Bourbon & Beyond, billed as ‘The World’s Largest Bourbon Festival’, wrapped up last week after bringing together 91,000 fans to enjoy nearly 50 amazing bands, Kentucky inspired food, and of course so much bourbon.
Now in its 3rd year, the organizers saw fit to provide me with a golden ticket to experience Bourbon & Beyond 2019. I hadn’t been to the first two but I had heard the buzz. The inaugural event in 2017 was a blowout success with a ton of positive reviews. Then in 2018 the weather didn’t cooperate, rain all weekend led to Woodstock-esque levels of mud culminating in the canceling of the final day. Enter year 3. Moved from a smaller river-front venue to the massive Highland Festival Grounds in Louisville, Kentucky. And a killer musical lineup including headliners like Foo Fighters, Zac Brown Band, Robert Plant, The Flaming Lips, ZZ Top and so many more. Excitement and expectations were high.
My wife and I packed in as much as we could during our 4-day Bourbon & Beyond road trip. This wasn’t our first Louisville rodeo; we have our absolute must-visits but also hit a few amazing new spots. Read on my bourbon friends.
We hit the road Thursday morning to begin our 6-hour drive from the north suburbs of Chicago. Right before we left a friend recommended a church turned brewery in Indianapolis as a stopping point for lunch. And thus the first stop on our pilgrimage to bourbon country. St. Joseph Brewery & Public House didn’t disappoint. From the super-cool converted church interior to the delicious beer flights, to the avocado BLT and sweet potato with bacon soup. Jesus would approve.
Next stop, Louisville where we checked into the beautiful new Omni Louisville Hotel. More on the hotel later; we literally dropped our bags and ran to meet our good Chicago buddy Marty Duffy and his Glencairn Crystal co-workers. No sooner did we walk into the bar at the Seelbach Hilton, a must-stop historical marvel, then Marty and crew stood up and announced we were heading out to a pre-festival tradition of cigars and bourbon on Michael Veach’s porch. A bourbon author, historian, and member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. If you don’t know, Mr. Veach is a pretty big deal in bourbon circles and someone I was looking forward to meeting.
Michael welcomed us with a southern hospitality you won’t find anywhere else. A cigar in one hand and glass of exactly what you’d expect in the other. We found an open seat on his porch as he offered us a welcome pour of T.W. Bullitt’s Private Stock, a bourbon distilled in the 1960s by a long-shuttered Kentucky distillery. The bourbon was delicious, we finished off the bottle, and a prime example of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. But the stories shared by Michael, Marty, and the rest of the front porch crew were the real draw. A quick tour of Michael’s house revealed what I should have suspected. Bottles of bourbon everywhere, in every corner and dotting every shelf. And not just any bourbon, vintage bottles worthy of the finest collection, as well as cataloged samples of all the latest releases. After tasting quite a few whiskeys I had never tried, and likely never will again (LeNell’s Red Hook Rye), my wife and I headed to dinner at Proof on Main before calling it a night.
Day 1 of Bourbon & Beyond found us in Omni’s Falls City Market sipping Cuban coffee and laying a solid foundation of breakfast burritos. After breakfast, we had an hour to kill before heading to the festival grounds. The new Old Forester Distillery on Louisville’s historic “Whiskey Row” happened to have a couple of spots available on their tour. A lot of distilleries offer tours, some of the first ones I toured years ago are incredibly impressive, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, etc. With our current bourbon boom, Old Forester decided to rebuild a distillery and visitors center in the very same building where the Old Forester brand was born in 1870. A fully functioning distillery, this bourbon mecha was built around providing a unique experience to visitors. From the display cases of vintage bottles to the glass elevator overlooking the still, to the hands-on barrel charring station this place was built to impress.
The organizers of Bourbon & Beyond, Danny Wimmer Presents, were kind enough to provide us with media wristbands. These turned out to be largely equivalent to the ‘Mint Experience Weekend VIP Pass’. If you’re going for just one day, or to see one or two bands and not much else, then a GA one-day ticket might be all you need. But if you’d like to go for the full 3 days, skip the lines, get close to the stage, have a nice VIP lounge to relax, and value real restrooms then the VIP pass in the way to go.
The morning of day 1 wasn’t crowded. We sailed through security and had no problem getting any drinks or food we saw. I should mention that before we arrived I downloaded the dedicated Bourbon & Beyond app which let us star the bands, workshops, and speaker panels we wanted to see. Then, 30 minutes before each event, I got a reminder on my phone. Brilliant.
