Pull! I jammed my cheek into the stock of the 20-gauge shotgun, eyed the orange target drifting up on the breeze over the green hills of the Wild Turkey Distillery grounds, and squeezed the trigger. The target continued floating away, unscathed.
The grizzled instructor reloaded for me. “Close your left eye,” he said. “Pull!” came the warning. I followed the target, left eye squeezed, and fired. The clay disc burst into pieces, scattering on the gray sky like so many bits of bright confetti. No way! I’d done it. I turned, grinning to see if Jimmy Russell, the master distiller there and a bourbon industry fixture for the last 60 years, had seen my success.
I was at my first outing of the 2014 Kentucky Bourbon Affair—an exclusive, five-day event organized by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association—out on the sprawling the grounds of the Wild Turkey Distillery just east of Lawrenceburg on a suddenly cold spring afternoon. Jimmy and his son, Eddie, were roaming the property with a handful of bourbon lovers. We launched the day’s fun in a clearing between a couple of warehouses.
Thankful for the gun-handling lessons my grandpa, dad and brother gave me a couple years ago, I couldn’t wait to tell them of my success. I hit all my targets after that first miss, and—family not there for me to brag to—I headed for Jimmy, a stand-in grandpa.
“I know not to mess with you,” he said, with that easy smile of his. “You shoot too good.” My smile matched his as we hopped into golf carts and followed the scent of whiskey to Wild Turkey’s newest warehouse. Betting that the current mania for bourbon is going to last, the company has built a warehouse to hold 50,000 barrels, compared with the usual 20,000.
“Do you still notice the smell?” I asked Jimmy. “Only if something’s wrong,” he said. This legendary distiller is said to be able to determine the proof of a whiskey with only a taste from a finger dipped in the liquid. I’m glad to be just an enthusiast—I can still revel in the perfume of aging bourbon. Nothing on earth smells as sweet to me as the angel’s share-permeated air inside a bourbon rickhouse. (Ever wonder what the difference is between a warehouse and a rickhouse? I did, too. Since I had the man right there to ask, I did. Jimmy said the terms are interchangeable.)
After trying our hand at rolling barrels—they weigh 550 pounds full of precious liquid—we piled back in our carts to ramble over to the oldest warehouse. A quick souvenir stop was in order, though—at the barrel boneyard. A pile of charred staves, barrel heads and rusted hoops lay in a tangle of high grass and weeds. Not in good enough condition to craft into the furniture that’s become so popular lately, they’re left to the elements—and, on this day, some excited whiskey fans. We dug through, pulling out the heavily scented wood (bound later for Jimmy and Eddie’s autograph pens) and, clutching our prizes, made for the Bonded A Warehouse where real prizes awaited: a tasting, led by Associate Distiller Eddie, of Wild Turkey 101 and Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10 Year. As we sipped the warming liquid, Jimmy’s son told us about the day 33 years ago, when he had come to work just for a summer. Somebody showed him to the “sugar barrel,” the employees’ secret stash of the best bourbon, to be sampled with a straw-like contrivance called a whiskey thief. “It’s been a long summer,” he said, laughing. “I’ve been here ever since.”
The Russells make a habit of sticking around. To celebrate his dad’s 60th anniversary, Eddie created Diamond, a blend of 13- and 16-year-old whiskey, which we sampled back at the visitor’s center, as he regaled us with more stories. Master distillers don’t retire, he told us as Jimmy looked on with a smile at the folks enjoying his whiskey. We raised a glass emblazoned with “drink like a legend,” all feeling the same, I’m certain, as we sipped the spirit. Here’s to many more years of this bourbon legend.
I was surrounded by vials and beakers, lab-coat-clad chemists milling about. It was a Friday night in the Flavorman laboratory at Louisville’s Distilled Spirits Epicenter, an artisan distillery and education and training center. This Kentucky Bourbon Affair event let even the decidedly nonscientific among us loose in the lab to concoct our own cocktail mixer. Well, not entirely loose. Our setup was ready and waiting for us to work side by side with the scientists.
