The Bourbon Classic was held Feb 28-March 4. | Photo by Sara Havens

The fifth annual Bourbon Classic drew its largest crowds yet this past weekend as bourbon aficionados near and far attended the culinary and bourbon experience at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. The two main events took place Friday and Saturday, March 3-4, and a handful of one-off activities took place during the week.

Insider was invited along to document the experience, which also included a three-day media camp for regional and national media. Sponsored by The Bourbon Review out of Lexington and Louisville’s FSA Management Group, the event has grown year after year as bourbon continues to trend around the world.

The media camp tours Michter’s. | Photo by Sara Havens

From master distillers to distillery managers, from bourbon ambassadors to bourbon fanatics, and from whiskey writers to cocktail newbies, the Bourbon Classic is both a celebration of Kentucky’s native spirit as well as an intimate learning experience.

A large culinary component also is key to its success, and it further showcases our commitment to farm-to-table dining.

It was thrilling to see so much excitement for the bourbon industry, and attendees’ eagerness to learn, experience and taste was infectious.

We even met a couple from Canada who came to Louisville for their honeymoon. They operate a whiskey bar and have been slowly introducing customers to bourbon, one Canadian whisky drinker at a time.

Below are highlights, photos, recaps and inside information on distillery news and upcoming releases from our five-day bourbonism whirlwind. Sure, we consumed our fair share of bourbon. But we also took notes. And photos. Think of it as the angel’s share of the Bourbon Classic.

Top Shelf at Lola
Pappy at Lola | Photo by Sara Havens

Also known as the Pappy Event, this annual feature of the Classic pairs Pappy Van Winkle brands with interesting fare from the area’s top chefs. Butchertown Grocery’s Bobby Benjamin stepped in this year and truly shined with his unique offerings. From fried chicken oysters to hamachi with pickled jalapeno, the food was as exquisite as the coveted bourbons.

But let’s face it. We were there for the Pappy, and it did not disappoint. Attendees got one tasting ticket for each expression: 10 Year, 12 Year, 15 Year and 20 Year. And while you waited in line or after you were finished, the other unlimited options included top Buffalo Trace products like Weller 12, Elmer T. Lee and Eagle Rare. We even tried a fabulous bourbon called Kentucky Owl.

Favorite: Pappy 12 Year. Smooth, sweet, warm and viscous, this Kentucky hug lingered longer than the sample itself.

Media Camp Day 1: Barton 1792 Distillery & Maker’s Mark
Barton 1792 dates back to 1879. | Photo by Sara Havens

Barton 1792 is a quaint little distillery in Bardstown that dates back to 1879. A sister distillery to Buffalo Trace (both are owned by Sazerac), the tours are free and include samples of the delicious 1792 bourbons and others. We were surprised to learn it still uses coal in its operations, and we marveled at the huge outdoor mash tanks.

Insider Tip: We spotted some odd-looking barrels in the rick house, and upon closer inspection, found out they’re working on another batch of the 1792 Port Finish. Great news for fans of that expression, because it’s been sold out for a while.

Next up was a behind-the-scenes tour of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky., by bourbon legend himself, Bill Samuels Jr., who is now in his mid-70s. Part walking encyclopedia and part comedian, Samuels shared stories of his family’s bourbon, which was helped early on by the likes of Pappy Van Winkle and even Col. Sanders. We got a glimpse into the bourbon bat cave where private selections take place, and also peeked into bottling warehouses not on the typical tour.

Favorite: Having Bill Samuels Jr. as your very own tour guide was a truly incredible experience.

Media Camp Day 2: Buffalo Trace
An old distillery was discovered underneath the current distillery at Buffalo Trace. | Photo by Sara Havens

It’s always a treat to visit this Frankfort distillery, but on this trip, we didn’t realize we’d be seeing a newly discovered piece of history. We started on the traditional tour that included rick houses, bottling lines and yeast strains, but then we were led back into a private room in one of the oldest buildings on the campus.

Turns out that as Buffalo Trace was renovating the building, hoping to add event space, they unearthed a distillery from about 1873. Researchers believe there may have been a fire in that space, and instead of rebuilding, the distillers covered it all up and built on top of it. As digging proceeded, the original distillery foundation was uncovered, as well as copper-lined fermenters from 1882.

They’re referring to it as the “Bourbon Pompeii,” and it’ll soon be available to see on tours.

Insider Tip: On the bottling line during our visit, we spotted the E.H. Taylor Four Grain, so look for that on shelves soon.

Media Camp Day 3: Michter’s & Peerless

We didn’t have to travel far on the last day of media camp, hitting two Louisville distilleries in one afternoon. First up was Michter’s in Shively, which isn’t technically open for public tours. However, we learned the visitor’s center that’ll be located downtown should be complete in 2018.

$1,000 a shot? | Photo by Sara Havens

The Michter’s team is dedicated to quality, and you can visibly see that in each part of the process. The rick houses, bottling lines and even the distillery itself was spotless, and quality is never compromised for cost.

Favorite: We got a sample of the latest Michter’s Celebration, which goes for about $1,000 a shot in some bars and restaurants around the country. It was by far the most expensive thing we’ve ever put in our mouth.

And then it was on to Kentucky Peerless Distilling on 10th Street, where they’re getting ready to release their first brown spirit in 100 years — a rye whiskey. This smaller craft distillery also is quaint and quality, and father and son owners Corky and Carson Taylor were happy to show us around.

Insider Tip: The Kentucky Peerless Rye will be released Monday, May 20. It’ll sell for around $100 a bottle at 107 proof. (And it’s quite tasty for a two-year-old rye.)

Cocktail & Culinary Challenge, Bourbon University & Taste

The next three events are open to the public and take place Friday and Saturday of the Classic. We were a judge at Friday’s Cocktail & Culinary Challenge, which pairs a distillery with a chef and bartender — and the chef and bartender have to create a match made in heaven. The winning team was Isaac Fox and Alexander Dulaney of La Chasse, who used Woodford Reserve in their amazing drinks.

“Women of Bourbon” panel | Photo by Sara Havens

If you consider yourself a foodie and bourbon expert, this event is not to be missed. The creativity in that room was as innovative, sweet and delicious as the bourbon itself. Hats off to all the chefs and bartenders who participated.

On Saturday, a series of informational sessions termed “Bourbon University” are held, and many of them offered fun and unique looks into the industry — from crafting cocktails to interviews with top master distillers.

We attended “Women of Bourbon,” which featured Pam Heilmann of Michter’s, Joyce Nethery of Jeptha Creed, Victoria Samuels of Maker’s Mark and Jackie Zykan of Old Forester.

That session was followed by a larger panel of master distillers, and then another round of classes on various topics — from ham and bourbon pairings to bluegrass music and bourbon.

Finally, it was time for Taste, which is exactly what it sounds like — one big room featuring all the major distilleries where you walk around and sample as much as you’d like. It’s a way to meet the folks who run the companies as well as a way to try different expressions you maybe haven’t tried yet. The Michter’s 10 Year Rye was one of the hot-ticket tastings that night, as well as the Sweet Wheat from 1792 and Bulleit’s Barrel Strength.

If you’re still interested after all of that, here’s a closer look at the Classic.

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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."