By Tate Luckey
Growing up, I was always under the impression that bourbon was a drink that put hair on your chest. It was meant for old card-playing guys who watched the slights in each other’s eyes as they puffed on cigars.
Being at Bourbon and Beyond showed me that actually, anyone can enjoy it. The industry has about as much history as the spirit itself has depth of flavor.
The generations at Wild Turkey
I first trekked to the Longbranch Bourbon Mobile Bar where I met brand manager Christina Valdes. She introduced me to Bruce Russell, a third-generation whiskey maker at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg. His grandfather, Jimmy, (Or Mimmy as Bruce refers to him) was the first in his family to sell the stuff; this year marks his 69th year at the distillery. This is Bruce’s 13th.
We shared a classic cocktail at the bar: a “Kentucky Sunrise”, a bourbon-based riff on the popular “Tequila Sunrise” made with the company’s Longbranch whiskey. It was lighter and smoother, complimenting the citrus and fruit notes well. Incredibly refreshing given the angry sun of a Thursday afternoon.
Russell has been to other festivals like Coachella and ACL, but compares Bourbon and Beyond to more of a traditional distillery setting.
“A lot of people here are here as enthusiasts. They’re still tourists, but you can get a little bit nerdier here than at a normal concert venue. When I was growing up, you couldn’t have paid people to come listen about bourbon. Now there are hundreds of thousands of people who come to do the Bourbon Trail, and Louisville even has a booming tourism scene on Main Street,” he said.
There were a total of 26 different kinds of bourbon at the festival. Regardless of the spirit, Russell emphasizes that you have to be thoughtful when drinking.
“Sit, figure out what you’re drinking; don’t drink the spirit, move it around in your mouth a little bit. Bourbons are very different. Brown Foreman is a bit fruitier, Wild Turkey has more spice… Jim Beam has nuttiness,” he said. He described Longbranch as a “for everybody” kind of bourbon.
Russell learned a lot about his family working in the business. It’s a way for him to do something that is not only fun but also a way to learn about his dad and granddad that he wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
Enter Fred Minnick
Nearby on the Bourbon stage, Fred Minnick is a bourbon-tasting aficionado. He’s been professionally tasting and writing about bourbon since 2006, hosts tastings at the Kentucky Derby Museum, and records episodes of the podcast “Bourbon Pursuit” in his spare time. His garb radiated a similar aura to the spice of the spirit; dressed in tie and ascot, he taught the entranced crowd a lesson on the specifics of the drink. To him, it’s of the utmost importance people understand what they are tasting.
“We’re not here to drink it like we’re at U of L or Oklahoma State. We’re here to taste, and learn about it,” he said.
As the workers passed out tray after tray of mini sample cups to excitable attendees at the wooden tables, he explained the awards to hand out among the five finalists: “People’s Choice” (which was voted on by festival goers throughout the weekend) and “Best in Show”. Minnick elaborated that all palates are different, and to start with just a thimbleful of it on the tongue.
First, tasting begins with analyzing color. “When [bourbon] enters the barrel, it’s as clear as the water from your tap,” he described. All of the colors come from the wood of the barrel.
Next, when smelling, keep your mouth slightly open. “You’re relaxing your olfactory [organs],’ Minnick continues. Your nostrils work differently; one smells sweet notes, the other savory or spice. Glass A came off very sweet, “almost a cinnamon roll” to Minnick.
He perfected his tasting technique while visiting a therapist after serving in Iraq. The exercises he did showed him that taking time to understand his food led to discovering unique profiles he never thought of with things like chips. He focused directly on the spirit now, asking the crowd where they felt it — the tip, middle, back, or sides of the tongue.
“It’s like a big ole graham cracker just met up with some honey. I don’t know what Glass A is, but I really like me some Glass A.”
Finally, the finish; ask yourself “Do you still feel this on your tongue?”
Three Chord Bourbon
I decided to try some of Minnick’s tips with the bourbons offered at the festival, starting with Three Chord Bourbon’s latest release: the Backstage Series, part of a collaboration with local artists (this bottle was specifically endorsed by Nashville rock band Goodbye June).
“Why is it only artists like Slipknot or Metallica or Eric Church have bourbons? We could do that. We want to use this as an opportunity to show that the music is what we’re all about,” Ryan Gill, Three Chord’s director of brand partnerships, said.
After working in retail for 14 years, he knew everything he could about the Kentucky brands. Yet he was always fascinated at how, despite the product differences, they all worked together and knew each other.
They think of their master blender almost like a chef: they give him the best ingredients they can find, and he in turn sits with the band ruling out what stays and goes in the bottle. Utilizing their distilleries in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Texas, all that is found is saved and aged until it’s ready to be used in their warehouse in Michigan, where they do the blending. For this first bottle of the Backstage series, it took about a year to create.
The Goodbye June bottle is a blend of a five-year-aged Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey, with an additional mix of two Indiana whiskeys of various mash bills to add some spice and sweetness. It’s finished in a Michigan cherry bounce barrel, clocking in at a whopping 122 proof. While he’s a Manhattan cocktail fan, Gill recommends it over an ice cube or even in an old-fashioned.
Putting it into practice
I started, as Minnick said, with the nose. Mouth slightly agape, you could definitely pick up the cherry scent immediately. It was almost like a cherry cola. A small sip and swish are known to some as “The Kentucky Chew”. I felt it more in the middle of my tongue, where the spice immediately made itself known.
The band had a tasting immediately after their set and were unaware as to how high-proof it was. While their members downed nearly half the bottle, they remarked they could not believe how smooth it was. Once someone notified them that it was actually a lot stronger than what the press-proof label said, it was almost like the effects of such strength immediately hit them. Getting a group photo afterward, from what Gill tells me, was a bit more difficult than anticipated.
Early Bird Passes for Bourbon and Beyond’s 2024 festival can be found here.
File Photos // Tate Luckey, The Louisville Cardinal