Get much into the South and you find that many city folk, even those of quite modest means, own their own formalwear. Having a tux in the closet (even a cheap one like mine) can be important in a place like Louisville. It’s evidence that, unwashed heathen that you are, you can still don the armor of the civilized and go get polluted in style.
Case in point this past weekend, over which Mrs. Pastry and I attended the annual Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala down in Bardstown, Kentucky, the epicenter of the state’s whiskey industry. It’s an event that’s one part society ball, two parts trade show, and nine parts all-you-can-drink bourbon whiskey blowout. I never miss it.
The venue is usually a distillery warehouse of some sort, inside of which all the state’s major distillers set up booths where the whiskey flows unimpeded for about two solid hours. Each distiller is eager to show off its new wares — new liquors and cocktails that its mixologists have prepared — and pours, pours, pours until the ceiling lights come up and the tipsy are funneled into a wedding tent for dinner, dancing and meet-and-greets with the governor, et al. We skip everything after the drinking.
What I like about the “Bourbon Ball” as it’s often called, other than the inebriation of course, is that it teaches you quite a bit. For the curious, it provides access to the master distillers from all the major Kentucky brands (Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Blanton’s, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, 1792 and others) who’ll answer any question you might have about the art of spirit-making.
Something I’ve learned over the years is that there are two main schools of bourbon fanciers in Kentucky. There are those who fondly regard bourbon as a low-class hillbilly tipple — and thus relish young whiskies for their burn and bite — and those who view it as a potential rival to any of the fine spirits of the world (cognacs and brandies) and seek to elevate it through more refining and aging.
Kentucky produces whiskeys for both those groups and many shades in between. Thus you have the sweet, accessible vanilla and caramel flavors of Maker’s Mark and 1776, the slightly rougher and more wood barrel-tasting Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, and the downright earthy Michter’s. Of course most distillers produce whiskeys in several different styles in an attempt to capture more of the total market for themselves.
Being a member of burn and bite school, I have a great time at the ball pestering the brand reps for whatever young and belligerent bottle they might have hanging around in the back. Usually the response is a polite brush-off, but occasionally I’m rewarded with a taste of some just-from-the-vat 125+ proof bourbon that has the taste and nose of a lumbering backhoe and the finish of a low-flying jet aircraft.
I wake up the next day with all the symptoms of a severaly sprained liver, but at least I know I spent the evening drinking like a Kentuckian. Here’s to next year!