Last Updated on April 19, 2023
The Louisville Bourbon Classic is an annual event taking participants on a fascinating journey from the grain to the grunt-work and from the barrel to the bottle, with copious amounts of sublime sips and excellent eats along the way.
This premier bourbon, cocktail and culinary festival consists of a series of interactive events holding locals and visitors spellbound over four glorious days. Participants learn the finer points of bourbon through tastings, informative workshops, and opportunities to see where and how this fine Kentucky liquid gold is produced.
My husband and I had the privilege of attending the 10th Louisville Bourbon Classic and visit five of the area’s most popular distilleries. We made the most of this golden opportunity to learn by listening, asking questions and tasting.
What Makes Bourbon Whiskey?
Whiskey has been around since farmers discovered they could transform their surplus grains into pleasure and profit. In the United States, this breakthrough came in the 1700s.
Bourbon is the only spirit native to America. In 1964, Congress designated bourbon as a distinct product of the US. Rye and Scotch-style whiskies can be produced anywhere in the world, but bourbon is a purely American whiskey. It’s smooth, has a complex flavor profile, and is easy to drink – at least it should be when done right!
The bourbon process begins with a corn, wheat, and malted barley mash. Nothing new there. What makes the distilled liquid distinctly “bourbon” is aging for at least two years in new, high quality, American white oak barrels charred on the inside. The oak char gives bourbon its distinct, smoky aroma and flavor. Some premium bourbons are aged five, 12, 15, and 20-years-plus, which is reflected in the smoothness and price.
If you need another reason to drink bourbon, besides the way it tastes and how makes you feel – consumed in moderation – this particular whiskey may actually be good for you. Compared to other alcoholic beverages, bourbon contains fewer calories and carbohydrates, and is sugarless as well.
Trends, Timing, and Talent
How did such a premier event as the Louisville Bourbon Classic come about, and what took it so long? The answer to the second part of this question requires going back in history to the start of Prohibition. This national insanity lasted 13 years and destroyed the bourbon industry which had been steadily growing in popularity.
It was a long, hard climb back up for bourbon. Its popularity went through several ups and downs. By the 1970s, consumers were favoring imported clear spirits such as vodka and tequila. But by the turn of the 21st century, bourbon was making a tremendous comeback.
Creative mixologists generated enthusiasm for craft cocktails and American whiskey in general. Remember, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Talented master distillers in Kentucky introduced small-batch and single-barrel expressions, giving rise to an increasing connoisseur interest in the bourbon-making process and its history.
Kentucky Produces the Most Bourbon
95% of the world’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky. In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers Association founded the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to promote the spirit through tourism. Of the distilleries we visited, James Beam, along with Michter’s and Angel’s Envy are among the 18 distilleries comprising the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Now thoroughly integrated into popular culture, bourbon became – and still is – cool. Once considered an old white man’s drink, bourbon is being embraced by men and women of all ages and ethnicities.
As for how the Bourbon Classic came to be, it was a matter of perfect timing. Tony Butler of FSA Management Group, an event planning company based in Louisville, and Justin Thompson and Seth Thompson, of The Bourbon Review, stepped up at just the right moment. They founded, promoted, and grew this phenomenal celebration of bourbon for those who produce it, and those who appreciate it.
Bourbon Classic Louisville
Opening night of the Louisville Bourbon Classic was the Top Shelf event, held in the Atrium of the 21c Museum Hotel. The evening featured a four-flight tasting of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, arguably – maybe not arguably – the most magical name in bourbon.
My husband and I took our time moving from sample to sample at the Pappy Van Winkle station, tasting 10, 12, 15, and 20-year bourbons.
With each sample, we feasted on tasty tidbits from an artfully laid out charcuterie board, as well as sophisticated hors d’oeuvres like Truffle Gougeres – a cream puff-like shell with a creamy truffle filling – and deviled eggs filled with salmon roe.
All bourbons were superb, but the difference in smoothness and flavor between the 10-year and the 20-year was apparent. The 20-year bourbon had to be the smoothest I have ever tasted.
