Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kentucky Bourbon Festival is September 14-19.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) is held in Bardstown, Kentucky, every year in mid-September. This year it's September 14-19. In reality not much happens early in the week nor on Sunday. The activities on the lawn of Spalding Hall, for example, begin Friday at 4:00 PM, so call it a long weekend. The KBF peaks with the big 'gala' on Saturday night.

It began in 1992. I went intermittently that first decade but I've been to every one since about 1999. In 2009 I was proud to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, which is done during the festival.

Obviously I like the KBF but I find it hard to write about it without being critical. For one thing, the basic outline hasn't changed in now almost 20 years: the booths on the lawn, live music on the lawn, the spirit garden, a big concert Friday night, the big 'gala' Saturday night. Many of the producers complain that it's just a big party Bardstown throws for itself using the producers' money that doesn't really do much to promote bourbon.

Too many of the events are private or expensive. Tickets for the Saturday night gala are $140 each and formal apparel is required. The Hall of Fame induction is an invitation-only event primarily for industry types and the press.

My big gripe is the paucity of events and activities aimed at you, the bourbon enthusiast. There are so few official enthusiast activities that enthusiasts themselves have organized their own. A commercial example is the Chapeze House, where you can sample a wide range of bourbons. Contrasted with the official spirit garden, it has a better selection, better atmosphere, and attracts actual enthusiasts. Chapeze House is a 19th century distillery owner's home while the spirit garden is an unshaded baseball field.

Most of the other unofficial events are non-commercial and what you might call semi-private. In most cases anyone can go but you have to know about them and they aren't widely publicized. Visit the two big enthusiast web sites, StraightBourbon.com and BourbonEnthusiast.com for more information.

The best, most authentic, and most fun official event is the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay (a new, trademarked name for the barrel rolling competition. Is someone trying to horn in on Bardstown's barrel rolling action such that they need a trademarked name?) It's a unique event, one you could only do in Kentucky. The barrels start rolling at 11:00 AM on Saturday morning in the field behind City Hall (300 West Broadway).


Anonymous said...

Your comments and suggestions about the KBF are right on the mark. As a dedicated bourbon enthusiast, I find very little at the festival for me. I went last year on Saturday. I didn't learn much about bourbon apart from a very interesting conversation with a gentleman from Independent Stave. The spirit "garden" was a joke - just a hot, hard-scrabble sports field surrounded by a fence and armed cops. Hardly the ambiance one would like for quiet enjoyment of fine bourbon. And the gala is also of little interest. Lots of dough for what I am told is a rather ordinary catered dinner. Plus, I'd have to rent a zoot suit - great fun, I imagine, on a hot night. (And what does "black tie" have to do with bourbon?) Around the holidays, I can go to my local liquor store in Kentucky and meet master distillers for free. No zoot suit required. Who needs the KBF?

Anonymous said...

One of the best events is the Wednesday night "All-Star Sampler" sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers Association. Nearly all of the Master Distillers were there last year. You could sample their brands, get autographcs, pictures, etc. It was a great event and well-attended. This year's "All-Star Sampler" will be on Sept. 15.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Festival planners deserve credit for responding to complaints that the only place visitors could access all of the master distillers in one place was the $$$ gala, so they created this event last year (maybe it was the year before).