Bourbon Lodge Makes Big Splash at Louisville’s Forecastle Music Festival

Stage an outdoor music festival in most states and you can expect the masses to hydrate with water, soft drinks, and beer. OK, maybe some wine and the random premixed cocktail.

Do a 60-act, three-day outdoor fest in Kentucky, and bourbon is the libation of choice. And not the bottom shelf stuff, either.

At this year’s 15th-annual Forecastle music festival, thousands of whiskey fans sought to beat the heat by tasting some 40 different bourbons, including some rarities, inside the Bourbon Lodge. The tented, air conditioned retreat, decorated to resemble a Southern juke joint, served as a whiskey oasis for revelers seeking a drink and some shade amid the 94-degree heat.

Forecastle creator J.K. McKnight sought for years to incorporate bourbon into his now-massive music event, which draws more than 60,000 people annually. Billing it as a uniquely Kentucky event, McKnight thought it natural to fortify the experience with the Commonwealth’s best known beverage. The lone challenge to making a significant whiskey statement, he said, centered on convincing the state’s distillers to join the effort.

“We started pretty small five years ago in a (30’ x 30’) tent, but we learned very quickly that we needed to expand it,” said McKnight, who started Forecastle with local music acts gathering in a small neighborhood park. It’s now held at the city’s sprawling Waterfront Park, an 85-acre green space overlooking the Ohio River, and it attracts a slew of nationally and internationally known performers. “Now the Bourbon Lodge is over 15,000 square feet, and it’s one of the largest experiential bourbon applications in the country.”

Bourbon Lodge

Bourbons for tasting in the Bourbon Lodge (image via Steve Coomes/The Whiskey Wash)

McKnight convinced the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) that bringing its members to the event would give them exposure to a vast audience, and he’s delivered on that promise. This year, attendees came from 13 countries, 49 American states and 2,400 cities.

KDA members “were thinking no one would drink bourbon when it’s this hot outside, but they saw they did,” said Adam Johnson, senior director of the KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences. “We’ve seen that it’s great exposure for our guys, and it’s bigger every year.”

Though not inexpensive. Atop the cost of a general admission ticket to Forecastle (a three-day pass costs $149.95), attendees paid $25 in advance to reserve admission to the Bourbon Lodge. Then, on the way in, they paid even more for paper tickets to exchange for ¼-oz., ½-oz. and 1-oz. bourbon pours, or full cocktails that cost $8-$13.

At distillery-specific booths, 1-oz. pours ranged mostly from $8 to $12. At a separate Bourbon Rarities bar, the fee nearly doubled. A 1-oz. pour of Wild Turkey Master’s Keep 17-year cost $18, the Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary Bourbon pour sold for $20, and Michter’s 10-year bourbon commanded $22 per 1-oz. pour. Those prices made tastes of a slew of Four Roses Limited Editions seem modest at $12 each.

“You’d be surprised how many people are buying the 10-year,” said Kyle Lloyd, quality control manager at Michter’s Distillery in Shively, Kentucky. “It’s like people are thinking, ‘If I’ve come this far, I want to taste something I can’t get at home or won’t buy a whole bottle of.’”

Even the KDA’s Johnson agreed that some whiskey pours seemed on the high side before adding, “Since it’s a festival, and things are usually expensive, I still think prices are pretty good. There are a lot of bourbons on that Rarities Bar that most people only get to read about.”

Visitors also got to meet Kentucky distillers they’ve only seen in pictures or become acquainted with through news coverage. Whiskey writer Fred Minnick, who led a series of Fireside Chats with industry personalities, said he wasn’t surprised by the rock-star reception fans gave bourbon personalities.

“They want to talk to the panelists like Brent Elliott (master distiller at Four Roses) and Al Young (Four Roses brand ambassador),” Minnick said. Jim Beam master distiller “Fred Noe had a line of people waiting to talk to him, and a lot of people were eager to meet Bruce Russell (Wild Turkey’s new brand ambassador and son of master distiller Eddie Russell).”

Minnick’s chats discussed slightly technical subjects of distilling, such as the influence of yeast and barrels on bourbon’s flavor, as well as lighter matters like bourbon trivia and distillers’ family heritage.

“I think it’s really amazing how much bourbon knowledge people want to absorb at a very high level,” Minnick said. Most inquisitors, he said, were in their late 20s, and according to addresses acquired in onsite signups for his personal newsletter, 75 percent of people were from out of town. “I’m getting more in-depth questions than ever; they want to know about mash bills and blend percentages and age and barrel finishes.”

Minnick believes that such a positive reception for a higher-end bourbon experience proves that the all-American spirit has gained significant footing with a younger demographic, even in the somewhat surprising venue of a music festival.

“Bourbon is its own rock star, so people are looking to do things around bourbon,” Minnick said. “If you polled people who came to the Bourbon Lodge, I’d bet you a lot of them would say they were here for the bourbon first and the music second.”

Why, exactly? Minnick credited this year’s new Rarities Bar with much of the draw.

“They’re getting to taste things they just can’t get everywhere,” he said. “You come to Kentucky to get a taste of this many of these in one place.”

About the author

Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning restaurant industry veteran turned food writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. In 2013, he published his first book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke." A past restaurant critic for Louisville magazine, he pens features for Edible Louisville, Food & Dining Magazine and ghostwrites for multiple clients.