The Bourbon Classic started in 2013 as an annual celebration of Kentucky’s native spirit, and it made its return to Louisville for a second year just a few weeks ago. The event featured a cocktail and small plate contest on Friday night, a series of Bourbon University classes on Saturday afternoon, and a grand tasting on Saturday night–an arduous weekend for even the most seasoned beverage enthusiast.
Such a bourbon-soaked weekend would be nearly impossible to recap in a linear fashion, because that’s not at all how I remember it. (An excellent Bourbon Classic drinking game: drink every time you hear someone say, “I’ve had a lot of bourbon.”) So instead, let’s give out some awards.
I’ll be doing this in three parts; later this week I’ll have posts about Friday’s press tour and Friday night’s cocktail/small plate competition. But we’ll start off with a few miscellaneous awards.
The Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams Award
This one goes to Michter’s 25-Year Rye. We were invited to an opening reception on Thursday night thrown by the good people at Michter’s, where their master distiller, Willie Pratt (a Hazard native!) was pouring from a bottle of this as well as their 20-year-old bourbon.
What does rye distilled during the Reagan administration taste like? Heaven. More specifically, the spicy flavor of the rye itself was intensified, coming through the tons of oak and leather it picked up during that long stay in the barrel. When I heard that it retails for around $750 a bottle, my only thoughts were 1.) kinda worth it, and 2.) top me off.
Oddly, I didn’t feel the same about the 20-year bourbon. It was good, but I don’t think it had the balance of their younger, considerably less spendy offerings. I haven’t had a lot of very old whiskeys, but I’m guessing that bourbon is like a figure skater in that it has a delicacy that peaks in the teenage years, while rye is more like a downhill skier in that it improves as it picks up strength and subtlety well into its adulthood. (Yes, I am writing this while watching the Winter Olympics. Why do you ask?)
If anyone would like to set up a vertical tasting of Pappy Van Winkle for me to test this theory, the email is to the right.
The Reece’s Cup Award for Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together
This one goes to Kentucky’s bourbon-aged beers. Saturday’s Bourbon University featured a session on barrel-aged beers from Daniel Harrison, one of the madmen behind Lexington’s Country Boy Brewing (and tender of a truly spectacular beard), and Andrew Dimery, a gloriously nerdy brewer from Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing Company.
These guys could go on the road. I don’t say this often, because my raging ADHD means my tolerance for even the most scintillating of classes and lectures is pretty limited, but this one could have gone on all day as far as I was concerned.
The pair spoke at length about what beers age best in a bourbon barrel and the long list of pitfalls associated with such aging, the hardest of which might be getting the bourbon barrels themselves. DH says that just a few years ago he could call up Buffalo Trace and get a truckload of old Pappy Van Winkle barrels that same afternoon, but barrel-aged beers have become so popular that getting any barrels at all requires the connections and coordination of your average Mafia hit. In fact, there’s a lot of science being done to figure out exactly what compounds the barrel imparts to the beer, so that big companies like Anheuser-Busch can fake it.
And why are Kentucky’s barrel-aged beers better than everyone else’s? Because we make the bourbon. Anywhere else the barrels have to be shipped, meaning they’ll dry out. A Kentucky brewer (with the right hookup) can drive to the distillery, get barrels dumped that day, take them back and immediately fill them with beer.
We got to try Country Boy’s excellent Black Gold Porter both unaged and barrel-aged, and BBC’s Bourbon Barrel Stout. This is a trend I can get behind.
The Ecclesiastes 1:9 Award for Something New Under The Sun
Let’s face it–”new” is not exactly the point of bourbon. It’s all about tradition and heritage and names of men long dead. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it can make for a whole lot of samples that blend together as the night goes on in a massive tasting like this one. It’s nice to see some of the established brands stretching out and trying different things, even when they don’t always stick the landing. A couple of experiments stood out to us, though.
Wild Turkey Forgiven has a great backstory–apparently some rye and bourbon barrels got inadvertently blended together at the distillery, and master distiller Eddie Russel thought the result was pretty tasty so he put it out there (the mistake thus “forgiven”). Like most bourbon-related stories, there’s a small chance it might even be true. Whether it is or not, it’s a tasty whiskey–the bourbon smooths out the spicy rye character, and in the end it’s like a higher-rye bourbon (say, Bulleit) only moreso.
Knob Creek Smoked Maple comes from a category that’s hard to love–flavored bourbons. If you want your bourbon to taste like bourbon (dammit), it’s tempting to file these with the cotton candy flavored vodkas. A small sample bottle of another such bourbon that I came across recently said it was “best enjoyed as a cold shot”–quickly, in other words, and with the flavor blunted as much as possible.
We’ll let this one stand as an exception, though. It starts with regular old Knob Creek, though it’s unclear whether it’s aged all the way. The maple and smoke flavors are not subtle on the nose or the palate, but KC is a big fightin’-back bourbon, so the bourbon flavor still comes through. If you served this to me as a cocktail I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Later this week: people who make bourbon-related stuff, and a recount of the cocktail/small plate competition.
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