Muslims make the Hajj, movie buffs flock to the Oscars, and residents of the Bluegrass State celebrate the Kentucky Bourbon Festival every September. Unlike the Academy Awards, everyone who attends the Festival is a winner—and, as opposed to Mecca, it’s no sweat getting a drink in Bardstown at any hour of the day.
Bardstown, the self-proclaimed “Bourbon Capital of the World” and the epicenter of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, has been hosting the Festival since 1992. Participating this year was a star-studded roll call of the Bourbon industry: Barton, Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.
I attended the festivities as a guest of Four Roses, and had the opportunity to spend nearly an entire day with them. We began with a country breakfast at the distillery near Laurenceburg, followed by a two- hour seminar with the legendary Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller at Four Roses since 1995 and a member of the inaugural class of the Bourbon Hall of Fame. This event, called “Let’s Talk Bourbon,” has been held annually since the inception of the Festival. Rutledge did an excellent job of explaining the intricacies that make his product so special: the sourcing of GMO-free corn, the 80-hour fermentation, the two separate mash bills and the ten unique recipes, and the aging in single-story warehouses to minimize temperature fluctuation, all of which contribute to Four Roses’ famous mellowness and smoothness.
The Festival itself resembled a county fair on steroids. There were barrel-making exhibitions, hot air balloon rides, tours of historical Bardstown, country music concerts and corn dogs galore. Everyone’s favorite seemed to be the Bourbon barrel relay, an event taken seriously by the distilleries. You may think that rolling a barrel is easy, until it’s filled with water and weighs 500 pounds.
The climax of the weekend was the Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting and Gala, a black tie event in Bardstown. The evening began with a walkaround tasting of the 11 participating distillery lines, followed by a buffet dinner for 1200 that went off with a smoothness that Four Roses would envy. Before dinner, everyone stood and sang “My Old Kentucky Home,” displaying a reverence seldom exhibited by crowds at sporting events singing the national anthem.
Oh, and why is it called Four Roses? Legend has it that Paul Jones, Jr., founder of the distillery, proposed marriage to a Southern belle. She replied that if her answer was yes, she would attend an upcoming ball wearing a corsage of roses. She walked in wearing a corsage of four red roses, and the grateful Jones named his Bourbon after them.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, which will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to www.iconicspirits.net.