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Whiskey Galore!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In recent years, the Bourbon industry has grown enormously—and so has the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

CLERMONT, KENTUCKY—It is well before noon in this sparsely populated area (about 27 miles southeast of Louisville), and I am sipping 135-proof Bourbon fresh from the still. It is clear as water, and tastes of sweet corn and spicy rye. When I swallow the young liquor, I feel a little itch in the back of my throat, but it gives way to a dry and clean sensation.

Early-in-the-day samplings of “white dog” are not unusual at Kentucky’s ten Bourbon distilleries. It is a matter of quality control. By law, Bourbon must be aged for at least two years in a flame-charred oak barrel. Most Bourbon sits in barrels for much longer—typically four to nine years, but sometimes 15 years or more. Distillers, quite sensibly, run a dizzying array of quality-control tests to increase the likelihood that the “white dog” will be transformed into the smooth, sweet, amber-brown hooch we know as Bourbon whiskey.

My recent sampling came during the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in mid-September. I was on a junket sponsored by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, and was sipping whiskey at the company’s flagship distillery.

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association reports that Bourbon production has doubled since 1999.

The inaugural Bourbon Festival was held in Bardstown in 1992. Pam Gover of Constellation Spirits describes it as a modest affair. “About 250 people paid $50 each to have dinner and drink bourbon,” she told me. “It was a one-night event.” The festival drew mostly local residents and people who worked for nearby distilleries.

Since then, it has grown into a six-day party that attracts 55,000 visitors from more than a dozen countries. Every day is packed with events, some located in downtown Bardstown (2007 population: 11,500) and others in surrounding areas. Children may enjoy riding on a restored 1905 steam locomotive. There also are educational opportunities: festival goers can stop by the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History or watch craftsmen from the Independent Stave Company put on impressive exhibitions of barrel-making and repair.

However, most of the week’s activities are devoted to the celebration and consumption of Bourbon. There are distillery tours, Bourbon dinners and tastings, and a whiskey auction. Those who cannot get their fill of hooch during the day and night can attend a whiskey breakfast that includes Bourbon-buttered pancakes and Bourbon-laced coffee.

Many of the events are upscale and rather expensive. (For example, playing in the festival’s golf tournament costs $125.) The week is topped off with the Gala, a black-tie banquet party attended by industry big shots, Bourbon lovers, and anyone who can afford the $140 admission charge.

Some Kentuckians are drawn to the festival because it celebrates their state’s heritage. Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, but nearly all of it is. (The only large Bourbon distillery not located in the Bluegrass State is the A. Smith Bowman Distillery of Fredericksburg, Virginia.) Kentucky distillers have been at it for more than 200 years, so Bourbon whiskey is part of the state’s social fabric.

The Bourbon Festival has grown into a six-day party that attracts 55,000 visitors from more than a dozen countries.

But more than anything else, the explosive growth of the festival reflects the explosive growth of the Bourbon whiskey industry. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association reports that Bourbon production has doubled since 1999. Sales have climbed steadily, and exports have hit record levels. Between 2006 and 2007, foreign sales jumped by 14.4 percent, from $623 million to $713 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. This growth has been fueled by sales of the pricey high-end and super-premium Bourbons. Over the past five years, sales of one such Bourbon, Woodford Reserve, have increased at an average annual rate of 24 percent.

According to Jeff Conder, a vice president at Beam Global Spirits & Wine, the whiskey industry provides Kentucky with more than 3,000 jobs and nearly $115 million in state and local taxes. Collectively, the industry has announced $100 million in planned capital investments to expand its operations. The Wild Turkey distillery is expanding production, and Constellation Spirits will break ground on a new visitors center in 2009. Meanwhile, approximately 5 million barrels—or 265 million gallons—of whiskey are aging in Kentucky warehouses.

The state tourism agency advertises both the Bourbon Festival and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the area between Louisville and Bardstown where most of the distilleries can be found. All told, Kentucky’s Bourbon distilleries receive between 300,000 and 500,000 visitors each year.

For all its charms, the festival can be an overwhelming experience. After a mere three days of Bourbon-soaked merriment, I understood the pain of Anne Royall, a 19th-century American journalist who once wrote: “When I was in Virginia, it was too much whiskey—in Ohio, too much whiskey—in Tennessee, it is too, too much whiskey!”

Kevin R. Kosar is the editor of

Image courtesy of the Kentucky Distillers' Association.


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