Birdsong and distant clatter roused me from my slumber where I lay burrowed in a sleeping bag. Where was I? I opened my eyes to peek for clues. I was in a tent. This is highly irregular, as I am not a camper. Yet here I was, snug as the proverbial bug in a rug in my cozy little tent, reluctant to exit my cocoon. But on the crisp morning breeze came scents guaranteed to rouse anyone: campfire, bacon and coffee. Aha! I was at a campout. And not just any campout, but one that would lure even the most dedicated urban dweller to give up her bed. I was at the Knob Creek Campout.
“You can’t drink all day if you don’t wake up at the distillery,” I joked with friends ahead of this September weekend on the Jim Beam grounds in Clermont. And sure, the bourbon flowed. But so, too, did the stories and the music and the food. The things I love best about Kentucky were all here being celebrated on this magical fall weekend. And it was time to get up!
I found myself here through the peculiar grace of being a writer who happens to sometimes specialize in bourbon. This was the second-ever Knob Creek Campout, a pretty exclusive event limited to a wildly lucky few folks who are part of the brand’s Brothers of Bourbon, a program for fans of the distillery (male and female). Ever read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Well, being here was pretty much the equivalent of opening that candy bar to find a golden ticket granting entry to Willy Wonka’s fantabulous chocolate factory. Everyone here was nothing short of giddy.
We’d begun the night before, gathering with brand ambassadors and the legend himself, Fred Noe—master distiller, great-grandson of Jim Beam, and consummate storyteller. Over—what else?—Knob Creek bourbon and rye, we’d huddled under a pavilion as a soft rain fell outside, laughing as Fred regaled us with tall tales of growing up in the Beam family. Friendships rapidly formed, sped up through the powers of whiskey, and nobody seemed to mind the rain as we loaded up plates with barbecue. As night fell, we made our way to our tents. Mine, I was happy to see, contained a cot, that cozy sleeping bag and a pillow. As far as camping goes, I couldn’t complain.
But the real fun started Saturday morning when I joined the group gathered around the campfire on hay bales draped in red wool blankets. Fixings for breakfast were laid out on tables, and the topic of the hour was the preferred components and technique for making breakfast sandwiches in the fire. Iron presses awaited hungry campers who debated how much to stuff the bread and how long to leave the presses in the fire. I’m not embarrassed to say I won the debate when I took my bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and drenched it in gravy. Hey, I needed a good foundation for the day ahead!
Some days of our lives blend together in a not unpleasant sameness: work, cooking, chores, reading and TV. Other days, even as you’re living them, stand out in sharp contrast. Brighter, more vivid details jump out in relief. Thanks to the warm glow of whiskey, the day at Knob Creek has its own pleasant filter overlay in my memory, but small details stand out. The crunch of leaves underfoot, their earthy smell mingling with the perfume of mash cooking. Laughter and excited voices clamoring as we gathered around a barrel at the dumping station, taking turns with the nozzle as the off-the-still whiskey cascaded into the barrel. Passing around a glass of that new make, its white heat livening us up even more than our coffee around the campfire. Sitting down to a country ham tasting, sipping whiskey with its natural companion. Watching, enthralled, as an old-timer demonstrates the craft of raising barrels. And gazing farther afield as another on the crew sets barrels on fire to char the inside.
The afternoon gave way to that magical hour when the light takes on a mellower tint as we made our way to Warehouse K. Rickhouses take the place of the tobacco barns of my childhood—all rich fragrance and filtered light. Celebrity chef (and Knob Creek fan) Michael Symon met up with us there to share a bit of his single barrel. This barrel that he’d chosen some time back was resting quietly in the old warehouse, the bourbon soaking up the oak’s gifts of flavor, color and aroma through the summer’s heat and winter’s cold. For a guy giving away his bourbon, he was all smiles, wielding his copper whiskey thief (an instrument to draw a bit of whiskey from the barrel) and splashing the golden liquid into our glasses. The day could have ended there, and I, for one, would have been utterly happy.
But evening lay ahead of us. Michael and his crew had started on the pig roast that morning, and cocktail hour awaited as the pork cooked. This wasn’t just any cocktail hour. We got to play student bartender as we watched Michael demonstrate how to make his version of an old fashioned, the drink he told us his dad enjoyed every day when he came home from work. At our tables, we each got a drink-making station—all kitted out with the tools and ingredients to make our own cocktail, a spin that brought the kick of ginger beer and herbal note of chartreuse to the classic. Class turned a little raucous as we muddled and tasted, stirred and sipped, and eventually evolved into a cocktail party when snacks arrived, campers wandered over to play horseshoes or cornhole, and we began to think about dinner.
As dusk fell, a long picnic table was set under wispy clouds. Platters landed bearing the bounty of fall’s harvest—I couldn’t get enough of the heirloom tomato salad in particular. But the roast pig, of course, was the star attraction. We sat long past dark, lanterns glowing on the table as the stars emerged, telling stories, laughing and making our way to the bar for refills.
Then strains of banjo and curls of smoke wound their way into the night air, igniting that spark of Kentucky love I carry within. My heart as full as my belly, I made my way to the campfire. The night wasn’t over yet.
The Bad News + The Good
Sadly, the 2015 Knob Creek Campout was the last, and no such event is planned for this year. But bourbon fans can still take their pick of other once-in-a-lifetime experiences starring bourbon legends and insider tours at events throughout the year across bourbon country.
A favorite is the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, dubbed fantasy camp for bourbon lovers. Running for three years now, the annual spring event has offered the chance to skeet shoot with Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey Distillery, dig into barbecue with Fred Noe at his home, and pick a single barrel selection at Heaven Hill. (See our story on the inaugural Bourbon Affair in the September 2014 issue of Kentucky Monthly.)
Find the recipe for Michael Symon’s Old Fashioned here.