September 27, 2023 2:39 pm

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival Evolves

The KBF, Like Bardstown Itself, Continues to Grow into its Bourbon Heritage

Call it the calm before the bourbon storm.

There are a variety of bourbon-related activities in Bardstown, Kentucky every day of the year. But the biggest event of the year is just around the corner. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) will draw bourbon pilgrims from around the world to return to their Mecca in mid-September. And it’s shaping up to be the biggest and best festival in its 32-year history.

I recently had a chance to talk with three of the people behind putting some real heft behind Bardstown’s claim to being the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” Sam T. Lacy, Executive Director of the Bourbon Capital Alliance; Randy Prasse, Executive Director of the KBF; and David Mandell, Chairman of the KBF and CEO of Whiskey House sat down for a thoughtful conversation. We had just finished a tour of the newly-renovated Brindiamo Penthouse.

The new (old) space is on the third floor of historic Spalding Hall in Bardstown, built in 1862. The building today is ground zero for the KBF activities. But it is increasingly a hub of bourbon events year-round, as home to the Rickhouse Restaurant and Lounge, the Oscar Getz Museum of Bourbon History, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival offices, and now this beautiful updated venue.

Randy Prasse, President and COO of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Sam T. Lacy, Executive Director of the Bourbon Capital Alliance
David Mandell, Chairman of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and CEO of Whiskey House

The Brindiamo Penthouse is a partnership between the Bourbon Capital Alliance (a non-profit group dedicated to promoting bourbon experiences, event, history, and culture in Bardstown and Nelson County) and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Renovation of the space was made possible by a $150,000 donation from Nashville’s Brindiamo Group, LLC, a leading consulting firm and one of the largest bulk bourbon and whiskey suppliers.

Prasse talked about the importance in business of putting your facilities to their “highest and best use to make sure you’re maximizing the space and using it to its highest potential. That’s what we’re doing here. What you see happening in this space exemplifies what is going on in the community at large.”

In addition to a new HVAC system and expanded restrooms, the area has several cosmetic refreshes. The multifunctional venue includes a bar and lounge areas sitting comfortably below the room’s soaring ceiling. It will be home to the Bourbon Capitol Guild (a bourbon society with 150 members and nine member distilleries) and contains the purpose-built classroom of the Bourbon Capital Academy, where a series of courses including Bourbon in Bardstown and A Taste of Bardstown will begin this month.

Brindiamo Penthouse Photos by Zach Sinclair with Grizzly Media

“We want to teach people about bourbon,” Lacy said. “But just as much about Bardstown and about the Samuels family, and the Dants, and Noes, and the Beams…all of our brands and all our distilling families, the incredible heritage and history we have here. That’s what we’re going to teach people at the Bourbon Capital Academy.”

Each of these organizations and their activities are focusing on creating “an army of bourbon ambassadors” for the Bardstown community and its signature bourbon industry. Some of those ambassadors added some sweat equity to the financial contribution and came to several “weekend painting parties” to help give the space its fresh new look.

The Bourbon Capital of the World Looks Inward

I told the trio that years ago I used to put “air quotes” around the claim that Bardstown is “the bourbon capital of the world” when I showed it off to visitors.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one. Lacy said that in 2016 Bill Samuels, Jr. (Maker’s Mark), Kevin Smith (Beam Suntory) and David Mandell (then with Bardstown Bourbon Company) called a meeting with local officials to challenge the community to step up its game. They wanted Bardstown to get more aggressive in its claim to being bourbon’s best hometown. Mandell said the message was “we need to do better, and we can do better.”

That led to a Bourbon Task Force, a new five-year strategic plan, the creation of the Bourbon Capital Alliance, Guild, and Academy, and a lot of other efforts we’ve seen come to life since then.

“We’re starting to see the local infrastructure (hotel, restaurants, and bars) catch up to the bourbon tourism (attractions),” Lacy said.

“Now we walk the talk,” Prasse said.

After nearly going bankrupt and shutting down five years ago, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival had some soul searching to do as well. It hasn’t been easy to convince some local residents that change was needed and the focus of the KBF needed to evolve, to promote bourbon tourism, and become more than the local fair it has been in the past. But things are moving in the right direction.

“Today, it’s the premier connoisseurs’ bourbon festival in the country,” Mandell said. “It really satisfies the mission of what the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is now: to promote Kentucky bourbon and Bardstown as the Bourbon Capital of the World.”

Kentucky Bourbon Festival Gets Bigger and Better

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival continues to evolve and will be even bigger and more ambitious than ever before. Here’s my take on last year’s Festival, which was a memorable weekend.

“This festival represents a massive economic catalyst for this community: new jobs, hotels are sold out, restaurants are sold out, and people are spending money,” Prasse said.

“We’ve got bourbon here 365 days a year. This is the weekend we play host to the world and bring bourbon tourists in,” Mandell said.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival will run from Friday, September 15 through Sunday, September 17 on the grounds surrounding Spalding Hall. Specialty events requiring separate tickets will take place on Wednesday and Thursday around Bardstown.

Tickets include a tasting glass, access to and samples from nearly 60 distillers, live music on two stages, live interviews at the Bourbon:30 Show on the Main Stage, a chance to purchase bottles from many distilleries, education sessions, exhibits, and a new food truck section. The food trucks will stage next door in the parking lot of the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral and will be open to the public as well as KBF ticket holders.

KBF Tickets include an RFID wristband that allows in-and-out access to the festival.

Limited tickets remain including the Weekend Bourbon Taster Pass for Friday-Sunday ($175) and the Sunday Sampler Single Day Bourbon Taster ($95). Get ticket information here. VIP tickets ranging from $400 to $1200 sold out in three minutes in May.

KBF Events will take place on the Main Stage, in the Great Tent, and at several other nearby locations like Jones Avenue Park. The Brindiamo Penthouse will host a variety of premium events.

By the way, the Bourbon & Beyond music festival is happening in Louisville that same weekend. And don’t worry. Bourbon fans can spend time at each event. That’s because the KBF closes at 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. on Sunday, so you’ve still got plenty of time to head north and get your bourbon jam on at Bourbon & Beyond.

As Bardstown continues to grow into its heritage, its best bourbon days still lie ahead. “I’m really excited to see what we can continue to build here working together,” Lacy said.

We look forward to seeing that too. I don’t think I need to use “air quotes” anymore when I call Bardstown the Bourbon Capital of the World.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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