Thursday and Friday of last week, I put my life on hold (and on the line) to join Justin and Seth Thompson of The Bourbon Review magazine, as well as other fine, bourbon-drinkin’ folk, for a couple of days at the fourth annual Bourbon Classic in Louisville.
A week-long event for some, I decided it was best to attend only two days of Bourbon Classic fun, because (a) I have a website to run, and (b) I didn’t want to spend my entire Saturday in the bathroom, only about half of it.
So, I accepted a shortened, two-day invite to hop on The Bourbon Review’s booze bus for 48 hours of bourbon, bourbon, bourbon and, well, more bourbon.
Here is a timeline of events, or at least what I remember…
9:30 am: Arrival | Breakfast at Buffalo Trace Trace Distillery
I arrived at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort to meet a Mint Julep Tours bus full of bourbon connoisseurs coming from Louisville. A couple of days behind already, I introduced myself to everyone and hoped they would accept me as one of their own on this voyage.
Once we exchanged pleasantries and I immediately forgot everyone’s names, we were led up a grand, white oak staircase to the newly-renovated George T. Stagg Gallery on the second floor of the visitor’s center and gift shop. It was there we were treated to a delicious spread of breakfast casserole, potatoes, coffee, orange juice and a build-your-own parfait station.
This was the only time over the next two days I wouldn’t have some form of bourbon within arm’s reach. I wish I had taken a little longer to appreciate the moment.
10:30 am: Buffalo Trace Warehouse Tour
We began our tour of Buffalo Trace in Warehouse X, its brand new experimental warehouse. Considered the most advanced whiskey warehouse ever built, Warehouse X contains four independently-operated chambers with a capacity of 30 barrels each. Distillers can control natural and UV light, temperature, humidity, and air flow to explore the effects of the different variables on the bourbon distilling process.
The idea for Warehouse X came from a 2006 tornado that ripped apart one side of Warehouse C, leaving several barrels exposed to the elements. Those barrels were bottled as the “Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon” and they were surprisingly good, which led to the creation of Warehouse X and its testing.
From Warehouse X, we made our way over to Warehouse C, where barrels have been stored for almost 130 years. Warehouse C holds as many as 24,000 barrels at a time, stacked seven stories high.
If there were ever a time for karma to strike me down, standing beneath thousands and thousands of 53-gallon barrels was probably the time. Luckily it will wait for another day, likely when I’m surrounded by 24,000 barrels of taco meat.
11:40 am: Blanton’s Bottling Hall
The next stop on the tour was Blanton’s Bottling Hall, where the original single barrel bourbon is bottled up for sale.
Colonel Albert B. Blanton will be happy to know I didn’t touch any of his product, although I will admit it crossed my mind.
Blanton’s is typically aged for nine years in Warehouse H, the only metal-cladded warehouse on site. That’s how Mr. Blanton wanted it.
12:00 pm : Still House | Mash House | Other facilities
After seeing where and how the bourbon is aged and bottled, it was time to learn exactly how it was made. This led us to the Still House, Mash House, and other important parts of the process.
In the Mash House, freshly milled corn and Kentucky Limestone water are combined in 10,000-gallon pressure cookers, then mixed with wheat, rye or malted barley.
It’s okay to stick your finger in the mash tubs, I think.
If not, whoops.
For more on the entire process, I encourage you to do the tour yourself. There is way too much for me to recap right here.
12:30 pm : Bourbon tasting with Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley
With all of the bourbon-making knowledge our minds could hold for one morning, it was time to finally taste the bourbon. We met Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley in the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse to sample five experimental bourbons.
Harlen explained the process behind the bourbons as we compared thoughts and tastes of each one.
This is where I learned to say words like caramel, vanilla, oak, smoke and complex to fit into the bourbon crowd. Remember those five words and you can definitely fake it. Trust me.
“Mmmm I really pick up the caramel in this one. It’s not quite as oaky as the last one.”
1:00 pm: Depart Buffalo Trace
I loaded my luggage onto the bus, left my car in the Buffalo Trace visitors parking lot and headed to Tour #2.
No turning back now, I thought to myself.
1:30 pm: Arrival | Lunch at Four Roses
A quick, 30-minute drive to Lawrenceburg took us to the Four Roses distillery. Built in 1910, its unique, Spanish Mission Style architecture does not look like anything you will find anywhere near Lawrenceburg, or anywhere else in Kentucky, for that matter.
Matt Falcone of Bayou Bluegrass Catering served us an incredible meal of brisket with homemade BBQ sauce and his signature “Chicken Cordon Bluegrass.”