Feeling exceptionally creative after a few samples from the craft distillers’ wares at the party next door at Moonshine University, the educational section of the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, we were free to devise whatever flavor combination we desired. Starting with a dry or sweet base—I chose dry—we next measured out our flavorings, choosing from an array of fruit, sweet and accent flavors ranging from banana to butter crust. Feeling vaguely Southeast Asian inspired, I added three drops of coconut, two of ginger, one of lime and one of bitters to my vial before proceeding down the station to the stir plate, where my creation was whirled about in a glass flask. Wisely, a lab assistant handled the pouring of the liquid into a big funnel and then into a cute glass jug. A custom label made just for our event drew “oohs” and “aahs” before we hand-lettered our ingredients, the mixer’s name, and our “crafted by” signature. I dubbed mine the “City of Squalor,” which brought laughs from all who’d seen The Hangover Part II (an apropos movie title on day two of this event).
Imagine this: Workers walked out of a building two decades ago. They were bottling whiskey and, poof, they just left, scrawling on a chalkboard on their way out. Today, you walk into a musty aroma in a sun-drenched room of the building, and there is still whiskey on the lines. It’s a time capsule, and for whiskey fans, it’s a time capsule of a most exciting sort, at the legendary, long-closed Stitzel-Weller distillery in southwestern Louisville.
My tour group—among the first people to visit the grounds of this hallowed-in-the-bourbon-world distillery—crowded around Bulleit Bourbon “brand champion” Bobby Burk as he brandished the glass of white spirit that had been poured from the line. For bourbon enthusiasts, this was one of those pinch-me moments. The Kentucky Bourbon Affair was billed as a bourbon fantasy camp, and moments like this made the event just that.
Our group passed the little glass from hand to hand, lifting it to breathe in the aroma of the whiskey ghost here in the home of the world-renowned Pappy Van Winkle. Catching a whiff wasn’t enough, though. One by one we tipped the glass to spill a few precious drops onto our hands to get a taste. Some might call this moonshine—clear, unaged whiskey. In this peculiar time-travel scenario, though, you might say it was aged—just not in barrels.
This gave us plenty to mull over as we continued the tour of the grounds, an odd juxtaposition of ghost town and new construction. Work is underway to open a new Bulleit Bourbon visitor’s center. Soon, bourbon fans from around the world will traipse around the property, but for today, for this group, it was ours.
The Birth of a Legend
Lore can exert as powerful a pull as truth, especially in the bourbon world. As the bartender whipped up our Old Fashioneds, my husband and I both snapped away with our smart phone cameras. “Is this your first time here?” he asked as he poured, with good humor. “What gave it away?” I responded, laughing at how we must look to him with our rapid-fire picture taking.
But I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. It’s not every day you get to have an Old Fashioned in its (supposed) birthplace. I was standing at the bar of the Pendennis Club in Louisville, decked out in a shimmery gold dress in honor of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair’s gala, Golden Affair, on the last night of what truly had been a fantasy camp for bourbon lovers. And the cherry on top was to see the maraschino cherry go into this drink.
I’d done a little research ahead of time, talking with Albert Schmid, author of The Old Fashioned: An Essential Guide to the Original Whiskey Cocktail. He’d described the process of building the drink: the sugar cube, the Angostura bitters, the orange wedge and cherry, and of course, the Old Forester. “If done properly, really with an Old Fashioned there is some ceremony to it,” Albert had told me. And indeed there was. This was no “pour a slug of this and dash of that” and call it a day. The formally attired bartender prepared our drinks with care and presented them with a flourish, and then, with a smile, gave us souvenir Pendennis Club coasters and pencils when we confirmed that, yes, it was our first time there.
The drink, though as potent as Albert had described, went down easily. The Old Fashioned was one of the first cocktails I sampled when I decided to learn to like bourbon, and it makes for an excellent introduction to the world of whiskey. It’s still the drink I make most often at home. But on this night, the drink was spiked with the glamorous dress of the party-goers; the historic setting of the downtown Louisville club; the chill-raising music of Anthony Kearns, who performed “My Old Kentucky Home” for us; and the slew of stars of the bourbon world all under the same roof. No matter that Albert had told me the legend of the Old Fashioned originating here is just that—a legend. To drink it there, that night, was nothing short of magical.
The Kentucky Bourbon Affair inaugural event took place in May 2014. Check for updates on next year’s event at kybourbonaffair.com