole group of new best friends. For a week the entire bourbon industry welcomed us with open arms, and we felt like one big, whiskey-drinking family (we consider ‘whisky-drinking’ to be a synonym for ‘happy’). Many people headed over to Churchill Downs for the official send off event which included a delicious, locally sourced, brunch by Kentucky Proud. Followed by a behind the scenes look at the Derby Museum, and a day at the races. Everyone knows to always bet on a gray horse, but unfortunately my gray horse got a horrible start out of the gate and came in dead last. I felt disappointed initially but realized the trip had been almost too perfect and it only seemed fair that something go wrong.
For the third year in a row, The Kentucky Distiller’s Association coordinated an impressive Kentucky Bourbon Affair. The hospitality shown at each distillery is unparalleled. Despite complicated logistics each event seems to go off without a hitch. Needless to say, I cannot wait to attend next year. I look forward to not only a new set of distillery excursions but also reuniting with all of those new best friends.