Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kentucky Bourbon Festival: To Go Or Not To Go.

It's that time of year again, as people plan their summer vacations a few wonder, "should I go to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (9/13-18)?"

I went to the KBF the first couple years of its existence, 20 years ago. It was, for the most part, a snore. I didn't go for ten years, until people on started to talk about it as a meet up opportunity. That was in 2000 and 2001.

Coming so soon after 9/11, the 2001 event was surreal. Only people who drove could even get there. A couple of distilleries pulled out. But the weather was perfect and the atmosphere was very kind and solicitous. People were being preternaturally nice to each other.

I believe I have attended every year since.

That said, I attend very few official events. I went to the 'gala' once. Awful. I've gone to the Four Roses breakfast several times. It's very good, there's just no point in going to it every year because it's always essentially the same. I usually go to the barrel rolling competition on Saturday morning. It's great.

The only part of the festival that kind of looks like a festival takes place Friday and Saturday on the grounds of Spaulding Hall, spilling over to an adjacent city park. Spaulding Hall holds the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. In front of Spaulding is where all of the participating distilleries have their booths. They sell souvenirs -- t-shirts and such -- no whiskey. There are usually some of the distillers around.

There are also a lot of other booths; craftspeople, community groups, local and not-so-local businesses. Bourbon Barrel Foods, for example, has a booth. They sell this awesome soy sauce aged in used bourbon barrels. The local show car club sets up. The Army is there recruiting. There is a stage with live music. There is a midway with carny rides and carny food.

It's exactly like a thousand other Midwestern community festivals.

One of the worst abominations of the official festival is the "Spirit Garden," a fenced in, shade-free baseball field, exactly like the soccer stadium holding pens that are used when totalitarian governments round up protesters during anti-government demonstrations. You have to buy strips of tickets that you can then use to buy drinks, served in plastic glasses. There's very little seating.

It's how I imagine the bars are in hell.

They also sell Bud Light and more people drink that than bourbon. In another absurdist touch, they absolutely refuse to serve rye whiskey at this or any other official festival event.

But especially if the weather is pleasant, I enjoy hanging out on the 'festival grounds' for a few hours, though not in the Spirit Garden.

In the evening, the informal events crank up and go into the wee hours. They are the highlight of the festival.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Your description of the Bourbon Festival is spot on. Yes, it is fun to hang out on the festival grounds for a few hours on Saturday. You never know when you might need another Makers Mark T-shirt or shot glass. And last year I had an enjoyable conversation with Fred Noe who I had never met before. A very affable guy. Not to mention the barrel making demonstration. Those guys are amazing.

I love your description of the Spirit "Garden". The place looks more like a farmer's field in the Dust Bowl. Nothing much grows in the garden, just some hard scrabble grass. I went there with my wife several years ago. As we left the penned in area, having decided that there must be a better place to get a drink, we passed several pistol packing security officers. So, yes, we did feel as if we had just left a holding pen wherein the usual suspects had been rounded up.

I've never been to the "gala". The thought of paying so much money to strap on a tux and eat mass-produced food just never seemed appealing. Much better, in my opinion, to enjoy a better and cheaper meal in a Bardstown or other area restaurant. You could even order a rye!

As you have said before, there is a lot of unrealized potential in the Bourbon Festival. Perhaps it will be realized in the future. Goodness knows you have offered a number of constructive suggestions.

Tom Troland