September marks National Bourbon Heritage Month, an opportunity for people all over the country to celebrate something many Kentuckians grew up celebrating.
We may see that fragrant nectar of the gods — that amber gateway to some of the best bad decisions ever made — as an old buddy we sometimes take for granted. But for others it can be almost exotic.
Jill Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, loves to talk about a couple from Australia who vacation at the festival every other year, sampling hard-to-find bourbons that we can pluck off a shelf whenever we feel like it at our local Kroger.
So instead of taking Kentucky’s greatest gift to cocktails for granted, let’s approach National Bourbon Heritage Month like one of those deprived Australians and dive in.
Here are some events you shouldn’t miss this September:
Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Now in its 27th year, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is the largest bourbon festival in the world. Hawkins has been with the festival for six years and loves what it has done for the industry and Bardstown, which has thrived as its host.
Around 50,000 people are expected to attend the multi-day event Sept. 12-16. They’ll find tastings, seminars, a car show, golf tournament, art and three days of live music.
“There’s a lot of talk about bourbon and a lot of attention being paid to bourbon right now, and new people have been learning to love bourbon,” Hawkins said. “We call that ‘coming to the right side.’ People are falling love with it all over the world.”
The festival, which began as a simple dinner party attended by industry heavyweights, has solidified Bardstown’s claim to be the world’s bourbon capital. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s bourbon is estimated to be made in or near Bardstown.
The state’s recent focus on bourbonism and the development of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Urban Bourbon Trail were all developed long after the festival’s start, and Hawkins feels that the fest was ground zero.
“I think that the festival was a great example of everything that was possible with bourbon,” Hawkins said. “People were looking for new experiences and they found the festival and it really set a good tone for those consumers.”
The festival still focuses on all aspects of the industry, Hawkins said, from farmers to barrel makers. Warehouse workers compete in the fan-favorite World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay, a racing contest.
“We always say we celebrate the entire industry and we really mean it,” Hawkins said.
The festival is free to attend but some specialty events, such as seminars, are ticketed. Go to www.kybourbonfestival.com for a full list of free and paid events.
Bourbon & Beyond and Louder Than Life
These sister music festivals are staged by a California company that has fully embraced the bourbon trend and run on consecutive weekends.
Bourbon & Beyond is Sept. 22-23 and Louder Than Life Sept. 28-30. Bourbon and plenty of it, along with seminars and bourbon-paired dinners, is the common thread between the two. Other than that they are very different.
Bourbon & Beyond‘s vibe is more mainstream rock with a retro twist, starring Sting, Robert Plant, John Mayer, David Byrne and Sheryl Crow. Louder Than Life is for metal and hard rock fans and stars Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains and Godsmack.
Both festivals will feature massive bourbon bars sponsored by the Courier Journal.
Urban Bourbon Trail
The Urban Bourbon Trail is a team of local restaurants and bars that feature bourbon, sometimes a lot of bourbon, and they’re located throughout Louisville.
On Saturday, a fresh new passport for the Urban Bourbon Trail will be released at the Louisville Visitor Center, 301 S 4th St., so stop by and grab one. They’re free and you get an official Urban Bourbon Trail t-shirt once you fill it.
On Sept. 20, the Louisville Visitor Center will host an Urban Bourbon Trail Night from 6-8 p.m.. They’ll introduce new members to the trail and give especially thirsty members a chance to fill their passport in one night, and because it’s National Bourbon Heritage Month, you’ll get a second free gift.
All bourbon merchandise will be on sale Sept. 20 for 25 percent off, which is pretty smart when you consider how easy it is to buy stuff while drinking.
For more information, visit Bourboncountry.com.
The Great Distillery BBQ Cook-Off
This is the second year that Jim Beam and its master distiller, Fred Noe, have hosted the Great Distillery BBQ Cook-Off.
The barbecue competition is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 8 in Clermont, Kentucky, where Jim Beam is made, and will feature distillers from around the state using their bourbons in the name of barbecue, putting “their meat where their mash is,” according to Beam’s hype.
Attendance is free but the wide range of available cocktails, and the distillery tours, will require cash and credit. There will also be live music, games, and meet-and-greets with distillers.
Maker’s Mark Delectable Distillery Tour
This is a much more fancy version of a Maker’s Mark distillery tour and it benefits APRON, Inc., a Louisville-based charity that helps service workers in the food industry.
Held Sept. 13 from 5-8 p.m. at the famed Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, attendees will get a tour of the distillery, a four-course meal made by five Louisville chefs, and an opportunity for a bottle of Maker’s they get to dip in the iconic red wax.
Tickets are available at Makersmark.com and cost $130-$160