The bourbon and cheese paring will return this year. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
The bourbon and cheese paring will return this year. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

Where bourbon flows, crowds go, and there’s hardly better proof of that than what you’ll see at the third annual Bourbon Classic, Feb. 20-21, at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

About 800 attended the first event, and about 1,000 came the second time around. Co-organizer Seth Thompson says ticket sales are on track to at least match last year’s numbers, but likely exceed them.

“Usually at the period where we are now… tickets sales really start going through the roof,” said Thompson, co-publisher of The Bourbon Review, a Lexington-based magazine. The Bourbon Review organizes the event alongside FSA Management Group, a Louisville public relations and events firm.

“Those sales are happening because the Classic has had a lot of exposure and because it’s ingrained in people’s thoughts as something to do to beat cabin fever,” he added.

When the two companies met to create the event four years ago, some thought they were crazy to stage it in the dead of winter. Thompson said they believed their shot at succeeding was 50-50 because “at least nothing else is going on at that time of year, but the social calendar gets polluted past the first quarter. We knew we were creating a sleeper event.”

Since then, the Classic has awakened bourbon interest in aficionados from nearly every U.S. state, Canada and Mexico, drinkers who come not only for that experience, but also to visit nearby Bourbon Trail activities.

“We had a gentleman from the tequila industry come to it last year just because he was curious about all that’s going on with bourbon,” Thompson said. “That gives us a great feeling about where this is headed in the future.”

Jimmy Russell spoke during the Master Distillers panel last year. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Jimmy Russell spoke during the Master Distillers panel last year. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

This year’s Classic officially starts on Tuesday, Feb. 17, with an exclusive pre-event reception dubbed the Bourbon Classic Taste. The evening includes a Van Winkle bourbon tasting led by Julian Van Winkle, and Kentucky Proud-inspired food prepared by chef Ed Lee (610 Magnolia, MilkWood) and Lady Fingers Catering. Held at Copper & Kings American Brandy distillery in Butchertown, the night also will feature C&K’s brandy and absinthe, plus additional bourbons from Buffalo Trace and Four Roses.

“That Julian and Preston (Van Winkle) will be there says a lot about what they think of the Classic,” Thompson said. The father and son duo will share their Special Reserve (12 year), Van Winkle Family Reserve (15 year) and Van Winkle Family Reserve (20 year). “These guys don’t need to add another event to their calendars, but they’ll be at this one.”

Interestingly, the event also will feature pours of 1,000 Stories Zinfandel, a recently launched Fetzer winery product aged in a mix of new and used bourbon barrels. One early review I read said it was a dandy when paired with food.

“Now we’re mingling wine country with bourbon country,” Thompson said. “It was bound to happen, I think.”

Tickets to the Taste, which runs from 7:30-10:30 p.m., are $120 each. To buy them online, click here.

The main event begins Friday, Feb. 20, with the Bourbon Classic Cocktail Challenge from 7-10 p.m.

The night’s emcee, Jared Schubert, winner of the 2013 Bourbon Classic Cocktail Challenge, will guide attendees through the event featuring contemporary and classic cocktails and small plates prepared by teams of chefs and bartenders each representing one distillery. This year’s contest includes:

  • Barton 1792 Distillery: bartender Beth Burrows (Down One Bourbon Bar) and chef Newman Miller (Harrison-Smith House, Bardstown)
  • Blanton’s Bourbon: bartender Marie Zahn (St. Charles Exchange) and chef Levon Wallace (Proof on Main)
  • Buffalo Trace Distillery: bartender Jason Cobbler (Harvest) and chef Coby Ming (Harvest)
  • Four Roses Bourbon: bartender Isaac Fox (Volare) and chef Josh Moore (Volare)
  • Heaven Hill Distilleries: bartender Gary Gruver (Southern Wine & Spirits) and chef David Danielson (Churchill Downs)
  • Jim Beam: bartender Sean Thibodeaux (8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen) and chef Todd Rushing (8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen)
  • Michter’s: bartender Hannah Kandle (Old Seelbach Bar) and chef Patrick Roney (The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel)
  • Wild Turkey: bartender Amber Yates (Feast BBQ) and chef Ryan Rogers (Feast BBQ)
  • Woodford Reserve: Jacquelyn Zykan (Doc Crow’s) and chef Jonathan Schwartz (Doc Crow’s)

The great part is attendees get to taste each team’s pairing, which is a lot of food and drink. So be wise and pace yourself. Give serious thought to staying in a downtown hotel or catching a ride home from a designated driver.

Saturday presents the Ultimate Bourbon Experience, which blends educational seminars and tasting events.

Levon Wallace plated food during the Cocktail Challenge last year. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Levon Wallace plated food during the Cocktail Challenge last year. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

The Bourbon Masters session will see the following distillers on a single stage for a fun Q&A led by local bourbon writer Fred Minnick:

  • Mark Coffman, Alltech Brewing & Distilling Company
  • Wes Henderson, Angel’s Envy
  • Ken Pierce, Barton 1792 Distillery
  • Fred Noe, Jim Beam
  • Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace Distillery
  • Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Bourbon
  • Denny Potter, Heaven Hill Distilleries
  • Nicole Austin, King’s County Distillery
  • Willie Pratt, Michter’s
  • Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey Chip Tate

I went to this session last year and the group was great to listen to. Industry icons — some living legends — these guys share lots of insider knowledge while cutting up a lot the process.

The afternoon’s Bourbon Classic University features several breakout sessions:

  • Country Ham & Bourbon Pairing
  • The Life of the Barrel
  • Essential Bourbon Cocktails Past and Present
  • Straight Up Storytellers
  • Bourbon & Cheese Pairings
  • The Art of the Glass
  • Entertaining with North American Whiskey
  • Bourbon Collections
  • Bourbon Flavor Profiles
  • Bourbon Icons

Sets of five sessions will be offered and attendees will have the opportunity to choose which sessions to join. Click here for a more detailed events schedule.

The evening is capped off with The Bourbon Marketplace, featuring a lot of bourbon tastings, book signings, food tastings by Coby Ming (Harvest), Sean Ward (Ward 426), Levon Wallace (Proof on Main) and Ouita Michel (Holly Hill Inn) and culinary and bourbon-related products.

Just like the night before, there’s an incredible amount of food and bourbon to be had, so definitely pace yourself. And I again strongly suggest you arrange for alternate transportation because of the brands represented on the liquid menu. You’ll not want to miss a sip:

Buffalo Trace Distillery; Four Roses Bourbon; Michter’s; Alltech Brewing & Distilling Co.; Barton 1792 Distillery; Bulleit Bourbon; Heaven Hill Distilleries; Jim Beam; Woodford Reserve; 1,000 Stories Barrel Finished Wine; Blanton’s Bourbon; Wild Turkey; Old Forester; Angel’s Envy; Corsair Distillery; Jefferson’s; Kings County Distillery; Old Limestone Water; and Willett Distillery.

Ticket sales for the event are available online (click here) or by calling the Kentucky Center at 584-7777. Standard admission is $125 for Friday night and $140 for Saturday. VIP* admission is $175 for Friday, $195 Saturday. A standard package for both nights is $249; $355 for VIP both nights.

VIP admission gets you special access to a VIP lounge where there’s not only lots of cushy seating and tables, but multiple special whiskey tastings each night.

*Want to get VIP weekend passes for free, plus two nights at the 21c Museum Hotel? Click here and then follow instructions to share the Bourbon Classic page on your personal Facebook page. That freebie is a $900 value!

Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.


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