By Cold, Hard Football Facts sud stud Lew Bryson
I'm at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. We thought it would be fun to send updates. But since the only place I could find in Bardstown, Kentucky, to plug into the Internet was the Java Joint on Saturday morning...let me tell ya, I love this place.
I lived here for a year back in the 1980s and loved it. It's chock-full of bourbon and the country ham is insane, but it ain't exactly Exit 1 on the Information Superhighway. Still, that leaves me more time to drink. So now I'm wired into the Internet, wired up on java and you're getting what I got. I begrudge you the time I could be drinking, but I'll drink more tonight, don't worry.
For four days, Bardstown, Kentucky, becomes an 18-hour-a-day bourbon party. There are events, like the Bourbon, Cigars & Jazz night we went to last night or the big Gala tonight – a black-tie, all-you-care-to-drink buffet of bourbon with dinner and dancing. There's a big craft fair and food fair on the green in front of the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum that goes on for three days, with live music from big-name country performers. We saw Charlie Daniels from the front row last year and pretty much rocked right the hell out.
This isn't about sampling and taking notes. Everywhere you go, there's bourbon being poured, there are people talking about bourbon, there are bourbon distillers. There are big fat guys in Panama hats with huge cigars in their mouths and gorgeous women in slinky clothes drinking straight bourbon. I'm getting sweaty just thinking about it.
I'm here with John and Amy Hansell, the owners of Malt Advocate magazine, the magazine I work for. I guess if we were a bigger company, we'd call this a "team-building exercise." But we're just going to the Bourbon Festival.
After a quick beer at the Bluegrass Brewing Co. pub in the airport – just to get started – we picked up the rental car and headed down to Shively, on the southwest corner of Louisville (which the natives really do pronounce as "Loo-a-vuhl," or something close to that; it's a lot easier after a few bourbons).
We're making a pilgrimage, a stop I've never made before: the old Stitzel-Weller distillery, the hallowed booze home where Pappy Van Winkle made bourbon. "No chemists allowed," read one sign at the entrance. (I prefer another sign that hangs at the Buffalo Trace distillery: "We make fine bourbon; at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon." Another Buffalo Trace sign, this one in the company lab, says it all: "Quiet Please. Tasters at Work."
We spent two hours in there (that's a picture of the Stizel-Weller bottle archive below). We looked at the old bottles – fondled them, to be honest. There was some pre-Prohibition booze there: rum distilled in 1916, bourbon distilled in 1905, even some really rare stuff distilled in 1929, when the government allowed a "distilling holiday" to replenish the stocks of medicinal whiskey.
We dusted off our hands and hopped back in the rental. I talked John and Amy into a quick trip across the Ohio to the New Albanian Brewing Co., a brewpub-pizzeria grafted onto Rich O's Public House, the best damned bar within 150 miles. We relaxed on the comfy couches and got stuck into some beers. I had the New Albanian Community Dark, a mild ale at only 4.2% – perfect for a long day o' drinkin'.
Then we drove south through Louisville, past the Bernheim Forest and the gigantic Jim Beam distillery (one of them) into Bardstown, which has made a reputation as bourbon's unofficial capital. Beam's just outside of town, Barton's is right on the southern edge, Heaven Hill's bottling plant and warehouses are there (the distillery was destroyed by a disastrous warehouse fire in 1996, so they distill in Louisville now) and Maker's Mark is down the road in Loretto.
I checked in at the Parkview Motel, right across from My Old Kentucky Home State Park and met up with some folks we know.
We picked up some food – a thin-sliced country ham they call "Kentucky caviar," four kinds of cheese, loaves of fresh Tuscan bread, crackers and a big vegetable tray – and we got beers (Unibroue Fin du Monde and Goose Island IPA, which tasted fantastic).
And we drank. A couple beers, some Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond, some Old Bardstown and some bottles of independent label whiskeys, like the Old Bardstown, for instance, and "Vintage" whiskeys like Johnny Drum, Noah's Mill, and some others.
It tasted so good that the evening started getting real hazy. At one point, there was a naked guy in the pool (not me, so don't bother picturing it), and I was on the celll phone, trash-talking with Pappy Van Winkle's grandson, Julian, for being in Louisville and told him to bring his candy ass down to Bardstown where we were drinking some whiskey, dammit!
I knew I was buzzed when I started singing "What a friend we have in Jesus." Sure enough, I woke up the next morning fully clothed, lying face down on top of my fully made bed. Hello, Bardstown!
(Lew will chime in with more hazy adventures from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival soon ... maybe with some words from his friend Jesus.)