Molly Wellmann, owner of several Cincinnati bourbon bars, served as a guest bartender in the VIP lounge Saturday night. | Photo by Sara Havens

Last week, when the Bourbon Classic co-founder Seth Thompson told us this year’s event was breaking previous ticket sales by a double-digit percentage, we were curious to see what exactly that looked like and if more people meant less of an experience for regulars.

Would the events still be intimate? Could you still walk up to one of Louisville’s top chefs and shake her hand in appreciation? Would industry secrets still be spilled? And most importantly, how long will the bourbon last?

Turns out Bourbon Classic organizers were well-prepared for the influx in attendees, and once again, the events went off without a hitch for thousands of people interested in bourbon and food and where those two commodities collide. Insider was invited out to the festivities, which included a two-day Bourbon Media Camp, and met so many people from near and far whose zeal for bourbon was as hot and immediate as the spirit itself.

Bourbon gets classy. | Photo by Sara Havens

From Wednesday night’s Top Shelf food and high-end bourbon sampling to Friday night’s Cocktail & Culinary Competition and Saturday’s Taste extravaganza, Bourbon Classic is proof that consumers are thirsty for unique bourbon experiences and are willing to travel for it.

Wednesday night alone, we bonded with two whiskey-lovin’ women from Texas who left their husbands at home while they sipped on Pappy; a businessman from Cleveland who met up with his best friend from Alabama; and a husband and wife from Michigan who were celebrating a birthday with a trip to the bourbon mecca that is Kentucky.

Oh, and did we mention there were “Top Chef” celebs in the crowd all three nights, mingling right alongside everyone else and sometimes serving up their fine fare?

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) went from attendees on Friday night to participants on Saturday and seemed just as interested and giddy in bourbon as everyone else.

This year’s winners of the Cocktail & Culinary Competition included Kelsey Hoffman of RYE for Best Classic Cocktail; chefs Ouita Michel, Charles Taylor and Nat Henton for Best Classic Small Plate; Michter’s/Bob’s Steak and Chop House for Best Classic Pairing; Karla Plott of Evan Williams for Best Contemporary Cocktail; Chef Bruce Ucán of Mayan Cafe for Best Contemporary Small Plate; and Heaven Hill/Mayan Cafe for Best Contemporary Pairing.

The Bourbon Media Camp we mentioned included pit stops at several distilleries, including Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, Michter’s, Stitzel-Weller and Peerless, where we learned about new products, new experiences and age-old traditions.

Below are some photos of all our Bourbon Classic adventures, along with some tidbits we learned along the way — so be sure to read the captions.

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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."