Even though the Kentucky Bourbon Festivaldoesn’t happen until September (which happens to be Bourbon Heritage Month), tickets are already on sale for many of its signature events. The festival takes place all over the state of Kentucky, though it is centered in Bardstown. Louisville may be the center of the bourbon universe, but Bardstown is literally the town that bourbon built. As such, the distilleries like to turn this into a unique and nonstop party with many events you won’t find anywhere else. Here are some of the highlights.
A Barrel Rolling Competition – During the weeks leading up to the barrel rolling competition, visitors to many distilleries will find teams practicing on their dedicated barrel rolling competition lots. These are outdoor spaces with barrel ricking where teams can practice rolling barrels quickly (but with precision), and how to line up the barrel so the bung will go into the rick at exactly twelve o’clock. On the day of competition, teams from participating distilleries will be cheered on by their friends, families, and everyone in the bourbon industry as they roll the barrels in the unpredictable weather, which can range from pouring rain to scorching heat. The winners from the previous year will have the opportunity to defend their titles. Last year as I watched from the bleachers I spotted Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey watching from the sidelines. This is a competition everyone can enjoy, and best of all it’s free and open to the public!
A Master Distillers’ Auction – Every year Master Distillers dig deep into their whiskey collections to help raise money for the Oscar Getz Whiskey History Museum. This is where you will find some of the most rare bottles around as well as autographed bottles and special releases. This is a must for anyone looking to build a collection of rare and dusty bottles, and it helps to preserve the history of the bourbon industry up to the period right after Prohibition.
A Bourbon Village – Why this doesn’t get top billing is beyond me. Participating distilleries build tiny houses in a horseshoe shaped village, so you can visit the Maker’s Mark house or the Barton Distillery house or the Jim Beam house to buy merchandise and talk to the folks who run the visitor experiences. This is akin to an Oktoberfest tradition in Munich where breweries build temporary beer halls on the festival grounds. They are like playhouses for grown ups!
A Black Tie Bourbon Gala – If getting dressed up and rubbing elbows with Master Distillers is more your speed, The Kentucky Bourbon Festival has that, too. Guests are treated to a gourmet plated meal, tastings, dancing, and mingling. Whenever I get a chance to put on a fancy dress to drink my bourbon I’m all in!
A Bottled In Bon-Fire At An Historic Former Governor’s Mansion – Wickland was the home of three Kentucky Governors, and now you can attend a bonfire there while learning more about Bottled-In-Bond bourbons, a category that many people believe saved the category of bourbon from near destruction because of its strict quality regulations (the whiskey must be made at a single distillery in the same calendar year, aged at least 4 years in a federally bonded warehouse and bottled at 100 proof). Some people like black tie, some people like bonfires, but everyone likes bourbon.
Maggie Kimberl is a bourbon writer focusing on bourbon culture and tourism in Louisville and Kentucky. When she's not covering the bourbon beat you can find her browsing through vintage vinyl with her kids or tending to her homegrown tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/LouGirl502 Instagram https://www.instagram.com/lougirl502/ and check out her blog LouGirl502.com.