My Old Kentucky Home
Annual Bourbon Festival
Celebrates America’s Authentic Spirit
In the bourbon business, everybody knows everyone else. At least, that’s the way it seems to first-timers or casual observers visiting during the industry’s annual celebration, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, a combination county fair, homecoming and family reunion. It’s an event where the relatively few companies still making sour-mash corn whiskey gather to strut their stuff, roll out some barrels and taste each other’s wares in and around the streets of Bardstown, bourbon’s contemporary epicenter.
The annual event is just the sort of thing to expect from an industry where, according to Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell, one doesn’t refer to other bourbon makers as competitors. While there’s an unmistakable upsurge in attention being paid to the ultra-premium, hand-crafted bourbons, overall, things could be better in the bourbon business. Sure, international interest is growing in general, but as American consumers continue their romance with vodkas and tequilas, America’s native whiskey is hard-pressed to keep pace.
Clockwise from top left: Above the Wild Turkey distillery; cypress wood fermentation tanks; a barrel-making demonstration; scene at the bourbon festival; pot stills at the Labrot & Graham distillery; various bourbon barrel heads; the Getz whiskey musuem; Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell; the Wild Turkey tent at the Festival.
(While most folks at the fair found browsing among the sweatshirts and other branded merchandise spoke with an Appalachian twang, visitors were as likely to speak with a Celtic burr or Japanese-accented English. International attendance was up both for press and regular folk.)
The jury’s still out on whether the newer, more expensive variations in limited production can create a compelling impression with consumers, but among spirit writers and professionals, bourbon’s reputation is rock-solid. Heaven Hill has based its current Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon advertising campaign on the influential Spirit Journal’s Paul Pacult’s judgment that it was whisky of the year in 1999. And we can probably expect to hear more about Brown-Forman’s Labrot & Graham Woodford Reserve after a panel of spirit writers, consultants and beverage professionals named it best bourbon at the first San Francisco World Spirits Competition. (Ironically, the first batch of Woodford Reserve actually produced at Labrot & Graham has yet to reach release age, and what emerges eventually from the meticulously-restored old distillery will be closely scrutinized.)