The main lobby at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts was an exceptionally busy and boozy place last weekend. But that’s not because it was cocktail hour before an off-Broadway performance.
The crowds came for the second-annual Bourbon Classic, a grown-up, pricey party centered on drinking bourbon, eating bourbon-infused foods and fostering bourbon-inspired discussions about Kentucky’s native yet internationally popular spirit.
The estimated crowd of 1,000 got to taste, talk about and evaluate an abundant supply of bourbon consumed neat, on the rocks and in craft cocktails. (As a testament to its own surging popularity, there was plenty of rye whiskey on hand as well.)
Though the Kentucky Center has not yet reported official attendance, organizers believe numbers were up as much as 30 percent over last year’s Classic.
“That’s really exciting growth for the event and, hopefully, an indicator of excitement for future events,” said Seth Thompson, co-founder of The Bourbon Review and one of the event’s organizers. “One of the bourbon (media) said to me, ‘Congratulations, you’ve avoided the sophomore slump.’ Hopefully this year will provide good momentum for 2015.”
Friday night saw attendees sample food and cocktails prepared by local chefs and bartenders whose bites and sips were judged by a three-person panel.
The Pyrenees Cocktail, made by Volare bartender Isaac Fox, was a modern riff on the classic Manhattan that required a cigarette lighter to produce a flaming finish for a drink requiring half a dozen, mostly not-on-your-home-bar ingredients.
“That’s a cool touch, huh?” Fox said as a blue-orange flame burst across the surface of one cocktail and disappeared. The Pyrenees took top honors in the contemporary cocktail category. “The flame helps bring out the aroma.”
While Fox’s flames got plenty of attention (it was delicious), it was the straight stuff the masses wanted most. In the spacious VIP lounge, attendees paid top dollar for cushy seats set away from the noisy din and the chance to drink several older bourbons not available to the buzzing hoi polloi in the lobby.
“The VIP ticket is well worth it,” said Jim, a sixty-something wine connoisseur who caught on to bourbon after moving to Kentucky several years ago. “I like crowds, too, but it’s nice to come in here and relax some, especially if you want something different than a cocktail like they’re serving out there.”
The Classic isn’t a low-cost event. General admission ranged from $125 to $145 for single night tickets, while VIP tickets that cost as much as $355 for both nights sold out before the Classic started.
Such passion for bourbon doesn’t surprise Paul Clarke, editor of Portland, Ore.-based Imbibe magazine, a casual publication dedicated adult beverages.
“They’ve done a really nice job with this, even better than last year,” said Clarke, one of some 15 journalists who spent much of the week touring distilleries. Between bites, Clarke added, “It’s really great how they’ve pulled it all together like this. It’s a fun event.”
Maybe the most fun drinking event I’ve ever attended. Like the thousands of friendly beer drinkers who gather at annual area festivals, attendees of the Classic were there as much for the culture surrounding bourbon as much as its quality. Attendees I talked with said it’s a rare bourbon drinker who’s a vintage snob or anti-cocktails.
“This isn’t like a wine tasting where people might try to impress you with their knowledge,” said another man in the VIP lounge. (Sorry for not getting his name, but I also was busy tasting.) “If they know a lot about bourbon or a distillery or its history, they like to share it. It’s friendly.”
The real knowledge came out Saturday afternoon during a panel discussion on “The Bourbon Boom and the Rising Price of Popularity.” The panel included noted bourbon distillers and blenders from Kentucky, as well as two distillers from New York.
Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe recalled the days when bourbon enjoyed little prestige and how the work to raise its profile was humbling. In Miami several years ago at a tasting he hosted with his legendary father, Booker Noe, only seven people attended.
“Three of those were me, Dad and Mom, plus two of our salesmen,” Noe said. “Last time they did one there 200 people crammed into the place.”
Angel’s Envy COO Wes Henderson credited the advent of single-barrel bourbons as key to its soaring popularity. “Before then, nobody cared who the distiller was, but now they do,” said Henderson, whose father, the late Lincoln Henderson, helped launch the brand after a long career as a master distiller at Brown-Forman.
Tom Bulleit, founder and master distiller at Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, said much of bourbon’s rise has come on the coattails of a resurgent cocktail culture “which has turned great bartenders into captains of our industry.”
But such popularity is a mixed blessing, said several distillers. Forecasting demand correctly and meeting it with a product that takes several years to mature is a never-ending challenge.
“That part is as hard as making the bourbon itself because it’s the one factor you don’t have control of,” said Willie Pratt, master distiller at Michter’s. “You have to determine ahead of time how much of that barrel you’re filling today will be there five, 10, 15 or 20 years after it rolls out of the warehouse.”
Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlan Wheatley said the only certainty in bourbon production is everyone’s forecast will be wrong. Unexpectedly high demand in one year creates scarcity that increases production demands, and surprisingly low demand in another puts pressure on the salesforce to move excess inventory.
“Consumers today don’t realize that the product they’ll drink in 2021 is made already,” Wheatley said. “We even have sales guys tell us they’re going to grow sales by 20 percent this year, and I have to tell them, ‘I already know exactly how much you’re going to sell.’ You have a finite amount of bourbon and a finite amount of barrels.”
If one can conceive of 7 million barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses as finite. According to Wheatley, that’s how many 53-gallon charred oak vessels currently are resting in Kentucky’s rickhouses.
“(Distillers are) building more warehouses all the time,” Wheatley said, adding that a typical warehouse holds 20,000 barrels. “There’s a two-year waiting list on warehouses, so we know there’s going to be a whole lot of bourbon to sell. The good news is there’s a lot of untapped business, and I think we’re going to be able to sell it.”
With bourbon prices continually rising, several distillers said their brands have little ability to limit those increases. When asked to explain why bourbon is much more expensive today than a decade ago, Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell blamed input costs and taxation.
“Barrels used to be $30 apiece, and they’re $150 now. Corn was once $1 a bushel, and now it’s $7 a bushel,” Russell said. “And everywhere you go in the United States, if it’s spirits, 55 to 65 percent of the cost is tax. If you take that off, it’s going to be a pretty cheap product. It’s taxes, not the company.”
Asked what the future holds for bourbon, several distillers say booming international demand will result in increased production, additional jobs, product line extensions and continued booming sales.
“In India, for example, there are a lot of folks of drinking age who’ve never experienced bourbon, but they’ve had a lot of scotch,” said Noe. “The Chinese market … well there’s a hell of a lot of people over there. If we can get a few of them to drink bourbon, we’ll do really well!”