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I’ve been going to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival because the Nineteen Nineties. Situated annually in downtown Bardstown, Kentucky, the Pageant is the biggest such occasion really held within the Bourbon Capital of the World. And permit me to be the umpteenth Bardstown native (or former native) to say: Issues have modified, and that’s rather a lot for bourbon nerds to have a good time. Immediately, the occasion options extra bourbon to drink, extra manufacturers to understand, and rather more to be taught in regards to the ins and outs of American whiskey than ever earlier than.
The Pageant’s present tagline sums up this new focus: “Whiskey Solely. Solely In Bardstown.”
Let’s get some context out of the best way. Within the Festivals’ early days, it featured much more arts and crafts than craft distilleries. A lot of Kentucky’s hallmark distilleries had a presence, however in an age earlier than widespread craft bourbon and non-distilling producers, the variety of manufacturers was comparatively tiny.
There was solely a lot whiskey to style, and solely so many distiller setups to go to. Pageant organizers supplemented the week-long schedule with household pleasant spectator occasions, like barrel and waiter races. Bouncy castles and climbing partitions stored children busy. Consuming was relegated to enclosed areas and one sectioned beer backyard, whereas prime actual property on the garden of Spalding Corridor — the Pageant’s foremost location even in the present day — went to all method of craft makers from a 100-miles radius.
And there have been virtually all the time extra barbecue distributors than whiskey makers cooking up meat for the hungry plenty.
It’s most likely an applicable juncture to offer a short disclosure: My reminiscences are most likely a bit extra tied to odor than anything. I labored sanitation as a member of Bardstown’s native Boy Scout troop, and again then, it all the time appeared like extra half-empty beer cups ended up within the trash barrels than plastic whiskey glasses.
Regardless of that private bias, after attending the 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Pageant, which ran from September 14 to 18, I see greater than ever for the discerning bourbon aficionado. Immediately’s competition options extra distilleries, extra distillers, extra producers, extra middle stage panels, extra displays, and extra bourbon than ever earlier than. It’s now strictly a 21 years and over occasion, so depart the youngsters at house. A flip away from enjoyable for the entire household has allowed Pageant organizers to double down on a targeted goal clientele: attendees who need to drink, find out about, and focus on all issues bourbon with like-minded lovers.
The age gating brings with it two instantly noticeable adjustments. First (and definitely foremost for a lot of ticket holders) is the free sampling at dozens of name cubicles, giving of us an opportunity to strive an infinite stream of present expressions in a single place. It’s a pleasant and accessible approach to work together with distillers, blenders, and entrepreneurs behind lots of the bottles, all of whom may give perception far past what’s typically accessible in a press launch.
Get fortunate on timing, and also you may be handled to a dram from Michter’s Grasp Distiller Dan McKee. Or you could possibly get an opportunity to pattern one thing from Jackie Zykan’s new venture, Hidden Barn, poured by the previous Outdated Forester Grasp Blender herself. The VIP tent — with an accordingly larger entry value — takes issues up a pair notches, and in 2022 options craft cocktails, complimentary meals, and a gradual provide of harder-to-find and allotted samples from the likes of Buffalo Hint.
Whether or not or not these advantages justify the ticket price — along with journey and lodging — is all the time going to be as much as the person. For individuals who come able to drink responsibly, there’s possible extra bourbon and rye to be sampled than one can correctly style within the Pageant’s three foremost exhibition days. And plenty of exhibitors rotate their pattern picks from sooner or later to the following.
A second noticeable change to the modern Pageant is the number of single barrel and particular launch picks accessible from each model cubicles and third-party retailers. This 12 months’s single barrel picks included 4 Roses, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Barrell Craft Spirits, New Riff, Maker’s Mark, Peerless, Wilderness Path, and extra. A Heaven Hill Choose Inventory launch drew notably lengthy traces, promoting out on a number of days. All that to say, there’s not simply quite a lot of whiskey to be sampled for the worth of admission. If you happen to’re keen to queue and are occupied with buying barrel picks, there are a pair dozen available.
Some Bardstown locals have argued that the Pageant has change into one for bourbon-thirsty out-of-towners, dropping a few of its earlier attraction within the course of. That actually has a hoop of fact to it. The occasion is ticketed, in spite of everything, and gone are the times of waltzing as much as the garden after brunch to see and be seen by the group.
However bourbon has exploded in reputation, and occasion organizers have capitalized on the growth by creating an actual focus for manufacturers and followers to attach with one another. It’s powerful for anybody in charge them; the whiskey pours, the dialog flows, and drinkers can get actual face time with a few of their favourite producers.
Likewise, the town of Bardstown has benefited from a outstanding inflow of whiskey vacationers, a development witnessed all year long however actually most seen throughout September’s headlining shindig. The truth that the Bourbon Pageant competes with Louisville’s Bourbon & Beyond — extra of a hybrid whiskey/music mashup than devoted bourbon occasion — hasn’t discouraged progress and will in the end draw extra whole guests from exterior the Bluegrass State. In spite of everything, why journey in for one competition when you possibly can go to two within the span of a pair days?
The Kentucky Bourbon Pageant’s transition away from a locals-first mentality feels bittersweet. However from my perspective, if the 2022 iteration emphasised something, it’s that the Bourbon Pageant performs an vital function in holding a give attention to Bardstown because the Bourbon Capital of the World. Whiskey followers, in fact, get to reap these advantages, one beneficiant pattern at a time.