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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Blogging from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival

I've been going to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for years, and yet I almost never blog about it. This has been a disappointment to some of you (sorry, Sam); probably a blessing to you beer-lovers, but that's all by the board. I'm blogging this year.

I'm at the Bourbon Festival waving the Malt Advocate flag. I'm the managing editor, I write the 'American Spirit' column, and I do love this industry -- er, and I have a small fondness for the product, too -- so I go, happily. That's by way of a sort of negative disclosure: I'm not here as the guest of any distillery (I have been once or twice in the past). Okay, onward.

Before I talk about the trip and what I've been doing, let's talk about the Festival. There's a common question, one I was just asked this morning, that needs to be addressed: "Where is the actual festival?" Yeah, well, you're standing in it. "The Kentucky Bourbon Festival" is kind of like "Philly Beer Week"; more to the point, it's not like Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest. There's not a single event where you go from one distiller's table to another, sampling whiskeys...

No, wait, there is. That's the Gala, a black-tie dinner on Saturday night, that begins with a tasting hour when you do go from one distiller's "booth" to another, sampling whiskeys (and cocktails, and cigars, and there's nibble foods, and free glasses, and lots of pretty women and handsomely dressed men). But the Gala's a pricey ticket, and as black-tie, it's not your usual "drinks festival" kind of thing.

So what is the "actual festival?" It starts on Wednesday and goes through Sunday, and there's a whole calendar of different events. The distilleries have tours, both open to the general public and some longer, 'hard-hat' type tours for industry people and the real aficionados who put groups together and reserve them months in advance. (Speaking of months in advance: that's when you'd better make your reservations. Bardstown fills up fast.) And there's the Lawn in front of Spalding Hall, home of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. The Lawn has arts and crafts on sale (plenty of Kentucky-made stuff; I usually get Cathy some trinkets here), distiller tents (no samples...but you can get them in the Spirits Garden), coopering demos, and other shtuff. That's where I send people when they ask about where the "actual festival" is.

My trip started at 7 AM Thursday morning. I drove the Saab down to the Philadelphia airport, a fine drive with the windows down and the new stereo booming. No big problems with traffic or security, and I was on my Delta plane on-time, relaxing for a flight to Detroit and a connector to Louisville scheduled to arrive at 1:44; plenty of time for my usual visit to New Albanian Brewing Company before heading down to Bardstown.

KLUNK! Eh? What the hell was that, just as we were backing around from the jetway? That was the end of my good day. The captain told us that a shear pin had broken on the towbar of the little truck pushing the plane back from the terminal. FAA regs required that the plane be inspected, and that paperwork had to be logged... Hell. I actually fell asleep. We finally took off about 75 minutes later, and arrived in Detroit about 20 minutes after my Louisville flight left. Damn.

Worse than damn; there had been a succession of storms rolling through the area, disrupting schedules, and even thought there was a flight to Louisville every two hours, the next two were full. I was stuck for seven hours. Lord. It got worse: no free WiFi, and something was screwing with the reception on my iPhone. It took me three hours till I could find a spot where I could even get a text message through to Cathy. Crap. All I had to read was a new book by Charlie MacLean, Whiskypedia, which was good, but not really the kind of book you sit down and cover-to-cover. I got a newspaper, had lunch, and sat down to charge my electronics at a handy outlet. That was good for about three hours. Now what?

I went to "Thee Irish Pub" in Terminal C. Had a coffee, had a conversation with an older guy, Bud drinker ("I hate Guinness," he told me. His world was going to hell, he hated people who drank too much, he drank too much, football is fixed, people are jerks, and I was really sorry I struck up that conversation.), got a Guinness (after he left...), talked to the guy on the other side about the screwed-up WiFi, had another Guinness and a double of Tullamore Dew (like the Yelp reviews say, the place was way overpriced; I mean, I know it's an airport bar, but $31 for two beers and a double of Tullamore?), and asked the bartender where the men's room was. He told me, and as he did, he cleared my whiskey glass...which still had 1/4 oz. of whiskey in it. I looked at him, he looked at me, and I went to the men's room. Another beautiful day at Detroit Metro airport. Jackass.

I finally flew to Louisville, a magical flight, visually: the sun was setting way out across a solid field of low clouds that looked like miles and miles of low, rolling, snow-covered hills. I almost expected to see wolves chasing a sleigh, with some villain poised to toss out a helpless damsel to lighten the load...look, I was really bored by this point.

It wasn't over. When I got to Louisville, about 7 hours late, Thrifty had given away my rental car. Really. Because there was a gospel quartet convention in town. After a wait, he did manage to scare up a Hyundai Sonata for me, and I made it down to Bardstown at about 10:15. I checked into the Old Jailer's Inn, and joined some other bourbon lovers out on the front porch, drinking Four Roses Single Barrel and Buffalo Trace White Dog. And I felt alllllll better.

The next day, Friday, I got up and had breakfast. Dixie, the woman who keeps the place, had made a bunch of pastries (I had a small muffin), fresh fruit (I had a clementine and some blueberries), and strawberry french toast. Very good indeed. I walked up to the cleaners and dropped off my tux to be pressed for the Gala, then did some work while having coffee at the Java Joint, a cool place I've been going to for years (I'm there now). Like every other place, there were people there talking about the Bourbon Festival, including some of the gospel quartet people. I didn't ask them if they stole my rental car.

After that, I went out to Liquor World and got a bottle of Weller Antique to share on the porch that night. The folks there let me sample some Willett cask strength they had: very cinnamon-spicy, brightly sweet, quite tasty and fresh. Then I went to the Bourbon Hall of Fame induction at Spalding Hall. Buffalo Trace's ace warehouse manager, Ronnie Eddins was getting in (a richly-deserved honor for this man who was the originator of both the ongoing Experimental Collection and the upcoming oak experiments), as was Eddie Russell, Jimmy Russell's son and a master distiller in his own right. I reconnected with some old friends, and then went back to my room for a quick nap before going out to the Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz event.

More later; I'm going to head over to the Bourbon Auction.

I finally figured out how to add the Amazon you like them? Hate them? Do you care?


sam k said...

Your fault that you ever let anyone clear a glass with whiskey left in it. Other than that, thanks for the update, and maybe someday I can join you there! Enjoy!

Gary Gillman said...

Good notes Lew. Probably there are as many experiences as visitors to KBF and yours have a particular appeal due to your industry and product knowledge and writing style of which (as you know) I am a fan.

It's unfortunate that we hadn't had more time to talk but I am glad we met again and hopefully there will be an opportunity in the future to talk at length.

All the best again.



Lew Bryson said...

Truly, Gary, it's always a pleasure. Wish I'd made it to the gazebo earlier!

Anonymous said...

I like the links, please DO continue! I'm sure that you can point folks to some books etc that they might not normally encounter.