Kentucky Bourbon Festival 2023: Catching up with the Commonwealth

Kentucky Bourbon Festival 2023: Catching up with the Commonwealth

With the 2023 Kentucky Bourbon Festival around the corner, Maggie Kimberl explores the developments in the state's whiskey scene in the past year

News | 12 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Kentucky Bourbon has a relatively short history compared with other beverage traditions such as wine or beer. While the alembic still is commonly thought to have been invented by Maria the Jewess sometime between the first and third centuries AD, it wouldn’t be used to make whiskey for another thousand years. By the time settlers came from Europe to North America, a still was a standard piece of farm equipment. As westward expansion pushed settlers further into the continent, whiskey making became even more important. In the late 1700s, Kentucky was still part of the Wild West. The rye that had been grown in the Northern colonies didn’t do very well in the wet, humid climate of Kentucky, but corn grew exceptionally well. As Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell likes to point out, if rice had grown here then bourbon would be made of rice. As it stands, corn has long been the cornerstone of Kentucky’s economy, and that’s why its amber nectar is celebrated every September during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.


A little over a decade ago, there were eight large distilleries in Kentucky; peppered among them were a few smaller distilleries that would eventually be called ‘craft’. It had been this way since about the 1970s, when America’s love of Kentucky bourbon had declined, and this combined with overproduction issues put several distilleries out of business. But slowly consumer interest in bourbon was renewed, and the now widely recognised bourbon boom began to percolate. Today there are more than 90 distilleries across Kentucky alone, and a whopping 2,230 nationwide.


This means that distillery construction and renovation is a perpetual process. Buffalo Trace has been building new rickhouses with the capacity for tens of thousands of barrels each at a rate of one to two per year on a property across the river from the distillery. A new stillhouse on the historic site was dedicated in February, when some guests also got the first sneak peek at Stagg Lodge, a five-bedroom invitation-only accommodation built in 2020 but not yet open to the public.


Heaven Hill broke ground for a new distillery in its home of Bardstown, Kentucky last summer. The family-owned company’s original distillery burned in 1996, and Heaven Hill bought the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville in 1999 to continue production.


“The people of Bardstown have helped us create and build our brands over all these many years, so it’s a special homecoming to bring distilling back to this community,” said Heaven Hill president Max Shapira. “Our new distillery will honour our long-time Bardstown roots while applying state-of-the-art equipment and processes to produce the highest-quality American whiskey and build upon our meaningful partnership with Bardstown and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

An artist's impression of the Heaven's Door Distillery, which is being built in Kentucky. Credit: Heaven's Door

Meanwhile, Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience filled its 2,000th barrel in March of 2023, and Josh Hollifield, formerly of Barton, was named general manager of the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience in Bardstown. The company also released a 20-year-old corn whiskey this year, much to the excitement of consumers.

Across the Commonwealth, Blue Run Spirits is also building a brand-new distillery – but this will be for its much newer brand, which was launched in October of 2020.


“We have 130 acres in Georgetown, and we are essentially across the street from Toyota and…Country Boy Brewing,” says Blue Run Spirits co-founder and CEO Mike Montgomery. “We’re going for a fully modernised look and feel. Essentially, we’re hoping to elevate the experience to a degree that hasn’t been seen before, from an experience point, an architectural standpoint, and a service standpoint. It’s been an exciting process from day one; we did not expect to accelerate as quickly as we did. Our idea is that they go from customer to friend, to family, and that we’re building and growing along with them.”


Blue Run Spirits has benefited from some of the industry’s top talent, including liquid advisor Jim Rutledge and whiskey director Shaylyn Gammon.


“It’s been a dream to work with both of them, and in many ways, they are a lot alike,” Montgomery says. “They have absolutely discerning palates, they know what they like and what’s good, and they know what they don’t like and what’s not good, and they stick to that. Jim, with 50 years of experience in the industry, brings so much perspective and history and ability to know what works and what doesn’t work, and Shaylyn looks like a mad scientist who can come up with some incredible blends. I think we’re really just scratching the surface in terms of where we can go, given the ability to work with these two.”

A render of the new Blue Run Spirits Distillery. Credit: Blue Run Spirits

Meanwhile, Green River is expanding its whiskey portfolio, Kentucky Owl’s distillery in Bardstown is under construction, Old Forester opened a short-term rental lodging called The Sleepeasy, and Kentucky Peerless’s Caleb Kilburn was named Master Distiller of the Year in the 2023 Icons of Whisky America competition.

