Last weekend, I ventured to Louisville, Ky., to spend a few days submersed in one of my favorite subjects: bourbon. Not only does it hold a special place as America’s native spirit, but as a Southerner, I’m fairly convinced it is actually in our blood. There is something about being in Kentucky and getting a chance to spend some one-on-one time with the bourbon greats and those who work day in and day out to continue this part of our Southern legacy that pulls on your heartstrings. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into any distilling process, but what stands out most when talking to those in the bourbon industry, and especially the distillers and operators of brands large and small alike, is the heritage. There is an innate need for them to carry on their family name and supply the market with heart and soul packaged into a bottle in the form of bourbon.
Festivities kicked off Friday night with From the Barrel to the Bar Cocktail Competition. Emceed by the Monkey Wrench’s one and only Jared Schubert, winner of the 2013 Bourbon Classic Cocktail Competition, it was an evening to remember. Seven teams of the city’s best bartenders and chefs collaborated with each other and a spirit sponsor to tempt our taste buds all evening long. The bartenders were challenged to make both a classic cocktail and a modern spin, all crafted to pair with the stunning small plates created by each chef. Despite not having a single bad bite in the bunch, the standout small plate was created by La Coop’s chef Bobby Benjamin. His chicken and waffles were perfectly spicy, sweet and exactly what you wanted to munch on after sipping on many gracious pours of bourbon. Cocktails were on point, with many variations of the Old-Fashioned and a fantastic twist on the Boulevardier, which included Angel’s Envy, Cocchi di Torino and Braulio Amaro from Bradley Hammond of Rye on Market.
Saturday's activities started a little later in the day to give you plenty of time to hunt down a hearty brunch (luckily not hard to do in Louisville!) and soak up what remained of the last night’s cocktails. Afterward, I headed to the Kentucky Center for "Bourbon University," which offered a wide range of classes to choose from. Before we split up, we had an all-class assembly where we heard from 10 of the bourbon world’s best minds and had the pleasure of listening to Fred Minnick, author of "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey" moderate the panel, which was quite a treat. We heard discussions of the men of bourbon’s past from Jim Beam’s Fred Noe and Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell, revitalization of family tradition from Willett’s Drew Kulvseen, and much talk of the future of bourbon. Harlan Wheatley of Buffalo Trace and Willie Pratt of Michter’s hit on a point that most of the public overlook: prediction of demand five, 10 and 20 years down the road. Wheatley commented on that point, saying, "Consumers today don’t realize that the product they’ll drink in 2021 is made already" and went on to discuss that room for growth in sales isn’t always an option. There is only a finite amount of bourbon available once it has been aged.
Eventually, we had to depart for our courses of choice. I headed straight to Exploring the World of Bourbon and Bitters, where Sean Thibodeaux of Bon Temps Beverage recounted the history of bitters for us and created some off-the-wall concoctions (and some of my favorite), like the "Port of Scarborough" with Old Forester bourbon, passion fruit syrup, fresh lemon, mint and a generous amount of Angostura bitters. We discussed the do’s and don'ts of making your own bitters, as well as some excellent sources to purchase some of the best handcrafted bitters on the market from. The bartender and bourbon nerd in me were both perfectly satiated after getting schooled by Sean. As much as I wanted to stay and chat his ear off about our favorite bitters, it was off to see my friend and fellow bourbon camper Michael Anderson of St. Charles Exchange talk about stocking your home bourbon bar. Though it seems simple, it isn’t the easiest of subjects to tackle because of its depth and scope, and Michael did a fantastic and thorough job. He narrowed it down to five categories for us: vermouth, bitters, bubbles, syrup and produce. Michael walked us through making classics like the mint julep, a very simple drink that can also be very easily made incorrectly. We sipped and chatted as long as we could before stepping into the Ultimate Bourbon Experience.
We were welcomed into a room of the best that the bourbon world had to offer. It was great opportunity to try some new things like Kings County Distillery’s products out of New York and catch up with friends like Hunter Chavanne from Willett Distillery. We even spotted some friends close to home and got to share the excitement and fears of erecting a new distillery with Charlie Nelson of Greenbrier Distillery, the home of Belle Meade. Later, I’ll be able to share some experiences I had earlier in the week touring the Vendome Copper & Brass Works, where I got a chance to see the Greenbriar still packed and ready to go. In the explosion of craft distilling, it has been most rewarding to see the people I’ve met go step by step through the process of bringing their family’s history and passion back to life.
Although I hate to say you’ll have to wait another year to get a chance at experiencing all the Bourbon Classic has to offer, I’m sure they’re coming back bigger and better than ever in 2015. In their second year running, they doubled attendance and are well on their way to becoming one of the best consumer-driven spirit events out there. The best part? Tickets are available to the general public. While a lot of spirit and cocktail events are geared toward industry professionals, getting a chance to talk to bourbon enthusiasts who just really love the culture was incredibly refreshing. Be sure to follow the Bourbon Classic on Facebook to watch them grow, and look out for next year’s dates.
Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.