Exploring the people, places, and pastimes that
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Kentucky Bourbon Festival Serves Up a Virtual Event with a Twist
After a one-month delay and then a move from a live to virtual format, the 29th Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) finally happened over 4 days in late October. And it was a great deal of fun, learning, and passion for our native spirit. The online event put the best of the bourbon world on display, from distillers to mixologists to chefs, all available free to bourbon enthusiasts.
The virtual festival offered nearly 20 sessions on topics ranging from multiple sessions on The Art of Whiskey Making and Cocktail Quickie to Single Barrels: The Real Whiskey Unicorns and What is a Collectible Bourbon. Twenty distilleries and several other Kentucky companies sponsored the event.
While I look forward to returning to Bardstown in person next year (sadly, the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay didn’t translate into virtual form), this year’s online KBF was a welcome solution in our current pandemic situation. It may have actually allowed a broader mix of bourbon fans to participate than might otherwise have been able to get to Bardstown on their own. The 30th KBF plans to return in a new format live event next year with dates to be announced.
Here is a sampler tasting of a handful of the KBF sessions.
From making classic cocktails to authentic Kentucky cuisine
Randy Prasse, in his first year as Kentucky Bourbon Festival President, kicked off the event on Thursday night, encouraging viewers to “sit with us and sip with us.”
“From the art of whiskey making to bourbon tourism, from making classic cocktails to authentic Kentucky cuisine, buying and collecting rare bourbon, and entertainment stories from the mouths of the legends who lived them themselves: every segment presented by the icons and the experts of this industry, and it’s all set against the backdrops of the distilleries themselves,” Prasse said. “We bring it all to you from right here in Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world.”
Steve Coomes, a freelance writer, author, and former chef, did an admirable job as the host and interviewer for most of the sessions.
In Thomas Bolton’s session on Supermarket Cocktails the Brand Diplomat for Maker’s Mark said, “I want to make cocktails where you can walk into your local grocery store, find all the ingredients you need, and have knockout cocktails for entertaining at home.”
Bolton’s 3-to-4 ingredient demonstrations included a Gold Rush (Pro Tip: make a 1-to-1 honey and hot water syrup) and a Maker’s Mark 46 sangria-style Bourbon Punch. (Take a peek at the recipe cards at the bottom of the article)
During the Bourbon and Kentucky Cuisine session, Executive Chef Stu Plush from the Kitchen & Bar at the Bardstown Bourbon Company demonstrated a couple of the restaurant’s best selling dishes. As a starter, he prepared maple and bourbon glazed Brussels sprouts with bleu cheese, and moved on to a delicious looking pan-seared salmon with sorghum/bourbon glaze with fava beans on a bed of corn puree. (I had to take Coomes word for it that they smelled wonderful, but they certainly looked delicious.)
When asked about cooking with bourbon, Chef Plush offered this advice, “It’s tricky. You’ve got to watch the heat and the alcohol in the bourbon. It can really overpower some flavors. You’ve got to watch if you cook it down too much, some bourbons get a bit of a bitter note to it.”
“That’s our history in your hand.”
A session called The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small Town U.S.A. focused on the explosive growth in bourbon tourism in Bardstown since the mid-1970s. Jeff Crowe, with the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, and Dan Callaway, with Bardstown Bourbon Company, noted that the local Bardstown community has embraced the change and welcomes the visitors.
Both said bourbon visitors are hungry for real interaction. “It’s about the experience,” Crowe said. “We teach you how to enjoy that experience, from the moment it goes into the glass until the moment it goes on your lips.” He added, “We don’t want you walking away going, ‘It’s just a drink.’ That’s our history in your hand.”
“People want experiences,” Callaway agreed. “They want to create something when they’re onsite. It’s finding ways to engage them, to interact. Not just have a lecture on a tour, but have things you can smell, you can touch, you can learn, things you can be engaged with.”
Crowe noted that all types of people come to Bardstown: “Not everybody that walks in the door is here about the bourbon. Many are here for the history and the heritage that goes along with bourbon in general. I challenge everybody to go to every distillery and tell me they didn’t learn something they didn’t already know, because we all have our own story to tell.”
“Bourbon wasn’t very cool.”
One of my favorite sessions, Growing Up in a Whiskey Distilling Family, was full of lots of laughter and great inside-stories on what it’s like to be part of multigenerational “whiskey royalty.”