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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.”
Sitting in a rick house, Bill Samuels Jr. and his son Rob Samuels of Maker’s Mark fame joined Angel’s Envy father-and-son duo Wes and Kyle Henderson to talk about what it’s like to have three generations work together in the family business.
Bill said when he started in the 40’s, “Bourbon wasn’t very cool,” and admitted, “Other than around Bardstown, you didn’t talk too much about what the family did.”
Obviously things changed and bourbon boomed. Rob Samuels said, “I remember that my Dad just lived the industry. It was an obsession, it was a passion. It was more than just making whiskey that he was proud of…it’s the community aspects, it’s doing things in a principled way, never the easy way, and then having fun along the way.”
Rob Samuels remembers their family Derby parties growing from 35 people to one with “2500 of Dad’s closest friends.”
“That’s back when Prospect (Kentucky) was dry. Try that on for size, you’ve got to invite all the policemen to the party,” Bill Samuels, Jr. said.
Wes Henderson recalled talking his late father, Lincoln Henderson, the famed creator of Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack, into coming out of retirement to serve as Master Distiller for his new Angel’s Envy distillery.
Wes Henderson and his wife packed up and moved to start the new business: “Six boys, add in four dogs, two birds, a fish, and a bearded dragon and we moved all of them up to Kentucky from Florida for a crazy idea.” But he agrees it paid off, especially since two of his sons now work at Angel’s Envy.
“Dad was very much hands on,” Wes Henderson said. “He said, ‘Look, I’ll be here to support you, I’ll be a quiet presence. I’m going to bring to the table the integrity I have and the reputation I have in the industry, and help you get where you want to get. He wanted to work with his grandsons too.”
Kyle Henderson, Angel’s Envy Production Manager and the Henderson’s third generation, was asked about switching hats from grandson, to son, to distillery management. “There’s no separation. Even now, at home, at family events, all we do is talk about work. It’s fun, we enjoy it.”
Wes Henderson added, “It’s good to have a little bit of separation. But it’s our life, it’s our family. It’s our business.”
Bill Samuels, Jr. said he joined Maker’s Mark and two years later in 1969 his father announced the company’s first profit in its 16 years (which wasn’t really true because Bill Sr., did not take a salary). Bill Jr. said he thought, “I have signed up for a hobby. I better keep going to my CLE classes so I can keep my law license current just in case.”
Bill continued: “I signed on in ’67. Dad said, ‘Here, you be President,’ in ’75. It really had more to do with, when it (Maker’s Mark) got out of Kentucky, he’d have to travel. And he didn’t want to travel. He said, ‘I’ll keep the checkbook just in case you screw it up. But you be President.’”
Rob, the Samuel’s third generation, said, “I still get to spend a lot of time with my Dad. As long as you have a shared vision for the future. You’re not always going to agree on everything. But to have an opportunity, day in and day out, to work on a legacy, and a future, and to do things you’re proud of, it’s pretty incredible.”
A Toast to the Future of Bourbon
In the final session, A Closing Toast to the Future of Whiskey, Rabbit Hole Distillery’s founder and whiskey maker Kaveh Zamanian and David Mandell, founder of the Bardstown Bourbon Company and chairman of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, did a bit of tasting and talking about next year’s event and the future of the bourbon industry.
“What you’re going to see next year in terms of changes, you’re going to see a different format, a whole new model: you’re going to buy a bracelet, you’re going to go around to the different booths and try the product right there, we’re going to have more distilleries,” Mandell said. “We’re bringing the world famous Barrel Rolling competition right into the middle of the festival, all outside. What we’re trying to do is create something you can’t get anywhere else. Something that is truly Bardstown, the bourbon capital of the world, bringing in Louisville and the other distilleries…something that is truly unique and exciting.”
Zamanian offered this final toast: “When I think of the future of bourbon, I see innovation, I see collaboration, I see us modernizing the industry and working together to grow and prosper. And lastly I see celebration. A celebration of our common humanity and our love for an industry that is ultimately here to bring us together. So with that, a toast to the next 30 years of celebrating our signature industry, our native spirit, and together with folks like David Mandell and Kentucky Bourbon Festival, a toast to the future of bourbon.”
Not a bad way to end four days spent virtually talking and learning about all things bourbon. Cheers to the KBF team for putting on a fun and memorable event. We’re looking forward to seeing you again in person next year.