Last week, April 7th and 8th, the Society of Wine Educators hosted their first spirits-focused mini-conference in Louisville, KY with Bourbon as the centerpiece. It was a full house at the Brown Hotel, and the Bourbon conversations started to buzz at the welcoming happy hour. Attendees had traveled from all over the US as well as a few folks coming from Hong Kong and Shanghai to learn about America’s favorite spirit. It might have been the location—after all, 95% of Bourbon is produced in Kentucky—and every speaker and tour guide boasted that there are more Bourbon barrels ageing in the state than residents.
We kicked off the seminars early in the morning with Chris Morris, master distiller from Woodford Reserve. He gave us the foundation for the next couple days with an in-depth analysis of the distillation process and how Woodford Reserve does things slightly different. Longer than usual fermentations (5 days as opposed to the normal 3 days), a developed “double barrel” program, sour and sweet mashes, and a particular attention to the “five sources of flavor” (fruit and floral, spice, grain, sweet aromatics, and wood) are some of the tools that Chris uses in crafting delicious Bourbons.
Beth Burrows, general manager at Down One Bourbon Bar, brought a different twist to the subject with her innovative variations of some classic cocktails. The wine geek attendees were seduced by Beth’s use of Barolo Chinato and Cocchi di Torino to craft two variations on the Manhattan. She used a jalapeño infused simple syrup and herbs to make one of the best Bombini cocktails I’ve ever had. Then, the room was lit up (literally), when Beth demonstrated setting fire to some hay in order to smoke a glass in which to serve a cocktail. All this flare aside, the lesson was to match the base spirit to all the other flavors present in the drink.
After a lovely lunch at the hotel, we all boarded a pair of buses and took off for distillery tours at Jim Beam and Bulleit. Beam makes 50% of all the Bourbon produced in KY, but the tour was incredibly personal and hands on. The buses weaved through the myriad of rickhouses, where all the barrels are stored—four years for Beam White Label. We were able to taste the fermenting mash, dip our fingers in the distillate right off the still, and smell the aged whiskeys are they headed to the bottling line. Some attendees were able to take away a bottle with their fingerprint in the wax closure!
Next, the folks at Bulleit treated us to an entirely different experience. Bulleit is housed in the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery. It is quite a bit different in that the base spirit is not distilled on site; however, they revealed plans to build a large new facility within a few years in order to consolidate operations. Highlights of the tour included visiting the historic cooperage and hanging out for a short time in Tom Bulleit’s office.
The day was topped off with an incredible dinner with cocktail pairings at Proof Restaurant and Bar, located in Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel. The 21C is a modern art museum as well as a hotel, so we dined surrounded by art (and even hanging above us). In between courses, Hoke Harden, CSE took us on a journey through the history of Bourbon, the various foundational families, and the events that led Bourbon to find a home in Kentucky. Heading back to the Brown, everybody was in a state of bliss, with full bellies and inspired minds.