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One has to be a misanthrope not to like a good festival. Whether the crowd is blue-collar, blue-blooded or both, assembling a large slice of humanity for the consumption of food and drink as well as socializing is about as good as it gets. Soak it all in something as beloved as bourbon, and you create a community tradition that never stops growing.
This has happened to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. Begun 23 years ago as a bourbon tasting and dinner, the event has expanded to draw thousands. According to its organizers, the festival now attracts approximately 54,000 people from 44 states and 14 countries over its six-day stretch during the third week of September.
I’ve attended numerous single KBF events over the years but never on Saturday, its busiest day. Last year, I logged some 16,000 steps on my Fitbit—roughly 4 miles—that day, knowing I’d not scratched the surface of the 28 events on offer Saturday alone. Still, I saw a lot and had a tremendously good time on that bourbon-spiked adventure.
I’d been warned that “traffic could be hell by noon on festival Saturday,” so I made sure to arrive at the festival by lunchtime to secure a parking spot. Luckily, plenty of space was available in front of Bardstown’s many historic homes just a block or so away from the center of town.
According to my map, heading west along Stephen Foster Avenue would take me to the center of most of that day’s activities, but distant music drew me eastward toward the Kentucky Bourbon House. Inside, Col. Michael Masters sat waiting for an expected onslaught of 400 visitors to his bar. Normally, food is served there, but not during the festival, when the crush makes it prohibitive.
“It used to be just a few people, but now the whole town is packed,” Masters said. “There’s no time to do good food because there’s so much drinking pressure.” Or, more accurately, drink-making pressure placed on his small crew. To serve such volume, fresh mint-infused syrup is made by the gallon for juleps, and by week’s end, sales of the legendary cocktail number in the thousands.
Leaving him to his work, I promised Masters I’d return later and headed off to visit The Spirit Garden (no entry fee) on the lawn of City Hall. There, you must be 21 to enter and can sample a dizzying array of bourbons from Kentucky distillers. You’ll need cash to purchase tickets for food and drink. Since it seemed fitting to begin my day’s journey with a pour, I chose Old Forester Signature on the rocks, ponied up $10 worth of tickets, and sipped slowly.
It doesn’t take long to start meeting strangers at alcohol-centered festivals, for which I was grateful that afternoon, since I attended solo. Surely the great social lubricant of alcohol helps boost loquaciousness, but locals seem especially willing to talk when their city is on stage before thousands of visitors. They recommend restaurants, tell you their favorite bourbons, and—as a group of nine young men did with me—confessed to loosening up prior to a wedding later that day.
“Does your fiancée know you’re here drinking with all your groomsmen?” I asked Palmer Grigsby. He and his friends laughed, shook the ice in their drinks to chill and dilute their bourbons and devised mock, unprintable excuses for Grigsby’s anticipated lateness. The husband-in-waiting was scheduled to wed Shawnee Mills at 6 that evening in Springfield, about 45 minutes away.
“Oh, I think that can be 6-ish if necessary,” Grigsby said, laughing.
When I told him that beginning married life late for his own wedding would make a poor start, his soon-to-be brother-in-law added, “Oh, she’s a pretty cool lady. And he’s worth the wait.”
A glance at my watch revealed I was late for Sip & Savor ($60), a bourbon and food pairing hosted by Louisville author David Dominé. It was held at the General Nelson Inn a couple of blocks away, and I double-timed it there.
With predictable aplomb, Dominé, an empathetic press colleague, slid over and whispered, “Need to catch up?”
Indeed I did, and he signaled a server to bring me up to pace. Nibbles of food and sips of bourbon appeared within seconds.
As we sipped Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Single Barrel, Blanton’s and Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Dominé talked us through why each pairs well with bites of items such as brioche and cheese, cucumber and chocolate.
My tablemates, two retired couples from Paducah and Louisville, were having a ball learning how to pair bourbon and food.
“If you notice, Blanton’s has a mild cucumber note of its own, which is why I paired it like that,” Dominé said.
His remark led one of the women to say, “Oh, he’s right!”
When she saw me jot down her observation, she asked that I not mention her in the article, “because I’ll look silly.”
I assured her that this is how tastings go—that good guides like Dominé connect flavors and descriptors that most don’t make themselves.
“No shame in the lightbulb going on,” I said.
“Oh, I guess you’re right,” she said before adding a sweet but clear reminder. “But don’t put me in. No pictures, either.”
