Lots of mixing and sipping at the annual Mixed Drink Challenge. | All photos courtesy of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival

I wish I could have attended the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown when it began in 1991. Apparently it was as humble as home-made biscuits.

When I talked to Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey master distiller, earlier about it this year, he said, “Oh, you can’t believe what it’s like now compared to what it was then.”

He said several distilleries set up pop-up tents and card tables on the green lawn beside Spaulding Hall, home to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey. He doesn’t recall any marketing materials or merchandise given away by the handful now, just master distillers pouring tiny samples for attendees.

“The crowd was so small, the master distillers were going to each other’s tables and talking,” he recalled. “Sometimes we were the only ones drinking the samples, too.”

The annual barrel relay is far harder than you can imagine. Filled with water, each 500 pound barrel must be maneuvered against the clock, and positioned perfectly (bung up) in the rick.
The annual barrel relay is far harder than you can imagine. Filled with water, each 500 pound barrel must be maneuvered against the clock, and positioned perfectly (bung up) in the rick.

Now that’s believable.

The day concluded with a dinner at which the distillers and guests gathered for a long meal and, what else, tastes of each other’s whiskeys. Bourbon had not yet experienced the boom it would years later, so the dinner took on more of the feel of a networking event and celebration among peers.

A quarter century later, that’s all changed. Not only has that single-day festival become a seven-day festival (held this year from Sept. 12-18), there now are close to 50 events open to the public. Bourbon fans can find multiple tastings, plus cocktail mixing classes, distillery tours, a formal gala, a “spirits garden,” barrel rolling competitions (far harder, more strenuous and more interesting than you might think), the annual Oscar Getz Museum Master Distillers Auction and much more. Today’s festival is a celebration of the liquid, those who make it, the culture of bourbon and the people who love it. All in all, it makes for one heck of a great time to be in Bardstown.

Dawn Pryzstal, executive vice president of tourism in Nelson County (home not only to Bardstown but to 69 percent of the world’s bourbon production) and also a Festival board member, said the growth of the Festival has evolved most rapidly in the past 10 years. (Want to hear more about the fest from the lady herself, listen to my recent podcast with Dawn.)

“It used to be that it would take a while, maybe even until the day of an event to sell it out, but now those events like the Gala and the All-Star Sampler are selling out way in advance,” Pryzstal said. “Those tickets are going to people coming from 38 states and 14 foreign countries. Bourbon’s big everywhere, but the best party of the year is here.”

Were you to come, here’s just a short list of events that aren’t yet sold out:

Brand new this year is the 1792 Flights of Bourbon (a bourbon and cocktail sipping event) held outdoors at Samuel’s Field Airport, and Bottled-In-Bond-Fire, billed as a casual and less-expensive alternative to the black-tie gala. Also outside, attendees will find stations serving Bottled-In-Bond whiskeys around campfires.

One of the bourbon business's favorite couples: Fred and Sandy Noe.
One of the bourbon business’s favorite couples: Fred and Sandy Noe.

“If I had the time—no to mention the energy—after the Gala, I’d really want to go see Bottled in Bond-Fire,” Pryzstal said. “It’s a pretty hectic week for me, so I don’t get to do everything I want to. I have to ask others how fun all these events are.”

In case you want to see what to try next year, here’s this year’s complete event schedule.

One of the best ways to enjoy the Festival is to not even go to it. Seriously. You could just roll into Bardstown on Friday or Saturday night, enjoy the crowds and restaurant and bar hop in its charming downtown. In 2012, Rand McNally and USA Today named Bardstown the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” for good reason. It is lovely and historic, and the people are friendly. It’s even more fun with the energy brought in by festival goers.

But, seriously, no sense in going without doing at least something tied to the festival. Lots of the events on Saturday are free to attend, though getting bourbon to drink will cost you some money.