I’ve been going to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival since the 1990s. Located each year in downtown Bardstown, Kentucky, the Festival is the largest such event actually held in the Bourbon Capital of the World. And allow me to be the umpteenth Bardstown local (or former local) to say: Things have changed, and that’s a lot for bourbon nerds to celebrate. Today, the event features more bourbon to drink, more brands to appreciate, and much more to learn about the ins and outs of American whiskey than ever before.
The Festival’s current tagline sums up this new focus: “Whiskey Only. Only In Bardstown.”
Let’s get some context out of the way. In the Festivals’ early days, it featured far more arts and crafts than craft distilleries. Many of Kentucky’s hallmark distilleries had a presence, but in an age before widespread craft bourbon and non-distilling producers, the number of brands was comparatively tiny.
There was only so much whiskey to taste, and only so many distiller setups to visit. Festival organizers supplemented the week-long schedule with family friendly spectator events, like barrel and waiter races. Bouncy castles and climbing walls kept kids busy. Drinking was relegated to enclosed areas and one sectioned beer garden, while prime real estate on the lawn of Spalding Hall — the Festival’s main location even today — went to all manner of craft makers from a 100-miles radius.
And there were almost always more barbecue vendors than whiskey makers cooking up meat for the hungry masses.
It’s probably an appropriate juncture to give a brief disclosure: My memories are probably a bit more tied to smell than anything else. I worked sanitation as a member of Bardstown’s local Boy Scout troop, and back then, it always seemed like more half-empty beer cups ended up in the trash barrels than plastic whiskey glasses.
Despite that personal bias, after attending the 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which ran from September 14 to 18, I see more than ever for the discerning bourbon aficionado. Today’s festival features more distilleries, more distillers, more producers, more center stage panels, more presentations, and more bourbon than ever before. It’s now strictly a 21 years and over event, so leave the kids at home. A turn away from fun for the whole family has allowed Festival organizers to double down on a focused target clientele: attendees who want to drink, learn about, and discuss all things bourbon with like-minded enthusiasts.
The age gating brings with it two immediately noticeable changes. First (and certainly foremost for many ticket holders) is the free sampling at dozens of brand booths, giving folks a chance to try an endless stream of current expressions in one place. It’s a friendly and accessible way to interact with distillers, blenders, and marketers behind many of the bottles, all of whom can give insight far beyond what’s generally available in a press release.
Get lucky on timing, and you might be treated to a dram from Michter’s Master Distiller Dan McKee. Or you could get a chance to sample something from Jackie Zykan’s new project, Hidden Barn, poured by the former Old Forester Master Blender herself. The VIP tent — with an accordingly higher entry price — takes things up a couple notches, and in 2022 features craft cocktails, complimentary meals, and a steady supply of harder-to-find and allocated samples from the likes of Buffalo Trace.
Whether or not these benefits justify the ticket cost — in addition to travel and lodging — is always going to be up to the individual. For those who come ready to drink responsibly, there’s likely more bourbon and rye to be sampled than one can properly taste in the Festival’s three main exhibition days. And many exhibitors rotate their sample selections from one day to the next.
A second noticeable change to the contemporary Festival is the variety of single barrel and special release picks available from both brand booths and third-party retailers. This year’s single barrel selections included Four Roses, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Barrell Craft Spirits, New Riff, Maker’s Mark, Peerless, Wilderness Trail, and more. A Heaven Hill Select Stock release drew particularly long lines, selling out on multiple days. All that to say, there’s not just a lot of whiskey to be sampled for the price of admission. If you’re willing to queue and are interested in purchasing barrel picks, there are a couple dozen to be had.
Some Bardstown locals have argued that the Festival has become one for bourbon-thirsty out-of-towners, losing some of its previous charm in the process. That certainly has a ring of truth to it. The event is ticketed, after all, and gone are the days of waltzing up to the lawn after brunch to see and be seen by the community.
But bourbon has exploded in popularity, and event organizers have capitalized on the boom by creating a real focal point for brands and fans to connect with each other. It’s tough for anyone to blame them; the whiskey pours, the conversation flows, and drinkers can get real face time with some of their favorite producers.
Likewise, the city of Bardstown has benefited from a remarkable influx of whiskey tourists, a trend witnessed throughout the year but certainly most visible during September’s headlining shindig. The fact that the Bourbon Festival competes with Louisville’s Bourbon & Beyond — more of a hybrid whiskey/music mashup than dedicated bourbon event — hasn’t discouraged growth and may ultimately draw more total visitors from outside the Bluegrass State. After all, why travel in for one festival when you can visit two in the span of a couple days?
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival’s transition away from a locals-first mentality feels bittersweet. But from my perspective, if the 2022 iteration emphasized anything, it’s that the Bourbon Festival plays an important role in keeping a focus on Bardstown as the Bourbon Capital of the World. Whiskey fans, of course, get to reap those benefits, one generous sample at a time.