Sadly, Pappy Van Winkle bourbons are difficult to find and priced beyond what many of us – me included – can afford. But if you can find and afford it, the experience is well worth the effort and expense. Low supply and high demand of Pappy resulted in a fabled crime spree in Kentucky that was the subject of a Netflix documentary.
The highlight for me was meeting bourbon royalty in the form of Pappy’s great-grandson, Preston Van Winkle. He was friendly and down to earth. I asked Preston what advice he had for people exploring the wide selection of bourbons available on the market.
Instead of touting the virtues of his family’s premier product, he answered, “There’s something out there for everybody. You don’t have to like ours. Try around.”
Now, that’s what I call good advice, and that’s exactly what we did for the next three days.
An Affair to Remember… If You Can
The following evening, we found ourselves in Clermont at the James B. Beam restaurant, The Kitchen Table. The event was called ‘A Spirited Affair with Fred Noe,’ and spirited it was. It consisted of a welcome bourbon cocktail followed by a second bourbon cocktail and then a sumptuous four-course dinner with creative bourbon cocktail pairings.
The food was outstanding, but the cocktails were almost my undoing. Call me a wimp, but I couldn’t drink six seriously-spiked cocktails. I did taste them all, and found a couple that went down so smoothly, I almost emptied the glass.
As if there wasn’t enough bourbon in my stomach already, dessert consisted of three intensely fudgy bourbon balls. Not wanting to be rude, I forced myself to devour them. Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
The highlight of the evening was meeting James Beam’s Master Distiller, Fred Noe. It takes superior talent to be brilliant, funny, and make incredible bourbon all at the same time, but Fred makes it look easy. He even posed for a photo with my guide dog, Splendid the following morning, and seemed as honored as Splendid should have been.
Battling Bourbons and Food Fights
The third evening of the Louisville Bourbon Classic featured the Cocktail & Culinary Competition at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Louisville, where, thankfully, we were staying. Each of the 14 distilleries represented a master bartender who teamed up with an acclaimed chef for an evening of competition and a feast for the attendees.
Each team competed for ‘best cocktail’ and ‘best small plate.’ We circled the room, picking up a tasting portion of food and drink from one of the teams, savoring the pairing, and then wandering back for the next. There were 14 pairings, far too many to have tried them all, but everything we consumed was fabulous.
We enjoyed meeting some of the contestants and learning about their creations. We also relished time in the hotel’s Amber Lounge for VIP ticket holders when we needed a little quiet time to get to know some of our fellow attendees.
The evening ended with the presentation of awards for Best Cocktail, Best Small Plate, Best Pairing, and People’s Choice awards in the above categories. We were happy to see that some of our favorites were among the winners. Although in my mind, they all were.
Learning and Libations
The final evening of the Bourbon Classic was divided into two parts. Bourbon University offered us the opportunity to choose one of 10 options. We could select one of the onsite distillery tours, or one of the workshops held at the Hyatt.
A Tour and Tasting at Stitzel-Weller Distillery, “Balancing Act: Understanding Cocktail Fundamentals” (a workshop on cocktail-making led by two of Michter’s mixology experts), and “Approaching the Blend” (a workshop on the art and science of bourbon blending led by two experts from Barrell Craft Spirits) were among the options.
We chose “Sipping through Sazerac’s Experimental Whiskies”, which was as entertaining as it was informative. Sazerac is the owner of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, which we had visited the prior afternoon.
The grand finale was the Louisville Bourbon Classic Taste event featured bourbon tastings from Bourbon Classic distillers paired with incredibly delectable food from local restaurants, and the VIP Lounge. By then we had come to know a lot of people, and it felt more like a neighborhood party.
The Bourbon Classic is an investment in time and money, but also an unforgettable four days of libations, laughter, and learning. The evening events were flawlessly orchestrated, and the food and beverages top notch.
The end result for us was an understanding of the process that brings fine bourbon to homes, restaurants and bars around the world. The frosting on the cake was the opportunity to meet bourbon industry greats, as well as regular folks like us, who made the entire event a true delight.
(Part II in this series will cover our visits to five fascinating distilleries during our Bourbon Classic experience.)