My next stop was the World Championship Barrel Relay (no entry fee), held on the grounds of the Recreation Department a couple of blocks away. Here, five-man teams from multiple distilleries rolled water-filled bourbon barrels down and around a rectangular wood-railed track and onto a rick. The exercise is timed, and judges add or subtract seconds based on whether the barrel bung is facing up and the barrelhead’s stenciled name is right side up at completion. For every correctly ricked barrel, 10 seconds are deducted from that team’s time.
If all goes well, rolling 10 full barrels—weighing 500 pounds each—takes about 105 seconds. If a barrel rolls crookedly along the rails, it can stop and block the progress of every barrel behind it—a snafu not easily straightened out when 5,000 pounds of liquid are involved. The teams’ exertions were obvious and visible in their rosy, sweat-beaded faces.
I then hustled to the Master Distillers Auction in the chapel of Spalding Hall, home to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. En route, I noticed a booth parked behind Spalding selling rye whiskey, and I purchased a Templeton on the rocks and raced up the creaky stairs to the air-conditioned second floor.
The scene inside the auction hall was surreal: At least 100 enthusiasts were spending big dollars to buy whiskey in what once was the chapel at St. Joseph Prep, a now-defunct Catholic high school. There, boys came to pray and offer their devotions to the Lord. Now, the chapel’s walls hold pictures of saints and a Rebel flag, and there are confessional stands nearby. (I amused myself imagining they’re for buyers needing to confess to spending more on whiskey than they place in the collection basket each Sunday.)
Just as ironic was the fact that the auctioneer is a retired Episcopal pastor, Karl Lusk. When I entered, the entertaining Lusk was promoting the purchase of lot No. 27, a Four Roses Single Barrel LE 2014 release. He touted the 112.4-proof bottle as rare, signed by Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, and it sold for $775.
A bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 12 Year then fetched $525, and a special bottle of Maker’s Mark with University of Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops’ picture on it brought $370.
More Van Winkle treasures followed: a 10 Year sold for $375, and bidding for a 20 Year opened at $500.
“Do I have $700? Now $800? Now $900?” Lusk said, scrambling to catch up with buyers pushing bids. At about 60 seconds, when the price reached $950, purses tightened. But 30 seconds later, when their clasps released again, bids raced to the selling price of $1,050.
Then came the pièce de résistance: a 23 Year Pappy Van Winkle. Bourbon historian Michael Veach introduced the hallowed bottle by reading its particulars (95.6 proof, signed by Julian Van Winkle), and Lusk launched into a hard sell.
“You’re not apt to find this anywhere, so let’s open the bidding at $1,000,” Lusk said, his staccato urgings yielding crickets for about a minute. Then, suddenly and expectedly, the price nudged to $1,050 and then leapt to $1,700 in 10 seconds. With bargain hunters gone from the fray, an emboldened Lusk pressed: “Now how ’bout $2,000?”
With two bidders remaining, the price crawled to $2,100. When the auctioneer pushed for $2,150, one bidder’s hand rose while his lone competitor yelled, “Congratulations!” and bowed out. The appreciative crowd applauded his spending, which will provide funds for the Getz Museum.
Hungry, I headed off to Harrison-Smith House, a modern Southern restaurant that opened last summer. Bardstown’s shops and eateries keep longer hours to serve crowds in town for the festival. On this evening, Harrison-Smith House had a special menu for its outdoor seats featuring burgoo and barbecue. Eager to rest a moment, I paired my delicious grub with a Henry McKenna bourbon on the rocks and relaxed.
Belly full and thirst slaked, I headed off to my final event for the evening, the Arco Speakeasy ($75) at Kreso’s on 3rd Street. Given the casual attire worn at every other event so far this day, the large crowd, dressed to the nines in 1920s-era outfits, was as striking as the selection of alcohol on offer. The range of spirits created by artisan distilleries included white dog, brandy, flavored moonshines and, of course, bourbon.
The Billy Goat Strut Review’s energetic ragtime tunes made it difficult to talk to attendees, but they clearly were having fun without me butting in. After chatting with a few distillers and taking some pictures, I glanced at my watch: 9:30 p.m. Time to call it quits.
As I walked back to my car, I remembered my promise to return to the Bourbon House. But when I saw it was packed, I convinced myself Masters would be too busy see me. For a moment, I stood at the roundabout at which 3rd and Stephen Foster commingle, and I watched people file into and out of Old Talbott Tavern. Bardstown was abuzz, and I wanted to stay the night and see more, but nine hours of festival hopping was about enough for me.
This year, however, I plan to return for more.