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My Kentucky Bourbon Affair (AKA, Whiskey Nerd Fantasy Camp)

Editor’s Note: The Kentucky Distillers’ Association was kind enough to waive fees for me to attend most of the events mentioned in this story. While appreciative of this, the editorial in this article remains under independent control of The Whiskey Wash.

So I have a confession to make…I had an affair last week. Not a one night stand either, but one stretching for several days across parts of Kentucky. And my affair wasn’t with a woman, mind you, but rather bourbon, as in the Kentucky Bourbon Affair. Here my tale now begins…

The Kentucky Bourbon Affair, for lack of a better way to describe it, is bourbon fantasy camp for whiskey nerds like myself. It just wrapped its second year of existence, spreading multiple events at different venues within driving distance of Louisville. Not that I drove, mind you, as the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which put on the Affair, made sure there were plenty of buses on hand to take me and other bourbon drinkers to various distilleries and other locations where our common favorite spirit was being explained, drank, tasted and much, much more.

While the Affair is not the only public facing event the Association puts on along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail each year, it is the one which seems to give you the most intimate time hanging out with some of the legends which have made bourbon what it is today. Whether it was having a one on one conversation with Jim Beam’s Fred Noe about old Beam ceramic bourbon containers while barbecuing at his family’s historic home, or hanging out with Jimmy and Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey in their distillery’s oldest warehouse while tasting rare whiskies, the different experiences of the Affair aimed to place you front and center in the bourbonverse.

My first Affair outing took me to the beautiful Four Roses distillery, at which those of us who had gathered for a day of learning about its operations also found out we were present during the ceremonial groundbreaking of a massive expansion project. Our tour guide through all of this, noted Four Roses historian and brand ambassador Al Young, was very knowledgeable about anything and everything having to do with this bourbon making outfit. The day concluded with a blending your own bourbon from various Four Roses recipes led by master distiller Jim Rutledge.

Four Roses' Jim Rutledge
Jim Rutledge of Four Roses fame leads a bourbon blending session. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Following a wonderful dinner and whiskey tasting, including a very rare 1936 Heaven Hill bourbon, at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville, I found myself the next day on a bus with a few other intrepid travelers to Wild Turkey. Strangely we ended up being a small group all total, which didn’t bother me as it gave me plenty of nearly one on one time with legendary distillers Eddie and Jimmy Russell. Eddie Russell led us on a rather exhaustive and very comprehensive tour of the distillery’s operations, sprinkling our time with an unlimited number of tales (some perhaps tall) of his father Jimmy Russell and ye olden days of bourbon lore.

Speaking of Jimmy Russell, part of the experience at Wild Turkey brought us to the oldest warehouse on site (circa 1890) at the massive whiskey making complex. It was here, as we overlooked a table placed with flights of rare Turkey whiskey, that the elder bourbon spokesman gently ambled in to join us alongside his wonderful wife. It was humbling in a way to watch him emerge through the warehouse door and walk towards us, passing under floors of ancient Kentucky bourbon making history. Both this man and the building he strolled through reflect a more romantic, and perhaps as well more wild, time of American whiskey left behind by the bigger players in an era of more push button style spirits creating.

Wild Turkey's Eddie Russell
Wild Turkey distilling legend Eddie Russell pauses to consider a bourbon during a tasting. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Leaving the Russells at Wild Turkey after a wonderful lunch, the second evening of my Affair found me at the historic home of Beam, as in Jim Beam, in Bardstown. It was here, set amongst more bourbon history, that I got to experience in small group fashion the boisterous man that is Beam master distiller Fred Noe. Noe is a force to be reckoned with in the whiskey world, there is no doubt, but in sitting with him one on one for awhile, you also saw a more relaxed side which engaged me in conversation about a growing collection of ceramic Beam bourbon containers I have. That being said, the man did shortly later dump a nearly full bottle of Booker’s Bourbon onto a barbecue full of cooking meat to help things along, so take what you will from learning about a person who has been in the bourbon business pretty much his whole life.

Jim Beam's Fred Noe
Master distiller Fred Noe of Jim Beam feeds the flames with some Booker’s Bourbon. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Now the Russells and Noe, particularly when Fred Noe’s father Booker Noe was alive, seem to have a good friendship which transcends the fact both their distilleries are now owned by rival spirits conglomerates. They spoke genuinely with fondness and respect for each other’s camps, perhaps again reflecting to a time when crafting bourbon here was at a different speed. Jimmy Russell even sent me along with a verbal message of sorts for Noe, which I was much amused by.

Having left the quarters of bourbon legends, my final full Affair day found me at the grounds of the Woodford Reserve distillery. There is no doubt the folks here know they have a good thing, as by the time my experience with a small group was over, the place was crawling with guided tours. It didn’t necessarily impact the overall sense though of this being a quality whiskey making operation, particularly as I watched (and recorded on video – see below) the time honored tradition of rolling whiskey filled barrels from the distillery to an aging warehouse via a special track in the ground.

In what was likely the signature event for me during my time in Kentucky I got to partake in a special sensory whiskey tasting experience. In this undertaking the group I was with was presented with food pairings designed to highlight qualities imparted by the mostly bourbons to your tasting palate. The selections on each plate were spot on in bringing different nuances of the whiskies forward, showing off the skills of the knowledgeable staff leading our event. We even got the chance to smell warmed wood from barrels used to age their bourbon. How often can you say you’ve done that at a distillery?

Woodford Sensory Experience
Smelling warmed bourbon barrel wood at Woodford Reserve. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

…And so there you have it, my confession of an Affair. It isn’t something I’ve been ashamed to share with you, fellow whiskey lovers, and certainly it would be a rendezvous I would repeat again given the chance. Until then, I shall have my hundreds of digital pictures and videos, as well as quite a few bottles of bourbon, to help keep the flames of my whiskey memories lit.

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and provided tasting input on many whiskeys at competitions. He also maintains a large private collection of whiskey from which he continually educates his palate on this brown spirit type.

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