1 Bartender Josh Duerr
Bartender Josh Duerr made cocktails with Bulleit Bourbon last year. (Photos courtesy of The Bourbon Classic)

As many as 1,000 bourbon connoisseurs and enthusiasts are expected to attend the 2014 Bourbon Classic when it returns Jan. 31 to Feb. 1. The second annual event will be held at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and feature a host of industry icons, distillers, cocktail experts, cocktail and appetizer competitions, and even classes on using Kentucky nectar.

Approximately 750 turned out for last year’s event, even though it coincided with the beginning of March Madness (and we all know how that turned out!). And since bourbon quite possibly ranks second to college basketball in the commonwealth, organizers decided to move the event backward on the calendar.

“We felt there was a lot of energy centered around the tournament, so we knew we didn’t schedule it again then,” said Seth Thompson, co-owner of The Bourbon Review, and co-creator of the Classic. Any closer to the Kentucky Derby wasn’t wise, he said, and a fall date would run too close to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. “We thought this date provided a nice buffer from the holidays and would give people a good month to develop some cabin fever. It’s also great bourbon drinking weather.”

The event kicks off Friday, Jan. 31, with the annual Cocktail Challenge, a two-part battle of the booze in which teams pairing one bartender and one chef each create a classic cocktail and a small plate pairing to present to judges. The second part of the competition features contemporary cocktails and paired appetizers.

Throughout the competition, attendees will get to sample the cocktails and drinks for themselves.

This year’s competition includes a stellar lineup of chefs and bartenders backed by bourbon distillers:

  • Angel’s Envy: Bradley Hammond, Decca, chef Terry French, Extreme Chef, Philadelphia
  • Blanton’s: Chris Wilkins, Proof on Main, chef Levon Wallace, Proof on Main
  • Buffalo Trace: Colin Shearn, El Camino, chef Jonathan Lundy, Jonathan’s at Gratz Park, Lexington
  • Jim Beam: Isaac Fox, Volare, chef Josh Moore, Volare
  • Michter’s: JR Schiavi, Jack Fry’s, chef Shawn Ward, Jack Fry’s
  • Wild Turkey: Susie Hoyt, Silver Dollar, chef Tyler Powell, Silver Dollar
  • Woodford Reserve: Jacquelyn Zykan, La Coop, chef Bobby Benjamin, La Coop

The fact that bourbon-friendly foods are elevated throughout the Classic is part of the event’s uniqueness, Thompson said.

“The competition on Friday is great, but we wanted a stronger culinary presence for Saturday evening this year,” Thompson said. That night’s Bourbon Culinary Tastings will feature Proof chef Levon Wallace, Harvest chef Coby Ming, El Camino chef Brian Enyart, and Holly Hill Inn (Midway) chef Ouita Michel. “We wanted chefs who also are passionate about the local food movement, too. We’re excited about the lineup.”

Seviche chef-owner Anthony Lamas assembled cocktails paired with appetizers during the competition.
Seviche chef-owner Anthony Lamas assembles cocktails paired with appetizers.

Saturday’s schedule includes two general sessions featuring a group of distilling legends weighing in on bourbon’s soaring popularity and price. After that attendees can choose between eight Bourbon University Classes touching on drinking bourbon, pairing it with and using it in food, the basics of a well-stocked bourbon bar at home, even a class on bourbon-barreled beers.

If you’re a bourbon book reader, authors Joy Perrine, Fred Minnick, Albert Schmid, Colin Spoelman and Kara Newman will be on hand to sign copies of their works.

The evening is capped off with The Ultimate Bourbon Experience, where attendees get to taste a wide range of bourbons, bourbon-inspired food and other products.

Master distillers
Distilling legends on last year’s panel discussion.

Thompson said Saturday will be an excellent chance to meet many of the industry’s distilling icons such as Tom Bulleit (Bulleit Bourbon), Fred Noe, IV (Jim Beam), Wes Henderson (Angel’s Envy), Willie Pratt (Michter’s) and Harlen Wheatley (Buffalo Trace).

Micro-distillery newcomers coming include Cacao Prieto Distillery (makers of Widow Jane Bourbon in Rosendale, N.Y.) and Kings County Distillery (New York City)

“Daniel Prieto (owner of Cacao Prieto) also makes chocolate, so he’s going to teach a course on bourbon and chocolate,” Thompson said.

If you’ve got a VIP ticket, you’ll have exclusive access to the Amber Lounge, where several special bourbon tastings will be offered. You’ll also get some good face time with distillers.

Such a premium event does come with a premium price. Standard tickets for Friday cost $125 per person; VIP tickets are $175. On Saturday, the price goes up to $145 for standard tickets, and $195 for VIPs. Buy a two-day package and you save a bit: $249 for standard admission; $355 for VIP admission.

Prices get decidedly cheaper if you buy your tickets in a group. Check the website for details or call 502-584-7777.

Thompson said dress for the event is typically business casual.

“We didn’t see anyone in black ties last year, but we saw plenty of jeans and sports coats,” he said.

Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.


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