Bourbon Affair offers aficionados behind-the-scenes access to many distilleries. | Photo by Sara Havens

For four years now, the Kentucky Bourbon Affair has given bourbon enthusiasts rare, behind-the-scenes access to most of the distilleries throughout the state. From fishing with Jim Beam’s Fred Noe to skeet shooting at Wild Turkey, the experiences offer unique opportunities to interact with master distillers and their special bourbons.

There are more than 15 experiences up for grabs at this year’s Bourbon Affair, which runs June 6-11, including the prolific tasting event Whisky Live Louisville that features samples of more than 150 regional, national and international brands.

The Bourbon Affair is organized each year by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which helps unite the distilleries and operates the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

This year, organizers decided to add a new component that would reach even more people interested in learning about bourbon — the Higher Proof Expo, a daylong bourbon camp of sorts that offers educational and tasting sessions led by the industry’s top professionals.

The 18 classes will be held throughout the day on Saturday, June 10, targeting those who may not have been able to take the week off to attend the aforementioned experiences. With rare whiskey tastings and many sessions led by master distillers and pros, the $99 admission fee is affordable — another goal of the Bourbon Affair.

Adam Johnson | Courtesy of KDA

“We wanted something more in-depth and geeky,” says Adam Johnson, Bourbon Affair organizer and senior director of KDA’s Bourbon Trail experiences. “We wanted something for people who couldn’t spend the whole week at Bourbon Affair. They’ll be able to get exposure to a variety of topics, and most class sizes will be 40-60 — with some a bit smaller. We wanted to provide something for everybody.”

The admission fee includes a choice of four of the 18 sessions, lunch and access to a vintage spirits appraisal at 3:30 p.m. led by Bill Thomas, owner of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., and one of the country’s foremost experts on vintage bourbon and memorabilia.

A full Higher Proof Expo schedule can be viewed online, but highlights include an immersive experience with Parker’s Heritage Collection by Heaven Hill brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers; an hour with Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliott as he dissects the company’s latest limited-edition release, a tribute to brand ambassador Al Young; a lesson in making Louisville’s official cocktail, the Old-Fashioned; a look at how rum and whiskey go hand in hand now and throughout history by author and bourbon expert Fred Minnick; and many more.

“My goal when packaging it was to make it tough for people to decide which sessions to attend,” says Johnson. “That’s what I want the Bourbon Affair to be about — the access to stuff you normally wouldn’t be able to experience.”

Following the Higher Proof Expo on Saturday is the second annual Whisky Live, which is an international event held several times a year in various cities and countries that brings together the whiskeys of the world. From scotch to Irish whiskey to Canadian whisky to bourbon, this tasting extravaganza celebrates the best of brown spirits.

Whisky Live will feature more than 150 samples of whiskeys from all over the world. | Courtesy of Whisky Live

Insider attended last year’s inaugural Whisky Live Louisville and can attest to the wide array of brands available. It’s possible to spend the whole evening tasting whiskeys you’ve never had before; stick close to home with your familiar favorites; or try a little bit of both.

IL caught up with organizer David Sweet, who says there will be more offerings than ever — more scotches, all the bourbons from the Bourbon Trail, expanded VIP selections and even more international brands he brought back from Australia, Japan, Canada and more.

Also new this year will be a live barrel-making session by Brown-Forman’s Cooper’s Craft brand, an expanded collection of Beam Suntory products (Beam, Maker’s Mark, etc.), including the company’s scotches and Japanese whiskeys, and the first public tasting of the previously mentioned Four Roses tribute to Al Young.

Wild Turkey master distller Jimmy Russell and his wife Joretta at last year’s Whisky Live. | Courtesy of Whisky Live

IL asked Sweet if he was reluctant at all to introduce so many scotches to bourbon country, as some aficionados are staunch supporters of their homeland’s whiskey only. He says, matter-of-factly, that bourbon and scotch actually go hand in hand.

“One of the articles in the show guide is that it’s OK to drink both,” says Sweet. “I mean, it’s all whiskey. The idea is to find the ones that suit your taste. Sticking to only one kind would be like someone only drinking one type of wine.”

Whisky Live begins at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 10, for VIP ticket holders ($199), and 6 p.m. for general admission ($139). Both Whisky Live and the Higher Proof Expo will be held at Louisville Marriott East off Hurstbourne Lane.

Tickets are still available for the Bourbon Affair experiences, which include private barrel picks of Knob Creek, Elijah Craig and Four Roses, an exclusive look at the new Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville, and  more. And admission is still open for the Higher Proof Expo and Whisky Live.

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."