2:30 pm: Four Roses Distillery Tour
After lunch and meeting the Four Roses team, it was time for yet another lesson in bourbon with a tour of the Four Roses distillery.
It was more of the same process learned during the Buffalo Trace tour, but neat to see the differences between the two operations.
3:45 pm: Another bourbon tasting
After seeing what Four Roses does to create its bourbon, it was time to put more bourbon in our bellies. We headed into the quality control lab to try the Four Roses 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch and the Four Roses 125th Anniversary Small Batch LE.
Both were very good and Four Roses was generous with its sample bottles.
4:30 pm: Depart Four Roses
Now with a good daytime buzz, we loaded up and headed to Louisville for a little bit of downtime before the main event Thursday night.
5:00 pm: 21c Museum Hotel check-In | Debate nap | Not nap | Get ready for the night
The Bourbon Classic must be doing well because it put me up in Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel downtown. The room was spacious and trendy, and the bathroom had blacklight lighting, which probably would’ve gotten me kicked out of my house in high school.
I flirted with the idea of taking a nap, but decided to go ahead and throw on the night attire and head back downstairs to meet some of the guys.
Probably not the smartest decision.
5:30 pm: Pregame with 1933 Old Taylor | Drinks at Proof On Main
Maybe the coolest part of the entire trip came when one of the guys, Justin Sloan, brought out a bottle of Old Taylor, bottled in 1933. It was “medicinal” bourbon back in its day, having been aged and bottled during Prohibition.
I felt bad trying a bourbon that had lasted over eight decades without being consumed, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to turn it down. So I pulled a 20-ounce Mountain Dew out of the mini-fridge, poured in a couple of ounces, and shook it up for one very, very expensive Bourbon & Dew.
Just kidding. I wouldn’t dare disgrace such a beautiful bottle of juice. I slowly sniffed and sipped that stuff like it was made of gold. That was history I was drinking.
We celebrated it by going downstairs to Proof On Main, the restaurant/bar in 21c, for more — you guessed it — bourbon.
Luckily Thursday night’s event was right around the corner.
7:30 pm: SAVOR Event with Blackberry Farm and Van Winkle Bourbon
The Frazier History Museum played host to our speakeasy reception and four-course dinner from Blackberry Farm. I told myself to take it easy at the speakeasy so I could enjoy the food, but once I learned that 15-year Pappy Van Winkle was flowing like water, that idea went out the window. You understand.
As for the dinner, WOW. How about this for a menu?
— First Course: Winter Citrus Cured North Carolina Trout with Roasted Beat Puree and Caviar; Paired with “Southern Appeal” Gin Cocktail
— Second Course: Fried Rabbit, Brussel Sprout Slaw with Sweet Potato Bourbon Cornbread Sauce; Paired with Blackberry Farm Classic Saison
— Third Course: Grilled Smoked Beef Short Ribs with Tomato Braised Greens and Blackberry Farm Grits; Paired with Blackberry Farm Winder Saison
— Fourth Course: Oatmeal Bourbon Casserole with Bourbon Apples and Warm Milk Foam; Paired with Blackberry Farm Whiskey
Someone carry me out?
10:30 pm: Back to Proof On Main
After dinner, several us gathered back at Proof On Main to keep the night going, because, why not? It was there I met and befriended (sucked up to) Dickie Brennan, a very famous New Orleans restaurateur, and some of his pals from New Orleans.
As a best man currently planning a bachelor party in New Orleans in April, meeting Dickie was not an opportunity I was going to let slip by. Turns out, his father was heavily recruited by Adolph Rupp — Rupp spent Christmas with his family one year — so we had plenty to talk about.
He will be attending the aforementioned bachelor party. Pretty pumped about that.
1:05 am: Request Uber to Tin Roof
Coming in hot.
1:30 am: Arrive at Tin Roof
Can anyone fill in this blank? Moncell?
2:51 am: Depart Tin Roof
This according to an Uber receipt e-mailed to me.
With an 8 am wakeup looming, it was way past bedtime.
3:23(ish) am: Scroll through ex-girlfriend’s Instagram account
I see she has a new boyfriend, not that I care. He looks stupid anyway. I bet he can’t cook like I can. I just want the best for her, you know? She deserves to be happy. I hope they’re having a miserable life together. I bet he’s an asshole. I’ll fight him if I ever see him.
It’s been 83 weeks since we went to that concert?!
3:50(ish) am: Google “late night food downtown Louisville”
This according to Google search history.
