If anyone ever calls you and asks if you’d like to attend the Bourbon Classic, there is only one correct answer. It’s yes. It’s a resounding yes.
There are bourbon festivals all over the country. There are bourbon themed bars and restaurants. There is nothing like the Bourbon Classic. It is the World Cup of America’s Native Spirit, and it’s in the Center of the Bourbon Universe, Louisville, KY. It’s the gathering of chefs, distillers, writers, fans, experienced bourbon enthusiasts and brand new converts to the brown gold we know as bourbon. Despite Mother Nature’s best efforts, the 3rd annual edition went off splendidly.
Friday evening began with the Bourbon Classic Cocktail competition, in which the region’s best mixologists teamed up with the city’s best chefs to pair contemporary and classic bourbon cocktails with bourbon-inspired food.
The Blanton’s team consisting of Mixologist Marie Zahn of St. Charles Exchange and Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main swept the Classic competition, winning for best Classic Dish, Best Classic Small Plate and best pairing of the two. 8UP leapt into the bourbon scene with a dual win in best Contemporary Small Plate and best Contemporary Pairing under the direction of Sean Thibodeaux and Chef Jacob Coronado, while Isaac Fox of Volare won best contemporary Cocktail.
That wasn’t the end. Oh no. This is no one-trick pony. This is the Bourbon Classic.
Saturday began with a series of educational breakouts called Bourbon University where attendees chose their preferred topics. I highly recommend the Jim Beam Country Ham and Bourbon pairing session because, well, you get to taste a lot of bourbon and country ham. Plus, since it was a Jim Beam event, Fred Noe was there, and any event with Fred Noe is hilariously entertaining, to say the least.
That was followed by the Bourbon Masters General Session where emcee Fred Minnick deftly tiptoed through an informative, funny, and sometimes touchy town hall of some of the biggest names in the business, including the aforementioned Fred Noe, and the legendary Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey. The discussion ranged from Jimmy Russell’s retirement (which has been greatly exaggerated, as he has NOT retired), to the contentious issues of flavored bourbon and the role of women in the industry, in which Nicole Austin of Kings County Distillery, the only woman on the stage, particularly shined.
My final Bourbon University session was Bourbon Icons, which included Noe, Jim Rutledge of Four Roses, Russell, and Freddie Johnson of Buffalo Trace. The legendary status of Jimmy Russell, Fred Noe, and Jim Rutledge are well established, but Buffalo Trace’s decision to include Freddie Johnson was daring, and outstanding. While he is not a master distiller, as were the other men who shared the stage with him, he is a legend in his own right. Freddie is a tour Guide at Buffalo Trace. He’s a third generation Employee at the distillery, and has been featured on C-SPAN, documentaries, and various video and written histories of Buffalo Trace. His voice provided a somewhat different perspective on the bourbon industry.
Following the breakout, the main event began in earnest. The Kentucky Center for the Arts filled quickly, and the bourbon flowed freely. At that point, my memory grows foggier and foggier, and my notes less and less readable as the night progressed. But it remains clear that the Bourbon Classic is the bourbon event against which all others should be judged. It encapsulates the growing identity Louisville has fostered as Bourbon Central, USA.