Bourbon enthusiasts from all over the world swarmed Louisville last week for the second annual Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a “fantasy camp” that took place over five days and included 44 events. Sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers Association, more events — including some with a culinary tie-in — were added this year, and even better, more access to distilleries and the legends in the business was offered up.
Insider was invited to cover some of the hands-on experiences, including fishing with Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe and his son, Freddie, at the late Booker Noe’s “honey hole” pond near the distillery, and exploring — and sampling bourbon straight out of the barrel — a seven-story rickhouse at Heaven Hill.
The Bourbon Affair began Wednesday, June 3, with Bourbon Under the Rocks — a mixer that took place at the Louisville Mega Cavern near the zoo. Attendees were encouraged to dress casually if they wanted to try their hand at the ropes course and zip lining.
Since there was an open bar featuring more than a dozen rare and quality bourbons, I kept my feet firmly planted on the ground. There also were appetizers cooked up from our finest chefs and bourbon bottles made from solid chocolate by Art Eatables. The event attracted a who’s-who of the bourbon industry, including master distillers, bar owners, bartenders, chefs and anyone who paid the $150 admission fee.
Other interesting side events of the Bourbon Affair included the Old Forester Speakeasy at the Seelbach’s Rathskeller, the Casabourblanca at Bowman Field, and a polo match at Waterfront Park.
It was the daytime events, however, that appealed to most bourbon aficionados. Each of the 10 options offered rare access to parts of the distilleries the general public could never experience, and most were hosted by the master distillers themselves, who sometimes remain as cloaked and mysterious as their bourbon’s legends.
Fishing with the Noe Family — Uncovering Booker’s Honey Hole at Jim Beam
On Thursday, June 4, I headed to the Jim Beam Stillhouse in Clermont, Ky., with about a dozen others on a chartered bus. Anticipation was high as Mint Julep Tours guide Holly Wells regaled the group, a majority of them out-of-towners, with facts about Louisville and bourbon. We knew fishing with master distiller Fred Noe and his son was on the agenda, and the promise of bourbon tastings and lunch also kept spirits high.
Once we arrived, we got the full tour of the distillery, which included a hands-on bottle rinse of a Knob Creek Single Barrel — and the very bottle you helped rinse could be sealed with your thumb print and purchased later at the gift shop. It was interesting to get a glimpse of behind-the-scenes operations of a distillery that size — Jim Beam just filled its 13 millionth barrel last year. And, like most tours, we also got to sample white dog, put our fingers in the mash, and hammer out a bung.
After the tour, we loaded on the bus and headed to Booker Noe’s honey hole, a pond located across the street in Bernheim Forest. Apparently, Booker and his grandson Freddie would fish there often — so often that when Booker died in 2004, he left the rights to the pond to Freddie. Even Fred Noe must get permission from his son if feels like fishing.
Fred and Freddie were at the pond awaiting our arrival. Chairs with poles and tackle boxes lined the banks, but before a lure was cast, we fueled up on a lunch of fried catfish, chicken fingers, cole slaw, corn bread and bourbon, of course. There was even a gallon of Graeter’s bourbon ball ice cream made with Jim Beam for dessert.
One by one the group dispersed to the chairs and prepared their hooks. Having fished as a child on Lake Erie, I knew how to add a bobber, bait my hook and cast my line — but baiting the hook caused me grief this time, as somewhere along the way I picked up empathy for earthworms. My kind neighbor, a man who lives in Louisville but works in Cincinnati most of the week, put the worm on for me, and I was on my merry way.
Not 30 seconds after my hook hit the water, the bobber went under and bourbon-fueled exhilaration swept over my body. I pulled out my prize — a small but colorful bluegill. Since I do not eat or touch fish, my kind neighbor once again came to my rescue and unhooked my fish, returning him to the water and baiting my hook a second time.
Fred and Freddie walked around helping people with worms and fish. Fred’s advice was to spit on the bait, which he did a few times, and — as it turned out — larger fish were actually caught. Freddie rolled his eyes at the notion that the old wives’ tale really worked.
After getting my bait stolen time and time again, I finally worked up the nerve to hook the worm myself and give it a good cast. Once again, my bobber went under and I squealed like a girl getting a Tweet from Taylor Swift. My happiness soon turned to panic when I realized whatever I had caught was large and not happy. “Help! Shark!” I yelled to the guys around me. After ignoring my cries for a few minutes, one man saw my big whiskered fish and decided to engage.
It was a 3-pound catfish, according to Fred, and it was whipping its tail back and forth. Again, I didn’t touch the flailing creature, and after we weighed it, we kindly returned it to the honey hole.
That was enough excitement for me, so I packed up my gear and headed back to the bourbon and shade, where I watched others pull out fish one by one. The biggest catch of the day was a 5.5-pound catfish.
Coopers & Cupids — Finding Your Single Barrel Soulmate
The following day, I joined the group going to Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Ky., to find our bourbon soulmate. Thankfully, this did not involve logging on to Tinder — it was basically a chance to sample Evan Williams bourbon straight from barrels on three levels of a rickhouse, with the help of master distiller Craig Beam and his crew, Denny Potter and Charlie Downs.
As barrels sit in rickhouses, they age differently due to where they’re located. It’s like the chimney effect — the lower they are, the cooler it’s going to be and the less water will evaporate. But the barrels on the top floor, which are subjected to extreme heat in the summer months, tend to age fast and lose more water, making them a higher proof.
Master distillers are always on the hunt for their “honey barrel” — a perfect specimen for single-barrel bourbons — and so our group collectively became a master distiller for a day. We sampled barrels on floors one, four and seven — straight out of the barrel. The proof of all three hovered in the upper 120s/low 130s, creating a strong finish before adding water.
I typically don’t water down anything, especially bourbon, but a few drops were needed to help the Kentucky nectar breathe so flavors could be detected. While most distillery tours include a visit to the ground floor of a rickhouse, it was exciting to be able to climb up the rickety wooden steps of each floor — all the way to the top.
I ended up picking the first-floor bourbon as my favorite, because it was sweeter and smoother than the other two. Most people chose the top-floor bourbon, but with a proof of 133.2, the highest, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others. (Interestingly, the proof on floor one was 127.5, slightly higher than the fourth-floor barrel.)
After everyone chose their favorites and ate lunch, the next activity was learning how to correctly roll barrels into rickhouses, which is a complicated process because they not only weigh hundreds of pounds, but you have to roll them so they are situated bung up to avoid leaks.
Once I found out math and physical fitness were involved, I migrated to the shaded tent while I watched my groupmates huff and puff, rolling their barrels through a practice track. I have a newfound respect for barrel rollers, and apparently Heaven Hill has some of the best in the business, because they often win the competitions held at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September.
The Kentucky Bourbon Affair was a resounding success, and I believe it’s only going to get better and bigger from here. In talking with participants, these once-in-a-lifetime experiences were well worth the ticket prices.
*This story was updated with a correction about Art Eatables