For any bourbon lovers reading this who missed the 2014 Bourbon Classic at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, my sincere condolences. The good news is that you can always go next year. The bad news is that you’ll have to wait until next year. But until then, let me fill you in on what you missed.
The first evening of the Bourbon Classic was reserved for the cocktail and small plates challenges. Imagine all the best chefs and mixologists from Louisville, Lexington, and Philadelphia competing in a contest emceed by last year’s winner, Jared Schubert of the Monkey Wrench. Yeah, it was pretty amazing.
Seven teams represented seven distilleries to make both traditional and contemporary cocktails. While there seemed to be a lot of Manhattans, each was a little different. The small plates included things like pate with bourbon barrel soy sauce kettle corn, mini apple pie tarts, and my personal favorite chicken and waffles.
All the teams had huge tables full of both their cocktail creations and their food creations. Everyone mixed and mingled all night between talking to the chefs and mixologists and trying the different cocktails and beverages. The great thing about an event like this is that you can talk to the leaders in the bourbon and culinary industries and they will tell you all about what they are making and why it goes together. Everyone is accessible and friendly. It’s a true show of southern hospitality.
The next day was what I was really there for: The Bourbon Experience and Bourbon Classic University. The Bourbon Experience was a panel discussion with some of the greatest legends in the Bourbon Industry led by the amazing and talented Fred Minnick. While there were various topics covered in the conversation, the main overarching theme was the changing nature of the bourbon industry.
“People used to walk into their liquor store and know where their bottle was on the shelf,” said Dave Schmier of Redemption. “Now they are looking for something new.” This is certainly evident if you’ve been to the bourbon aisle of your local liquor store lately. Thirty years ago you’d find a few standard bottles. Now there are dozens even in the smallest of stores.
Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey added that typical bourbon drinkers used to be older southern gentlemen and now it’s everyone.
So what’s driving this increased demand for new bourbons? “There’s increased information on what’s really in the bottle . . . there’s a lot of scrutiny . . . the positive aspect is that a lot of people out there are learning about bourbon,” says Schmier.
There was mention of the cigar boom of the nineties, but Schmier pointed out there was a huge residual after popularity diminished. Jimmy Russell joked that he hoped bourbon would stay popular forever, “or we’re gonna have a lot of barrels to get rid of!”
An interesting point to make here is that bourbon made today is going to be in a barrel an average of seven years before it ever sees a store shelf. This means that forecasting demand is particularly important: “That is as important as making the bourbon itself . . . you have to predetermine the demand,” said Willie Pratt of Michter’s. Obviously he has a great method since Michter’s has the highest priced American Whiskey on the market today.
As bourbon has increased in popularity, the price has inched up as well. In addition to the changing supply and demand of bourbon, increased taxes are also partly responsible for this increase in prices. Several of the panel members discussed the spirits industry as being “low hanging fruit” for policy makers, Jimmy Russell noting that 65% of the cost of your bottle of bourbon is taxes. If you want to keep your bottles affordable, write to your elected officials.
Also adding to the cost of your bourbon is the increased demand for bourbon overseas. Fred Noe of Jim Beam put it best: “If you’ve got good products, you can’t stop people from buying them. What are you gonna do, tell ‘em, they can’t have it?”
Technology and word of mouth are driving bourbon’s popularity across America and across the world. Harlen Wheatley of Buffalo Trace emphasized, “if you launch a new bourbon today, it will be across the country tomorrow,” to which several people chimed in to say you’d better know what you’re talking about because someone’s already blogging about it.
After the panel there were several smaller classes held in two sessions. The first session I attended was Bourbon Recollections: A Trip Through Time, during which Charles Cowdery, Fred Noe, Fred Johnson, and Jimmy Russell told stories about the way the bourbon industry used to be. I will be publishing a separate story about this session because there were too many great stories to fit in here.
Then I attended a session about similarities between chocolate and bourbon. There were so many great seminars I missed: everything from how to have a bourbon tasting party to how bourbon pairs with cheese. There was even a session about the relationship between bourbon and beer.
If you were fortunate enough to make it to the 2014 Bourbon Classic this year, tweet me @LouGirl502 and tell me what your favorite part was. If you didn’t make it this year, be sure to make it next year. You won’t want to miss it.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Jordan McFarland