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    “Welcome to the bourbon fest!” Stevie Nicks shouted from the stage at Champions Park in Louisville, home to the inaugural Bourbon & Beyond festival. The event, one of the largest bourbon gatherings of its kind, closed out National Bourbon Heritage Month.

    Of course, bourbon events have a long history in Kentucky. In 1992, a quarter of a century ago, a small bourbon event in Bardstown, Kentucky expanded into a full-on festival — a week-long tradition each September called the Kentucky Bourbon Festival that now boasts more than 50,000 visitors from all over the globe.

    The event, which takes place in the Nelson County area — where nearly 70 percent of bourbon is distilled — was one of the first major bourbon-themed gatherings, which have expanded during the newly-dubbed National Bourbon Heritage Month, featuring heavyweight distillers like Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve.

    Over the last five years or so, bourbon has seen a major resurgence beyond the tiny town of Bardstown. This September marked the fourth year of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, hosted by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association — dubbed the “ultimate Bourbon fantasy camp.” And Forecastle Festival created a “bourbon lodge” with special tastings and talks by distillers.

    But Bourbon & Beyond, put on by Danny Wimmer Presents — the LA-based production company that sponsors Louder Than Life and more than a dozen other large-scale music concerts — is arguably the largest of its kind. The festival showcased small bourbon workshops as well as talks by distillers delivered on a stage rivaling the main stage, where performers like Eddie Vedder and Nicks were playing. There were also local bourbon-holes like The Hunter’s Club, hosted by Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which gave festival-goers the chance to discover under-the-radar bourbons. The Brown-Forman Char House tent featured whiskey and smoking barrels. And Rabbit Hole Distilling sponsored a “hidden” bourbon hideout.

    Festival-goers listen to a panel on bourbon // Hope Reese

    Fred Minnick, local bourbon expert for the Kentucky Derby Museum and author of several bourbon and spirits books, played a pivotal role in developing the programming for the festival. But it wasn’t an easy sell at first.

    “They had to really talk me into it,” Minnick says. “I said no a couple of times. Danny Wimmer said, ‘What the hell do I have to do to get you into this?’”

    Minnick worried that the festival wouldn’t match his “vision of how bourbon events go,” he says. “When they presented the vision to me, I thought, ‘There’s no way they can pull this off.’”

    Eventually, Danny Wimmer won him over. “After I saw them in action, I was sold,” Minnick says. “They book Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica...and seeing them in action is like proof in the pudding.”

    “They took the bourbon extremely seriously,” he says. “When they asked for my counsel, I told them what I thought would showcase bourbon, and they came through.”

    Bourbon & Beyond offered bourbon from 30 distilleries and a dozen bourbon distillers, including many smaller operations, as well.

    Nathan Brown started Bluegrass Distillers, a craft bourbon distillery out of Lexington, in 2012 — it’s one of about 11 in the state. The exposure, Brown says, “really helps people see the value of our product.”

    And the event helps illustrate how popular bourbon has become. “Napa Valley has been around and promoted for some time,” Brown says. “People who visit northern California plan an entire trip around the wineries.” Now, Brown says, “the same thing is happening with bourbon. It’s a really unique product, and people have a fascination with it and passion for it. It’s reaching a critical mass. The demand is continuing to outpace supply.”

    Andrea Wilson, Michter Distillery’s Master of Maturation & Vice President/General Manager, who presented at Bourbon & Beyond, echoes the sentiment. “It was another great example of people’s passion about Kentucky Bourbon,” she says. “At the Bourbon Bar we had great cocktails prepared by wonderful local bar talent, which was a nice opportunity to showcase their artistry. People were willing to wait for handmade cocktails, demonstrating the commitment to a quality beverage experience.”

    Minnick sees this event as standing apart from other festivals before it. “Bourbon has always been a side-show, a side-product for concerts,” he says. “This is the first time bourbon has ever gotten billing over rock stars. It’s an historic moment.”

    To see our photo gallery from the festival, click here.

    Cover photo by Adam Mescan

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