The seventh annual Bourbon Classic runs Feb. 20-23. | Courtesy of Bourbon Classic

Although bourbon is still the main star of the seventh annual Bourbon Classic, some local, regional and national chefs will vie for favorite co-star during the four-day event that starts Wednesday, Feb. 20.

The event is co-produced by The Bourbon Review out of Lexington and FSA Management Group in Louisville, and one of its biggest draws is the Friday night Cocktail & Culinary Challenge that pairs a bourbon brand with both a local chef and bartender for the ultimate snacking and sipping experience. Ten teams compete in various categories, and three judges decide who those winners are.

And all you’ve gotta do is eat, drink and be merry.

Volare Chef Joshua Moore presents his dish at last year’s Bourbon Classic. | Photo by Sara Havens

Competing this year include chefs Joshua Moore (Volare), Mike Wajda (Proof), Kristina Dyer (La Chasse) and Bobby Benjamin (Butchertown Grocery), and bartenders Kelsey Hoffman (Rye), Emily Albert (bar Vetti), Isaac Fox (La Chasse) and Nic Christiansen (Butchertown Grocery), among many others. The evening runs from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Henry Clay.

Also big news this year is Saturday’s finale event Taste, which will feature three contestants from this season’s Kentucky-centric “Top Chef,” two of whom are still in the competition.

They include Sara Bradley (chef/owner of Freight House, Paducah, Ky.), Kelsey Barnard Clark (executive chef/owner of KBC, Dothan, Ala.) and Nini Nguyen (founding culinary director of Cook Space, Brooklyn).

Taste often is a bourbon-focused event featuring all the brands’ master distillers and reps, but this year it seems organizers also are adding a strong culinary component with the addition of these chefs as well as Pat Bosley, co-owner of infamous Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Ky. This event also runs from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Henry Clay.

In all, there are four separate gatherings, starting with Top Shelf on Wednesday (featuring the entire Pappy lineup); Savor on Thursday (this year getting a behind-the-scenes look at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.); the Cocktail & Culinary Competition on Friday; and Taste — featuring Bourbon University classes beforehand — on Saturday.

Insider caught up with Seth Thompson, Bourbon Classic co-founder and The Bourbon Review co-publisher, to find out more about this year’s event, which he says is breaking previous ticket sales by a double-digit percentage. In fact, if you’re still on the fence about attending, he suggests you grab your tickets now instead of waiting until the day of, because there may not be any left.

Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell with Seth (left) and Justin Thompson of The Bourbon Review | Photo by Sara Havens

Thompson says he and the organizers start planning for the next Bourbon Classic shortly after the last one ends due to all the components involved.

“The chefs and bartenders are our lifeblood. What they give in sacrificing their Friday and Saturday evenings, we can’t show enough gratitude,” explains Thompson. “That being said, it’s a lot moving parts and a lot of constant work. We discovered quickly why most whiskey events don’t do the heavy culinary route.”

This year’s Bourbon Classic is moving to a new venue — the Henry Clay — which Thompson hopes will provide a different ambiance to change things up a bit. Plus, it’s a historical building and offers a great backdrop to eating and drinking.

“In fitting with our brand, we love the beautiful Art Deco-style facade of Henry Clay,” he says. “It has that Roaring ’20s energy to it — a classic style for a Classic event.”

Thompson believes each Bourbon Classic gets better and better, and that’s due in part to the participants — both the talent and the guests. There’s a reason people return year after year.

“Like visiting a new restaurant, you go once on curiosity, you return based on the experience,” he says. “It’s also the chefs and bartenders who give their all to create a special experience Bourbon Country can take pride in. I like to say it takes a village to raise Bourbon Classic.”

Tickets are still available for most events and can be purchased online. Admission ranges from $75 to $245.

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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."