Drew Kulsveen

It’s a lean year for Kentucky nominees in the 2017 James Beard Awards. To no one’s surprise, now six-time Best Chef, Southeast, nominee Edward Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Succotash (two on the East Coast), returns to the list, but he was not joined by regular tall toque nominees Kathy Cary (Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro) and Ouita Michel (Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner, Wallace Station among several others) this year.

Drew Kulsveen, master distiller at Willett Distillery in Bardstown, is nominated in the category of outstanding wine, beer and spirits professional. In the past, Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley has received a few nominations for this honor, while Julian Van Winkle, owner of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, won the award for the category in 2011. He remains the only Kentuckian to bear the golden medallion of the James Beard Foundation. (Click here to see the complete list of 2017 nominees.)

My handicapping on whether the boys of the Bluegrass will come home with the hardware, you ask?

Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. | Photo courtesy of 610 Magnolia
Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. | Photo courtesy of 610 Magnolia

Lee stands as good a chance as ever. He’s proved his mettle in his kitchens, on TV chef battles (a reputation-building essential these days), as a cookbook author and as a broadminded culinary thinker who grasps the delicate balance between food, drink, culture and sense of place. Judges love all that beyond-the-plate stuff. Plus, it hurts not a bit that he’s got a great PR effort behind him—also essential to winning a Beard Award these days.

Chances for Kulsveen to grab a win aren’t as strong, yet that has nothing to do with his coveted whiskeys (sourced, as well as distilled at Willett), engaging personality or still-boyish good looks. Those things all serve to fuel his ascent to demigod status among whiskey fanatics, but I’m confident most of the 600 James Beard judges have never sipped a drop of Willett whiskey because it is, and will remain, a boutique brand for many years. Kulsveen’s own whiskey didn’t even make it to the market until about two years ago (remember that outstanding, 2-year-old floral, grassy and peppery high-proof rye?), followed by its 4-year-old bourbon last year. In other words, Kulsveen isn’t a known entity—especially like Julian Van Winkle and his whiskey, or even Harlen Wheatley and the arm-length list of spirits (including the full Pappy line) he oversees in Frankfort.

Most often JBF awards for liquid go to wine pros because the restaurant cognoscenti still focuses more on crushed grapes than cooked grain. In the same category with Kulsveen are makers of beer, saké, wine and cocktails, which to me, a spirits fan, dilutes the overall appreciation for spirits and beer and wine. Each, in my opinion, needs its own category.

Especially when it comes to spirits since bourbon is red-freaking-hot nationally and internationally. American rye is fantastic these days, as is American gin. Straight spirits and cocktails are slowly making their way on to pairing menus, which also signals a shift in beverage choices at restaurants.

So, there you go, Beard judges (who I’m sure aren’t reading this): my unsolicited vote for American spirits to have its own category in 2018.

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, WhiskeyWash.com and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.