Monday, September 17, 2012

Kentucky Bourbon Festival 2012, Let The Bitching Commence.

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.


Eric Burke said...

As a first-time attendee I would agree with everything in this post. I went back to my Shepherdsville lodging almost every night and wondered what I should do. I ended up spending most nights (and most of my entertainment budget) in Louisville on the Urban Bourbon Trail. It's sad that money could have, and by all rights should have, stayed in Bardstown. I really expected more bourbon related things at the Bourbon Festival and may or may not go back in future years.

Gary Turner said...

Well put Chuck! As an out-of-towner AND first time KBF attendee, things like the Spirit Garden made no sense. Having to pay for a pin to get into a fenced in area that is basically an outside cash bar with little shade and NOTHING else to do . . . who came up with that? My dad and I lucked into some free pins, but after a quick look around that joint, we left - never to return. There are plenty of bars with (gasp) air conditioning, and their prices are only $1 or $2 higher (well worth it for comfortable chairs AND air conditioning!)

One of the best couple of (daylight) hours we spent was at a local pub which threw together a tasting. Xavier's Pub charged $10 to get into their tent-covered side lot, and had 20 different spirits available to taste. Many were small/micro craft distillers, but Hunter Chavanne with KBD was there (and had not only their stock offering, but some nice aged Willett Estate bottlings!) We learned of this glorious event by bumping into an organizer at Toddy's early Thursday morning.

We had a great time, but more for the informal, unofficial get togethers. There is definitely untapped potential - if other bars followed suit with Xavier's Pub and put on similar tasting events, they could probably swing having one distillery sponsor them and offer reasonably priced tasting opportunities. I'd have paid $20 for a tasting of various Heaven Hill products and chat with Bernie!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Initially, I was surprised by this.

Then again, having spoken with the nice folk from a distillery gift shop (over the phone), they suggested we make the trip to KY after the festival, and seemed to suggest it wasn't really a must-see event, especially if you don't like crowds.

So, conclusion, for first-time visitors, should we do a one-two punch of Bardstown, Louisville and horse country?

T Comp said...

As bourbon continues on in its latest growth spurt I wonder how many newcomers will be sorely disappointed by what you so aptly describe. It would be nice to see some of your suggestions implemented. Thank goodness for the late Saturday morning barrel relay and the wonderful "sense of place" it does deliver.

sam k said...

Though Bardstown "won't let go" of the KBF, there's no reason that another location couldn't start their own, is there?

With all that's going on in Louisville right now, maybe they'll start up their own festival and welcome the world the way Bardstown can't (or won't).

Anonymous said...

I have attended the Festival for the last ten years. I have seen it, as Chuck sees it for the last eight years. I no longer attend. The only thing I miss is not seeing my friends in Bardstown.

Chuck Cowdery said...

My suggestion for a first-time Bourbon Country visitor is don't come for the KBF. Come some other time of the year, tour a few distilleries, and at least one of the cooperages. Pick one base of operations and visit the Frankfort-Lexington area one day and the Bardstown area another. If you enjoy urban amenities, make Louisville or Lexington your base. How much you enjoy your Bardstown visit will indicate how much you would enjoy the KBF. This is for someone planning a two day trip. If you can stay longer, there is plenty to see.

Justin Victor said...

I know its not exclusively Bourbon but are the Whiskylive shows worth going to?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't know, Justin. I've never been to a WhiskyLive. I hear good things.

john p said...

Chuck, I could not agree more.

As a young professional raised in the western part of the state, educated in Lexington and now living in Louisville, KY I consider myself one who has more pride in the Commonwealth as a whole than most. I truly try to embrace the few things this state can really hang its hat on, but the third weekend in September in Nelson County is not one of them. At this point, anyone expecting something more than a big fall festival is in store for a let down. I am a big believer in playing to one's strengths and in Kentucky, that can sometimes be few and far between. Outside of Horses, Bourbon, Basketball and sadly Chicken, most folks, I imagine, typically take a pejorative few of the Bluegrass.

I am fully aware of the self proclaimed "The Bourbon Capital of the World," and am a big proponent of one of America's favorites small towns. Though I still think the voting may have been skewed on that one. Bardstown, unlike Frankfort, Lawrenceberg or Lexington or even Louisville truly does have the most potential to host this event. With a rich heritage and culture in the spirit, they have a unique opportunity with the close proximity of Beam, Heaven Hill, Tom Moore and Makers Mark all within roughly a 30 mile radius. Heck, I'll even count KBD Inc. - even if they are rectifiers. The area distilleries are much more tightly packed together than the Bluegrass leg to the Bourbon Trail and the downtown is quaint enough to give off the small town Southern vibe that most Kentuckians outside of Jefferson County can relate to. One would think that someone would have figured out the recipe by now. But the event organizers can't even set the date right. When a large majority of their potential instate crowd is in a parking lot at Papa Johns or Commonwealth Stadium drinking more brown liquor for free by the jug cheering on subpar collegiate football teams (on good year) than there are standing on the baseball diamond or at the penguin tailed gala, something's wrong.

Sadly, I am hesitant to even call it the "Kentucky Bourbon Festival" because I do not think the title accurately reflects the events at hand. Don't get me wrong, I love Bardstown. Have friends there, was invited down again this year to attend the festivities - unfortunately I could not make it and the weather was beautiful - and will do my best to attend again in the future. But the skinny, and you are right, it is Bardstown's celebration of bourbon - not Kentucky's.

I love Kentucky and I love Bourbon. It's just too bad the two can't come together to show off what each really have to offer.