For our latest installment of Drinkhacker Asks we sit down with best-selling author and bourbon authority Fred Minnick. If you’re a spirits nerd, like me, chances are you’ve got one or two of his books on your shelf like Whiskey Women, Bourbon Curious, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of America’s Native Spirit, or Rum Curious. Fred has a self-described book writing addiction, and we got a chance to talk to him a little about his latest fix: Mead: The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink. But what we really wanted to know from Fred was the inside scoop on the upcoming Bourbon & Beyond festival, an epic two day bourbon, food, and music festival in Louisville, Kentucky this September. As the bourbon brain behind the event, he was able to give us an exciting preview of what we can expect, as well as some tips on how best to spend our time.
Drinkhacker: You’re headlining the upcoming Bourbon & Beyond festival in September. How do you think the event differs from other bourbon festivals?
Fred Minnick: I’ve always had this feeling that inside the bourbon community, people like Jimmy Russell and Julian Van Winkle were our rock stars. People looked at them as celebrities. So when the festival organizers approached me and said they wanted to put on an event where the distillers were on the same pedestal as rock stars, I was excited. We announced the bourbons before we even announced the rockers. Bourbon is the rock star of this festival. And that’s saying something because these aren’t your local karaoke stars. We have Sting and Robert Plant and Sheryl Crow and a dozen other big names, but bourbon is the headliner.
There also seems to be no shortage of opportunities to learn about whiskey at the festival, from the specially curated bars to the dozens of seminars. Do you see bourbon education as a big part of the event?
FM: I do. You know I’ve studied bourbon history and dug through tax records and piles of old dusty cabinets to find old mashbills from dead distilleries. We’re in a constant loop of analyzing everything in print and online, but what is kind of getting lost is these live events. For me, this is bourbon entertainment. It’s not just sitting down and drinking. It’s also sitting down and learning the culture and the history behind it. That’s the next wave in the bourbon world, I think.
Of the more than 30 seminars available, which are you most excited about?
FM: Some of these seminars are going to be really historic. The Jack & Jim seminar is the first time someone has put a Jack Daniels master distiller on stage with a Jim Beam master distiller. In front of a live audience they’re going to get to hash out what’s the difference, and attendees will get to participate and have a good, open, honest discussion about it. Some of the others I’m looking forward to are family-centric. For example, we’ll be asking Drew Kulsveen what it was like to grow up in the Willett household, and we’ll ask Julian Van Winkle’s kids what it was like to see him selling bourbon in the 1980s when bourbon wasn’t cool. Of course, there’s Jimmy Russell and his family, and we’ll get to talk to them about their life outside of Wild Turkey.
You’re the Bourbon Curator for the event. What does that mean?
FM: I played a hand in the selection of bourbons across the three bars at the event. My Mini Bar is stocked with bourbons that I personally selected and went out of my way to find from some of the best craft distillers in Kentucky. Those distilleries are Old Pogue, MB Rowland, Wilderness Trail, Hartfield & Co., and Wadelyn Ranch.
Why did you choose those distilleries?
FM: All five are very, very different. The Pogue family comes from a very historic background with connections to people like George Remus. MB Roland is a distillery founded by an Iraq war veteran in 2009. He has a process where he smokes his corn, which makes for a really interesting whiskey. Wilderness Trail is arguably the hottest distillery in Kentucky right now. Those guys are so sharp, and their whiskey really is fantastic. I’ve had a soft spot for Hartfield because they make good stuff, but they’ve had to change their name several times due to legal issues. And Wadelyn Ranch is a great farm distillery with a moonshining background. I love them for their story, and they’ve got good whiskey for its age.
In addition to your craft bar, what other kinds of drinking options will attendees have?
FM: The Big Bourbon Bar will be one big central bar with more than two dozen bourbons on hand, and then there will be smaller bars throughout the site dedicated to individual brands. For example, Larceny will be doing a cool pizza pairing, and Jim Beam will be doing tiki cocktails. That sort of thing. The Hunter Bar, sponsored by The Silver Dollar, will have really rare stuff, including some vintage whiskeys. They’ll have Pappy and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection as well as dusties from Stitzel-Weller and National Distillers. We may even be able to pull in something super rare from the turn of the century. We’ve still got time to hunt before the event!
The event looks like more than anyone could do in two days. Do you have any recommendations for how to get the most out of your ticket?
FM: I would say study the schedule. There will be musical acts you just don’t want to miss, so make sure you plan for those. The bourbon seminars won’t be bumping up against the main headliners, so you won’t have to worry about choosing between the two. The seminar schedule will be released soon. Really, this is a festival where you want to walk around. Don’t just camp out in one spot.
It sounds like an incredible event! Let’s shift gears though and talk a little more about you. What did you do before you became an authority on bourbon?
FM: I was in the army and then became a freelance writer on lots of different topics, including veterans’ affairs and wine. I made it all the way to the top with wine journalism. In 2011 or 2012, I can never remember, I was a finalist for a big wine journalism award. I was at the awards ceremony in London with all of these brilliant wine people like Robert Parker, and all I could think about was how much I wanted to be around Fred Noe or Jimmy Russell. I wanted to be around bourbon people. So at the pinnacle of my wine writing career, I quit everything else and went all in on bourbon. Within a year or two, I wrote Whiskey Women. It was the best decision I ever made.
Speaking about your books, your latest is titled Mead: The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink. Why write about mead?
FM: Well, mead gets popular about every two thousand years, and it’s finally trending again. Meade is this ancient drink that deserves to be explored both from a tasting perspective and from a historical perspective. This was the first true branded alcohol, consumed by Vikings and Greek gods and ancient Romans. There are lots of incredible stories behind mead, and I wanted to dig into those. I also make it at home, so it’s a hobby passion of mine, and I truly think it has the potential to be the next trend in cocktails. Plus, everyone should be drinking it because it’s a sustainable alcohol and supports our dwindling bee population.
Looking forward to reading it! You judge many of the premier whiskey competitions, from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition to Whisky Magazine’s awards. What’s your process for judging a whisk(e)y?
FM: First off, you have to follow the judging criteria that you’re given for each competition. When I’m personally assessing something, it starts with the color. I really like to see the color because it gives me an idea of what I’m about to taste. Then there’s the nose. The aromatic properties are so important because they totally prepare your palate for what you’re about to taste. Then from the moment it hits my palate, I’m looking for how the alcohol feels. Then I like to see where the flavors are hitting the tongue. I’m a creative reviewer, and I like to really narrowly define what I’m tasting, so I’m always concentrating to nail down what type of caramel or what type of baking spice, etc. I will always taste three times, at each point of the mouth, before I rate something.
As spirits reviewers, we recognize that flavor is, to a certain degree, subjective. What are some of the factors that you think impact what a person tastes in a spirit?
FM: A lot of flavor is subjective, and a month from now something may taste totally different to me. Food can have a serious impact on how something tastes. Many distilleries I’ve studied had requirements that distillers shouldn’t be eating certain things while working. I also think how you emotionally feel in a moment can completely impact what you taste. When I’m listening to a particular musician, it can have a huge impact. That’s one of the things I love about what I’m doing with Bourbon & Beyond. It’s my hope that someone gets the perfect bourbon for them in that moment with the music they’re listening to. For me, that experience is the true future of American whiskey. Everyone has their own experience with what they taste and feel, and if whiskey can enhance a moment, then that’s fantastic.
Well said, Fred! Thanks for sharing some of your story with us. I’m sure I speak for many of our readers when I say we’re looking forward to Bourbon & Beyond!