Between 3:50(ish) am and 4:30(ish) am: Fall asleep
With my shoes on, of course.
8:00 am: Coffee and pastries in 21c lobby
Bus departs at 9:00 am!
8:57 am: Receive phone call asking if I am awake | Wake up | Tell everyone I was working out
Forgot to set an alarm, whoops. Luckily Justin called to check on me with three minutes to spare. I set a new personal-best showering and getting dressed before making it downstairs.
9:06 am: Depart for Michter’s Distiller (six minutes behind schedule)
The “treadmill clock was wrong” excuse did not play like I had hoped.
9:08 am: Delete text messages | Hang head in shame | Cry out for Gatorade
Wondered if it was too late to get off the bus and go back to bed.
I believe I uttered the words, “I will murder my own family for a lemon-lime Gatorade.”
Probably would have, too.
9:30 am: Breakfast at Michter’s
BEST BREAKFAST EVER!!!!!!!!!
Never in my life have I seen such a breakfast spread. These are only some of the photos…
Back to life!
10:15 am: Michter’s Distillery Tour
Joe Magliocco, president of Michter’s Distillery, guided us on a tour of Michter’s impressive distillery. It has only been up and running for a few years, so it was unlike anything we saw at Buffalo Trace or Four Roses the day before. It was so nice, I had to wear a hairnet over my beard. That was a first.
We were asked to not take pictures inside the distillery, but I snapped what I could on the bottling line.
12:30 pm: Depart Michter’s
Gatorade offer still on the table.
12:45 pm: Arrive at Stitzel-Weller Distillery | Lunch
This time, the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller, where Pappy Van Winkle first began cooking up his bourbon.
1:20 pm: Stitzel-Weller Distillery Tour
Stitzel-Weller was the prettiest of the four stops, in part because of the weather and clear blue sky above. It is definitely a must-see site for anyone who likes bourbon, or Kentucky history.
Legend has it, Muhammad Ali used to work out in the back of what is now Stillhouse B. I found that ironic because I felt like I had gone 12 rounds with Ali the night before.
2:00 pm: Oh great. More bourbon tasting. | Bang head against wall
After touring Stitzel-Weller, Kevin Didio, manager of the visitor side of Bulleit, served us seven of the distillery’s best bourbons.
The Blade and Bow 22 Year Bourbon made it worth the trip. We also tried another Blade and Bow, I.W. James, and Bulleit bourbons.
The buzz is back.
2:45 pm: Depart Stitzel Weller
Ready to get the night started!
3:15 pm: Arrive at hotel | Contemplate nap | Not nap | Get ready for the night
Nap? No way.
Threw on the new green pants and sports coat, and headed right back downstairs to get the party started.
4:00 pm: Drinks at Proof on Main | Break out the 1933 Old Taylor again
Back at Proof, we sat around ordering from the bar before deciding it was time for more of the old medicinal stuff. This time, the 1933 Old Taylor made its way downstairs for the Proof bartenders to get a sample. It’s not like that stuff is rare, right? I’m sure there is more, somewhere.
7:00 pm: Bourbon Classic Cocktail Competition
Over at the Kentucky Center For The Performing Arts, nine different teams of master bartenders and acclaimed chefs competed in a cocktail and small plate competition. Each team provided two separate entries, so if you’re good at math, that’s 18 cocktails and 18 small plates.
It would be rude to not try them all, I thought.
36 taste tests later, my body hated itself and wanted to be back in Lexington.
9:30(ish) pm, maybe 10, hell I don’t know: After-party at MilkWood
The competition crowd spewed over across the street to MilkWood for an after-party of sorts. MilkWood provided even more food, as if we hadn’t had enough.
Drinks were served, too.
11:27 pm: Suck up to New Orleans guys a little more
Jamie, Dickie Brennan’s GM at Bourbon House, bought a round of tequila. What an asshole that guy.
1:47 am: Request Uber to Tin Roof
COMING IN SO HOT!
1:51 am: Cancel Uber to Tin Roof
Terrible idea to go back there.
2:10 am: Return to 21c Hotel | Museum party
Proof on Main was locking up as we got back, but the bartenders gave us glassware to host our own party in the museum/lobby. We sat around drinking more very rare bourbon (it could’ve been bottom shelf Walgreens for all I knew) and playing with the penguin statues around the hotel.
3:49(ish) am, maybe more like 4:00 am: Go back to room | Pass out
Shoes on, of course.
10:00 am: Depart hotel for Lexington
With a promise to never drink bourbon again.