The 2012 edition of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) in Bardstown, Kentucky, concluded yesterday. Every year I go, have a great time, and bitch about it afterwards.
Let the bitching commence.
First, I should explain that I go to the KBF primarily to see friends. I go to very few official events, nothing you need a ticket for, and definitely nothing you need to rent shoes for. (Saturday night's 'gala' is fancy dress.)
My biggest complaint this year is that Festival officials were bragging about how all of the ticketed events sold out. Many sold out weeks in advance. They call that success. I call it failure. It is undeniable proof that many people who would have attended those events
were disappointed and discouraged, perhaps to the point that they just
stayed home. It's stark proof that the KBF is realizing nothing close to its true potential.
The folks in Bardstown who call the shots won't let the festival grow, nor will they let it go. The big distilleries and other industry suppliers, who pay for the party, are frustrated by all the official timidity. Bourbon is booming. The iron is hot but the KBF isn't striking.
In that, the group most neglected by KBF organizers is the group they should care about most, out-of-town bourbon enthusiasts. Many complain that it seems like an insiders' party, and they are correct.
Second, and this complaint is also of long standing, there isn't enough bourbon content in the festival as a whole, especially the non-ticketed events. The only place on festival grounds where you can even drink bourbon is an abomination known as the Spirit Garden. It's hard to find and get to, you need to buy a pin just to get in, and there is nothing else to do there except drink. It's actually one of the town's baseball diamonds, fenced in like a prisoner-of-war camp. A tiny bit of shade is provided by a handful of sad umbrellas. It's depressing.
This year, Angel's Envy rented the top floor of Spalding Hall, a very nice and comfortable room with a bar, and turned it into a pop-up lounge. A convenient and comfortable place to drink bourbon at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival? What a concept? And it only took 21 years for someone to come up with it.
The KBF also does almost nothing with bourbon's rich history and heritage, except what the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History does all year. The distillery-sponsored booths are nothing but t-shirt shops. A local entrepreneur does well with a haunted places tour, but nobody does a Bardstown Bourbon History Tour. Dixie Hibbs reportedly did a history presentation at Wickland, but few people knew about it and you needed a car to get there.
For an event organized around whiskey, you need a car to get to a lot of the venues. Friday morning's breakfast at Four Roses was 43 miles from Bardstown. Four Roses does a great job with it, and it includes a distillery tour, but objectively that makes no sense. It's also not clear in the festival materials that attending involves about two hours of driving.
Because the official festival is so lacking, a variety of unofficial events have developed. Regular attendees typically know about and take advantage of some of them but no one knows about or has access to all of them. There is no effort made to coordinate the official and unofficial events, making it virtually impossible for a first-timer to effectively plan a great Bourbon Festival Experience.
While Bardstown is not blessed with a bunch of great bars, the ones that are there should have a bigger role. Every single one of them should be hosting something great every day, but they aren't.
Simply put, nobody cares about these glaring flaws because the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is not about the celebration of all things bourbon. It is just a big party Bardstown throws for itself with other people's money.