After getting cocktails at the Silver Dollar Hunter’s Club pop-up and the Angel’s Envy #toastthetrees garden lounge our first alert came in. We strolled over to the “Better in the Bluegrass” outdoor kitchen to see Chef Edward Lee’s cooking demo. Let me tell you, Chef Lee is hilarious. He may have been loosened up from a few pulls off a bottle of his Maker’s Mark Private Select that he had on stage. But he seemed like a really cool guy. Cool enough to walk over during his demo and hand me his bottle to take a swig. A bottle that stayed in my hand literally 2 seconds before a stage manager ran over and grabbed it from me. I guess they frowned upon that? Chef was joined on stage by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer who helped craft a delicious fried bologna and bacon sandwich for the audience to sample. As the mayor took his sip from the bottle of Maker’s he commented, “I’m probably the only elected official in America who can drink from a bottle of bourbon on stage and no one bats an eye.” (Chef Lee did toss me a bottle of his Sambal Hot Sauce as a consolation. And he snuck me a sip of his Maker’s barrel at the end of his cooking demo. A Maker’s 46 recipe that’s a blend of toasted French spice, baked American, and French Cuvée staves.)
Here’s a good time to give a little more detail of what Bourbon & Beyond is, and what it isn’t. It’s definitely a music festival. If you like the lineup you’ll be happy with the stages, the sound, the amenities, etc. It’s also a food festival with dozens of vendors serving a ton of different food from small plates to full meals. You’ll pay a premium for drinks unless you have the “Beyond VIP” package which includes an open bar. There are back-to-back workshops, speaker panels, and guided tastings on two smaller stages. These go on pretty much all day and were one of the coolest parts of the weekend. Some of the speakers were chefs, most speakers were involved in the bourbon industry. Master Distillers, blenders, maturation experts, bloggers, all hosted panels, and free bourbon tastings. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of the people responsible for making bourbon what it is today. (See a bunch of the photos below). If you’ve been to other bourbon festivals in Kentucky with white tablecloth dinners and pour after pour of impossible to find bourbon that’s not what this is. Yes, I had the chance to taste the 2019 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (Tropical fruit on the nose with some banana notes and the familiar OF spicy finish), the new Maker’s Mark “RC6”, and even a pour of Pappy 15. But tastings of those were very limited. As a bourbon lover I had a great time but just remember that bourbon is a part of this festival, not the only part.
The rest of day 1 was equally awesome. Through the afternoon we saw Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, LIVE, and The Flaming Lips. We also sat in on panels “Whiskey Women”, “Bourbon Disruptors”, and “What is a Master Distiller”. Marianne Eaves, former Master Distiller at Castle & Key, shared that since leaving the distillery she’s been traveling and planning her next move. She’s interested in experimenting with barrel finishing. Specifically by using different species of Brazilian woods.
“This is for people who like things that taste good.” – Bill Samuels Jr. talking about Makers 46
John Fogerty and Foo Fighters closed out the first day. Both of them had incredible stage presence and put on great performances. I didn’t realize how many John Fogerty songs I knew until I recognized just about every song he played. If you had told me Fogerty and his two sons would be one of the best acts I saw I wouldn’t have believed you.
On day 2 we arrived as the gates opened at 11:00am to a beautiful morning of 80 degrees and slightly cloudy. Perfect festival weather. We started the day at the side stages with “Bourbon Storytime”, moderated by Fred Minnick. Fred is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, bourbon curator & tasting expert. He runs Bourbon+ magazine, co-hosts the Bourbon Pursuit podcast, and he was heavily involved in all bourbon aspects of Bourbon & Beyond. Fred even curated a dozen single barrel selections for his own “Minibar” near the festival entrance.
The second workshop, titled “Barrel Finish vs Traditional Bourbon”, discussed a topic I’m very interested in. How the bourbon industry is evolving and innovating by using barrel finishes, and how some distilleries are pushing forward without jumping on the barrel finishing bandwagon. Wes Henderson from Angel’s Envy spoke for barrel finishing while Shane Baker of Wilderness Trail talked about his approach using science to perfect his craft in lieu of a “finishing” process. Both made strong points, there’s no arguing with the success of Angel’s Envy. But I was impressed by the sweet mash Wilderness Trail Bourbon and will be following Shane closely.
“A 4.5 year old barrel gives up about 2lbs of sugars.” – Shane Baker of Wilderness Trail
Our last bourbon workshop of the day was quite the spectacle. A line formed 2 hours in advance for “The Van Winkle Family” talk and tasting. Moderated by Fred Minnick; Pappy’s grandson Julian took the stage with his son Preston and daughter Carrie (one of triplets!). The Van Winkles took this opportunity to discuss/explain/defend the extremely limited supply of their bourbon. In a nutshell, they said they are making as much as they can. Predicting market demand 23 years into the future is tough. They claim not to be facilitating an artificial shortage. Julian talked about their relationship with Buffalo Trace, the distillery where Pappy Van Winkle is contract distilled. He praised the distillery and said they are very happy with their arrangement, going on to say they retain full control over the product and he has no plans to open a distillery of their own.