Another exciting project underway is the Heaven’s Door Distillery. This brand partners with Bob Dylan to showcase his art alongside whiskey.


“This is a momentous occasion for Heaven’s Door,” said Marc Bushala, CEO of Heaven’s Door Spirits. “We selected this location for its remarkable natural beauty and unique ecosystem that has enabled us to make exceptional bourbon and create an unrivalled visitor experience. We are committed to the art of craft whiskey and honour the legacy of the many pioneers who have helped make Kentucky bourbon what it is today. We are thrilled to have Heaven’s Door be part of this storied tradition.”


In addition to a 160-acre distillery opening this September in Pleasureville, Kentucky, Heaven’s Door will open a Louisville visitor experience that will both showcase the brand and house one of the largest offerings of American whiskey in the United States.


Additional new visitor experiences in Louisville include Old Carter and Buzzard’s Roost. The Old Carter facility is not currently open for tours, but brand loyalists can join the Old Carter Social Club to get first access to Old Carter releases and invitations to private events on-site. The Buzzard’s Roost experience is, by contrast, open for visitors – however, reservations are currently limited and so are highly recommended.

Hannah Lowen, Mollie Lewis, Ken Lewis, and Denny Gorman of New Riff Distilley. Credit: Gage Dailey

Many established distilleries across the Commonwealth are still experiencing firsts, regardless of their long histories. Jim Beam, which is one of the world’s largest producers of bourbon, has just released its first-ever American single malt whiskey, Clermont Steep.


The James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky has also released its first widely available bottled-in-bond whiskeys made entirely on-site after doubling production capacity last year. The James E. Pepper Distillery was originally founded in 1879 and went out of business in 1961. In 2008, bartender-turned-entrepreneur Amir Peay discovered the brand and set to work researching its history and acquiring the branding and trademarks, finally relaunching it in 2010 as a contract-distilled brand. In 2014, Peay began rebuilding the James E. Pepper Distillery on its original site, and by late 2017 he and his team were distilling again. Old Pepper Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon and Rye expressions are now available in the market in 39 states and six countries.


In Northern Kentucky, the New Riff Distillery is undergoing a US$3 million renovation of its public-facing spaces.

“We’ve always been focused on providing visitors an engaging way to learn about New Riff and our award-winning spirits,” said vice president of operations Hannah Lowen (who’s set to become the company’s CEO when founder Ken Lewis steps down in 2024). “As New Riff’s popularity has grown, people are looking to share in the experience, whether that be through our tours, tastings, unique events, or by having a drink at The Aquifer, which we’ve long outgrown. This renovation will create comfortable, inviting spaces for conversation, education, or simply enjoying the product we all love.”


In people news, Jane Bowie and Denny Potter departed from Maker’s Mark to start their own distillery. Kentucky’s first female master distiller, Marianne Eaves, has launched her own bourbon brand, Forbidden, and Jackie Zykan has departed Old Forester to launch several of her own projects.


Earlier this year, Brown-Forman named Elizabeth McCall as master distiller of Woodford Reserve, as Chris Morris stepped into the role of master distiller emeritus.


“I am humbled to stand upon the foundation built by Chris Morris, who is one of the most well-known and respected master distillers in the world,” McCall said. “I look forward to following in his footsteps and crafting the world’s finest bourbon.”


Meanwhile, Angel’s Envy has tapped Stranahan’s alum Owen Martin to be the master distiller of the Louisville distillery. “Angel’s Envy has always strived to revere tradition while embracing progress, so when looking for our new master distiller, we knew we needed to find someone who fully embodied that philosophy and innovative spirit,” said Gigi DaDan, general manager of Angel’s Envy. “Owen’s experience in product development and experimentation and his progressive outlook regarding what’s next for the industry, as well as the leadership he has demonstrated throughout his career in defining and championing American whiskey categories, make him a perfect fit to lead Angel’s Envy into our exciting future.”

The James E. Pepper Distillery. Credit: James E. Pepper

The KBF in 2023


The Kentucky Bourbon Festival marks its 32nd year in 2023, but it has been undergoing major changes since 2020, which were in the works even before the pandemic. The festival started off as a golf scramble and luncheon and eventually evolved to a town picnic in the city of Bardstown that was open to the public. There was a beer garden and carnival-style food vendors, but there were few opportunities to actually taste bourbon.


