Every year around the end of February, I make a little trek up to Kentucky for some sightseeing and quality time with a few of my best bourbon buddies. This year the gang got together for distillery tours, bourbon tastings, podcasts, and, of course, the Bourbon Classic.
My partners in crime for this trip included Dan Gardner from Four Roses Distillery, Mike Woods of Sips, Suds, & Smokes, and Bill Straub, Matt Gates, and Wes Jolly of Modern Thirst. Lawrence Parece from The Bourbon Guys, Rachel “Ginny Tonic’ Moore from The Charlie Tonic Hour, and Patrick “Pops” Garrett from Bourbon & Banter made appearances over the weekend as well.
The Oak Barrel Tour Co.
A kind and tolerant David Coates showed up Thursday morning in his Oak Barrel Tours bus to haul us down to Bardstown from Louisville and make sure we all made it back in one piece. David is relatively new on the scene, but has done his homework and is an excellent addition to the Bourbon Trail transportation options. He’s an Executive Bourbon Steward and has true passion for sharing the sights and spirits of Kentucky.
Lux Row Distillers
John Rempe played host to our group, showing us around the brand new Kentucky outpost of family-owned Luxco. With the grand opening around the corner, the property is a bustle of activity, from preparing the retail space to waiting for the grounds to dry enough for landscaping. Mostly, the distillery is busy mashing, fermenting, and distilling. John’s team has already filled over 1,000 barrels in the six weeks since the stills started running. They’re not messing around here! The visitor center is gorgeous and the tasting bar is a copper show piece.
Lux Row will produce their core brands here in Bardstown moving forward- Ezra Brooks, Rebel Yell, Blood Oath, and David Nicholson. The Yellowstone label is being made down the road at Limestone Branch Distillery. John was thoughtful enough to share a few bottles with us including the Rebel Yell 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Blood Oath® Pacts No. 3 & 4. No. 4 won’t be released until later this Spring, and it was a real treat to get a sneak peek.
We putzed around Bardstown that afternoon, stopping by Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center for some bottles before a decadent southern lunch at Mammy’s. Then we headed to Cox’s Creek for a quick walk through the Four Roses warehouse. We may have opened a couple or ten bottles on the bus, so that was all we managed before heading back to the safety of Louisville.
It’s loud and smoky and hot and a lot of burning things are flying through the air. And it’s one of the coolest places I’ve toured. Kelvin Cooperage is a family-owned barrel maker/refurbisher that moved its operation to Louisville from Scotland in 1991. Having visited much larger cooperages, this one takes you a bit by surprise with its lack of automation. These guys are building and rebuilding barrels by hand. With hammers. And fire. It’s magical.
Kelvin provides new, customizable oak barrels for craft distillers and wineries. They also take in truckloads of freshly dumped, used bourbon barrels for secondary uses as Scotch, Irish & Canadian whisky, tequila, and rum. As finished bourbons and whiskeys are all the rage these days, Kelvin provides various used wine and port barrels for those purposes. Barrels arrive in various states of disrepair and the craftsmen at Kelvin find cracks, replace staves, rebuild the barrel, and send them on their way to their next life. Paul McLaughlin is a wonderful host and his enthusiasm for these wooden containers is contagious.
This place is gorgeous! Walking through the distillery with Kyle Henderson, he mentions it’s the cleanest distillery in Kentucky. It is; I’ve been to most all of them. The new distillery opened a little over a year ago on Main Street in downtown Louisville. Coming in at over $20 million, it’s the theme park of distilleries, complete with creative graphics at each step of the distilling process.
Angel’s Envy is now putting away their own distillate for aging, making the switch over from sourcing the juice we’ve all come to know and love. Kyle, son of Wes and grandson of Lincoln Henderson, has whiskey running through his DNA and his knowledge of this historic building and the unique Angel’s Envy distilling and finishing processes is impressive. Kyle’s pride for his family’s business beams through each step of the facility, all the way to the tasting room. Tours here are by appointment only.
Bourbon Classic 6.0
Ahhhhh… the main event. The Cocktail & Culinary Challenge, held at a new venue, The Foundry at Glassworks, was not my favorite Classic moment. Evidently the ballet had taken over The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts Friday night and we were not allowed to go drinking there. The bites were delicious, the cocktails hit or miss, but the new room was hot, loud, and too crowded for my taste. Can’t get my crinoline smooshed! Anyhow, we had a sampling of the classic and contempory pairings and hoofed it down to Milkwood where we experimented with some duck fat cocktails. Yep. Duck fat- in a gin cocktail. And I’d do it again.
Saturday began with The Big Podcast. This is where our posse comes together to
talk shit about intelligently discuss what we did all week, what we liked, what we loved, what we hated. We also delve into more serious topics and make predictions about the future of craft spirits, finished whiskeys, and the weather.
Then we hit the Bourbon Classic University. We all agreed we really missed the Master Distiller panel. In its place this year was a lively discussion between spirits writers, led by Clay Whittaker of Esquire. I hit a seminar with Fred Noe of Jim Beam, Pam Heilmann of Michter’s, and Drew Mayville, Master Blender at Buffalo Trace. I had just gone on a slight rant about the underappreciated role of the blender on our podcast, so I was thrilled to see Drew as a last minute substitute for an ill Harlan Wheatley.
Off to TASTE! More distilleries than ever were at the grand tasting event this year. Craft distilleries side-by-side with the big guys commanded crowds as attendees were anxious to try something new. As promised, Molly Wellmann was shaking up cool cocktails in the VIP lounge and we camped out there most of the night, sipping on the Buffalo Trace offerings and generally enjoying the company of our whiskey friends we only see at the Classic. Mark your calendars for next year. We’ll be at it again.