“We are working with Buffalo Trace to differentiate ORVW from Weller.” – Julian Van Winkle
Fred pushed more on the supply vs demand topic and Preston revealed that they’ve “recently spent a lot of money defending the brand” from secondary market sales. They believe the Craigslist and Facebook groups where Pappy is sold at a huge markup are hurting bourbon consumers. If you are into the bourbon scene deep enough you’ll know that over the last couple months Facebook has cracked down on groups where bourbon is bought and sold, closing many of them. It turns out the Van Winkles were one of the driving forces behind this crackdown. Juicy stuff!
Carrie chimed in a few times expressing her desire to be more involved in the family business. She seemed a bit salty that, from what I could tell, it’s the boys that handle the bourbon. It was interesting to see them speak on stage in this forum. A theme I noticed through all of these panels was a sense of authenticity. So often public statements are filtered through or prepared by marketing teams. At Bourbon & Beyond I felt like we got an inside look at the bourbon industry. Straight from the people who founded our favorite brands and poured their life’s work into ensuring their success.
Day 2 closed out with Trey Anastasio Band, Darryl Hall & John Oats, and Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters. I’m going to admit, we came for the bourbon and while we stayed through the closing act on day 1, we decided not to fight the tens of thousands of people trying to get an Uber on days 2 and 3. My advice for next year is to either leave the festival reasonably early, be prepared to wait a long time for a ride, or take advantage of the option to camp on the festival grounds. (I’m definitely going to look into renting an RV ahead of next year.) With our Saturday evening ahead of us we took our Uber straight to one of the best restaurants in Louisville. In the basement of a house in the “Germantown” neighborhood, you’ll find Hammerheads. A no-frills cozy gastropub serving smoked truffle mac and cheese, duck sliders, pork belly tacos and more. The food is amazing. They serve beer, no bourbon, but the sacrifice is worth it.
On Sunday morning we grabbed breakfast at Harvest, a great brunch spot, where we saw Chef Graham Elliot walk by with his entourage. I feel we made the right restaurant choice when a celebrity chef is hanging out in the vicinity. We started our final festival day with a workshop titled “Old Fashioned vs Manhattan”. Moderated by Jordan Moskal of Breaking Bourbon, the panel included Jackie Zykan, Master Taster for Old Forester, and others battling it out for cocktail supremacy. Jackie threw the first punch by sharing “When learning how to make a Manhattan I knew I got it right when it tasted horrible. Because Manhattan’s are gross.”. (Jackie also shared that she is working on blending low yield barrels for a new OF release.)
With a couple of cocktails under our belt, it was time for “Sweet Mash: The Revolution in American Whiskey”; where Blake Riber of Bourbonr.com led a discussion with Caleb Kilburn of Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. and Shane Baker of Wilderness Trail. Two men leading the sweet mash charge in today’s bourbon boom. When asked how he maintains consistency when using a sweet mash process, Shane explained that the widely accepted thought of ‘sour mash = consistency’ is a myth. He said, “How can you expect a consistent product when you’re constantly taking leftovers from your last batch and dumping them into your next one? I can guarantee a level of quality when I clean my stills after every run. That’s something I’ll defend all day.” During the talk, we tasted the newly released Peerless Bourbon and Rye alongside Wilderness Trail’s Bourbon and Rye. Rye isn’t really my thing so I’ll let someone else comment on those but both bourbons I tasted are very good. Two bottles I would buy with my own money.
“There’s so much bourbon going around I think I nosed my microphone earlier.” – Peggy Noe Stevens
We saw a few more panels before putting up our feet up in the air-conditioned Bardstown Bourbon Company lounge. There we sampled their “Fusion Series 1” and “Discovery Series 1”. The Discovery is a great bourbon in its own right. A blend of complex and mature high corn mashbills sourced by the team and blended into an impressive bourbon. The Fusion is also a blend but this bourbon contains 60% of BBCo’s own 2-year wheated and rye bourbons. I feel the Fusion shows potential but needs a few more years in oak to really shine.
As the evening breeze came through and ZZ Top took the stage we made a final stop at the aptly named “Flight School” tent. Hosted by the Kentucky Bourbon Trail we accepted their challenge of tasting and attempting to identify four bourbons. Late in the day, this was not an easy task though it was fun and a great little competition to close out the festival. We hesitated to leave the fairgrounds, after nearly 30 hours over 3 days it became almost expected that we would be back tomorrow. Not content to end our Louisville visit quite yet we headed over to another one of our favorite restaurants, Garage Bar, where we sat outside and shared a coal-fired pizza while I knocked the festival dust off my hat and we strategizing next year’s Bourbon & Beyond.
This year we partnered with Bourbon & Beyond to give away 2 sets of full weekend passes to the festival. If you’d like a heads up when we give away tickets next year just signup below!