You know life has gone moderately well when you spend a week in Bardstown, KY (the bourbon capitol of the world) to attend the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
What do you get when you mix good friends and bourbon? In my experience, typically an arrest warrant. Not this time. We were on our very best behavior. Well, as good as it gets. OK, so it wasn’t that good.
We joined up with OOMF friends (Order of the Mystical Flamingos) for the bourbon equivalent of Woodstock or Mardi Gras. You know, three days of fun and bourbon… Before the festivities began, I wanted to make sure I had enough cash, so stopped at the bank. Seriously, we were just a few miles down the road from Fort Knox. No ATM… what losers.
We stayed at Jerry’s Less-Than-Average Campground in Bardstown where “not exactly” has been taken to an art form. But we still had a blast; great company (thank you all!), great food (thank you Wes, Peggy, Alan, Vickie and others) and great spirits (thank you Greg, Pat, Peggy and Wes).
What is bourbon you ask? No, you probably didn’t. Doesn’t matter.
Bourbon is a whiskey that is made in the US, been aged in a new (charred) white oak barrel (typically 4 years or more), distilled at 160 proof or less, greater than 51% corn in what distillers call a mash bill (blend of grains), and typically comes from Kentucky – although that is not a requirement to be called bourbon.
We started at the Mack Daddy of bourbons (in terms of volume sold) – Jim Beam, but also visited many other distilleries in the area, including Barton’s, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Bardstown Bourbon, Boundary Oak… and others. Each of them offer opportunities to try their own versions – which is pretty cool.
At the risk of torturing you with the distilling process, it is pretty interesting – after having taken at least one tour! I’ll give you the short version, mostly because I don’t have a clue what I am talking about.
Grains (mostly corn, rye and malt) arrives at each brewery by truck, get stored in huge hoppers, crushed by hammers to a fine dust, and mixed with water and yeast (called a mash bill) where it ferments. The yeast converts the sugar to alcohol (and carbon dioxide).
The resulting “beer” that is produced, after fermentation, is distilled in huge “steamers” (for lack of a better word). These are big tall columns where – OK, let’s face it – I don’t know how the fuck this works, but it produces what is called white dog – essentially clear alcohol that is then processed a bit and poured into new, charred, white oak barrels where it will become bourbon.
Once barreled, these barrels get stored in huge warehouses where the barrels are aged. Many of these warehouses can be seven floors high, each floor with multiple layers of barrels. Keep in mind that each barrel contains about 53 gallons when filled. What is interesting is that the barrels, after aging, can absorb up to 10 gallons of bourbon! Add evaporation, and depending on the age and conditions of any given barrel, there may only be 60% (or much less!) remaining when the barrel is finally opened.
After years of aging, and when the master distiller thinks it is time, the barrels are opened, possibly blended, bottled, and hopefully sampled! Oh, and I guess they want you to buy some. There is that.
Last but not least (for us), we attended the Kentucky Bourbon All-Star Sampler, where a host of distilleries offered their various products for tasting, food was served, and live music was provided.
In a setting that reminded one of a wedding reception, I felt like Vince Vaughn in the movie The Wedding Crashers, except I paid a C note to attend, and the crazy-ass chick I picked up turned out to be my bride. Who knew.
It was essentially an open bar, except the drinks were served in cups smaller than a thimble. You’d be more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome than drunk. But of course that misses the point of the event, which is to be able to try a wide variety of different bourbons.
More info than you ever wanted? Count on me to turn one simple bottle of bourbon into an excruciating process.
We departed the festivities earlier than others, so who knows – maybe there were arrest warrants after all. We disavow any knowledge. Anyway, if you can find your way to Kentucky, get on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and check it out – very, very cool!