“Not only do you get to sample from 55 different distilleries, but you’re also able to buy bottles from the distilleries that are legally able to sell, so that’s kind of the big thing that we’ve been working on over the last year,” explains Randy Prasse, president and COO of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. “We went from 11 distilleries in 2019 to 34 in 2021, 48 last year, and we’ve got 55 or 56 signed up now.”


Prior to the festival’s revamp, several of the major distilleries had dropped out. The increase in distillery participation not only means a better consumer experience, but also signals greater brand confidence in the quality of the festival.


“At one point we had a golf tournament, we had a pancake breakfast, so a lot of things that were ‘nice to have’ community activities, but not really anything that was critical to being a bourbon festival,” Prasse recalls. “Each one of those non-essential bourbon festival events went away, and we back-filled them with more focus on the distilleries themselves. We got away from trying to be everything to everybody and instead put the distillery and the enthusiast face-to-face. We still have some music, but it’s definitely in the background and more ambiance, which is what we want.”


Over the last 32 years, the distilling landscape of both Bardstown and the rest of the Commonwealth has shifted dramatically. Every year more visitors seek out bourbon experiences, and for the last few years distillery tours, which were once available to anyone who showed up, have had to be scheduled weeks if not months in advance. This is due partly to the bourbon boom and partly to the attention distillers are giving to improving the visitor experience. This trend is also having a major impact on the Kentucky Bourbon Festival itself.

Revellers at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in 2022. Credit: Zach Sinclair

“We’re now closing at 6 o’clock at night on Friday and Saturday and at 4 o’clock on Sunday,” Prasse says. “It’s allowing the Bourbon Festival attendees to have the festival experience, a very unique experience with all of that sampling available to them, and then in the evenings we’re encouraging and working with the different distilleries to do their own events at their campuses. Look at Dant’s Log Still, you look at Heaven Hill, you look at Lux Row, just in the immediate area – they’ve all invested significantly in their visitor experience and their dining experiences and in their event spaces. They produce the events, we don’t sell tickets to it, it’s not a Kentucky Bourbon Festival-sanctioned event per se, but it is something that when they do come up with their concepts, we are promoting to our festival attendees to do after the festival closes at 6 o’clock. It allows each of the distilleries to control their themes. It’s really cool to see the distilleries being able to offer opportunities for Bourbon Festival attendees to see their campus, especially when the tours are booked out months in advance.”


All the brands represented at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival have to have a tie to Kentucky, even food vendors and general merchandise vendors.


“The nexus on everything we do is they all have to have a connection to Kentucky in the spirits industry,” explains Prasse. “All the distilleries have to be distilled, barrelled, aged, bottled – it has to be a Kentucky bourbon.”


Bottle sales will be available right at the tasting booths for brands that meet the necessary criteria, a unique feature the Kentucky Bourbon Festival now has that other whiskey festivals do not. In recent years the festival has partnered with local package stores to sell KBF Private Barrel picks, but a change in the law allows for producers to sell their wares directly to consumers this year.

Guests raise a toast at the 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Credit: Zach Sinclair

“Our single barrels now will be sold by the bourbon companies, so rather than people coming in and standing in one long line, now consumers are once again having that opportunity to have face-to-face engagement with the distilleries, which is what both parties wanted,” Prasse says. “We’re just removing the middleman, so to speak, by not having to have that retail partner and the distribution in the middle. They can sell it directly to the consumer.”


This is the third year of the festival’s revamp process, and while some of the festival’s local patrons have not been pleased with losing the ‘church picnic’ vibe with bouncy houses for the kids, there have been no problems with ticket sales for the new format.


“In year three of the new model, we’re not losing anybody, and they’re finally getting their arms around the opportunity and they’re getting excited,” enthuses Prasse. “The biggest changes to the festival are now being driven by the distilleries who are participating. We create the forum for them to go in and make it their own, and they’re doing that.”


Prasse says another marked improvement at this year's festival compared with previous years will be the food offering, which faced some challenges after the pandemic but is now really coming into its own. The offering will include 12 to 14 top vendors from the Louisville Food Truck Association, all of whom have been asked to incorporate bourbon into at least one of their menu items.


Whether you’re a diehard festival fan or a lover of Kentucky bourbon looking for a unique experience, this year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival promises to deliver a top-shelf Kentucky bourbon experience to all. 

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