The Push For Education at the 2018 Bourbon Classic
All photos by Maggie Kimberl.
It’s easy to forget in Louisville, Kentucky that we have amazing access to a wealth of bourbon knowledge at any time, any place we want to find it. Any night of the week you can find a bourbon seminar in Louisville, whether it’s in the many bars on the Urban Bourbon Trail or at a special bourbon event. But when I travel outside of Kentucky I quickly realize that there are hoards of people out there just discovering bourbon who have a thirst for knowledge that we take for granted in the epicenter of bourbon. That’s why events like last week's The Bourbon Classic are so great - they combine bourbon education into one place in one weekend.
The basic format for The Bourbon Classic is a Friday night bourbon cocktail and small plates competition and Saturday afternoon seminars followed by a nighttime tasting. The cocktail and small plates competition features culinary talent from regional restaurants teamed up with participating distilleries to make both the perfect classic and the perfect contemporary bourbon cocktail and small plate combination. A panel of judges ranging from food and drinks critics to culinary professionals judge the wares and declare category winners. This year’s top winning teams were Butchertown Social’s Brianna Hlava and Food Network Star Finalist and Butcher Babe Chef Loreal Gavin representing Heaven Hill and Butchertown Grocery’s Nic Christiansen and Chef Bobby Benjamin representing Blade and Bow. The Bouquet Restaurant team, on the new B Line, took Best Classic Cocktail. This is a great event for showcasing not only excellent classic cocktails, but also for shining a spotlight on the versatility of bourbon that is often overlooked.
Saturday is where the Bourbon Classic magic happens, however. There are three education sessions broken up into a first set of small classes, a general session, and a second set of small classes. This format provides participants the greatest range of options when it comes to the type of bourbon knowledge they want to gain. Do you want to learn how country ham, cheese, and chocolate pair with bourbon? No problem. Do you want to learn large batch cocktail recipes and tips for your next party? Bourbon Classic has that too. There are distillers and distillery operators ready to talk about the advantages to craft distilling as well as bourbon industry professionals discussing the finer points of collecting old bottles. It’s basically a nerd convention for booze.
Steve Coomes led the Bourbon, Sweet & Salty: A Kentucky Trifecta seminar along with Michter’s Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson and Art Eatables founder Kelly Ramsey. According to Coomes, "Every time we do these pairings, a good number of attendees tell us afterwards, 'We never had any idea you could pair straight whiskey with food!' We're all used to doing that with wine, and some know to pair food with beer. But only now are we understanding how well straight spirit - not to mention cocktails - pair well with food. It's fun to open people's eyes with that knowledge."
Meanwhile in the The Great Cocktail Debate: Bourbon Vs. Rye seminar led by Paul Clarke of Imbibe and Adam Geissler, Bartender and Bulleit brand rep, guests had the opportunity to learn about the differences between bourbon and rye when used in some of their favorite cocktails. According to Clarke, “Most people haven't tried a side-by-side comparison of a Manhattan or other cocktail made with rye whiskey to one made with bourbon. It's an eye-opener for a lot of people how the two whiskies behave differently in a mixed drink.”
Geissler, a professional bartender at heart, loves this seminar for a similar reason: “I love to bring awareness of the versatile nature of Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye for creating cocktails at home while teaching correct techniques and methods of building drinks.” Guests leave with a greater understanding of the chemistry and art that goes into their favorite cocktails.
But it’s not all about imbibing at The Bourbon Classic. Many of the seminars focus on the technical aspects of the distilling industry. Carla Carlton, author of Barrel Strength Bourbon, led a panel of craft distillers called Getting Crafty With It: Craft Bourbon. Panelists included Shane Baker of Wilderness Trail Distillery, Marianne Barnes of Castle & Key Distillery, Caleb Kilburn of Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., and Joyce Nethery of Jeptha Creed. According to Carlton, “I think the most interesting discussion was the one about the term 'craft' itself as a descriptor. It was used to designate smaller operations, but the panelists view craft as authenticity and quality. That describes the big guys, too. So maybe it’s time to just call them all distillers.”
In my experience these sessions are the best part of the event. Sure, the bourbon tastings and the cocktails are great, but I’m here for the knowledge. There’s such a thirst for bourbon knowledge that people travel from all over the United States to attend this event. I talked to a lovely couple in the Amber Lounge (where Molly Wellmann was tending bar) who had traveled from North Carolina just to attend this event. Over the years I have talked to people who came in from Canada, Wisconsin, Oregon, California, Texas, and more just to learn about bourbon and meet new bourbon friends. Despite the serious level of whiskey education that Louisvillians take for granted, there are always more people out there who are new to bourbon who want to learn more. This is one of the many ways those folks can get a weekend crash course in what our Mayor likes to repeatedly refer to as “bourbonism.”
A bourbon education does not revolve around amber liquid alone. It’s also about the culture and history that produced it and the talented folks who serve it, cook with it, write about it, and more. If you want to dive into that culture for an intense weekend of food, drinks, and learning, The Bourbon Classic is the perfect way to go. For more information on Bourbon Classic 2019, please click here.