A Trip to Bourbon Fest in Kentucky with Four Roses
Last year Four Roses took a bunch of bartenders out to Kentucky for the annual Bourbon Festival. BarLifeUK went along too. This is what happened……. Well most of it!
I found myself in a hotel room at around 2am on the last night of the trip. The room was full of members of our group, bottles of Four Roses and an American Football flying through the air. The American Football was mine, it had just been used in a game of pick-up footie in the parking lot of our hotel in the almost pitch black.
Those throwing the ball around seemed unfazed by (or more probably unaware of) the fact that during the pick-up game it had, on several occasions, rolled through the ‘wastewater’ outlet stream from the large bus parked next to us. I’m not saying the ball had been rolling in American made urine but I can promise you it hadn’t been getting washed in Evian.
The hotel room ball throwing was for a reason, besides the fact we were pretty drunk. If the ball was thrown to you, you first had to catch it (there were already many nursing sore noses) and then tell everyone of your story from the trip. Yes I know it seems a bit of a happy-clappy, Jeremy Kyle inspired idea but the Four Roses and seemingly endless stories from the last few days seemed to negate that issue.
It was at this moment however I realised I was in trouble. Partly because there weren’t enough seats so James ‘JT’ Triffo had decided to sit on my lap and I hadn’t felt my legs in quite some time. But mainly because I had to report on the trip when we got back and if the amount of stories being told by the assembled gang were anything to go by, War & Peace would seem like a short story in comparison.
Then three things happened. I had another shot of Four Roses, I realised that half the stories were un-reportable and the ball hit me in the face.
So here are the edited highlights of a trip to Kentucky with Four Roses Bourbon and a bunch of bartenders.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bourbon Festival it is an annual event in Kentucky to celebrate all things Bourbon-y. Whilst it is full of events that any bartender would be interested in it seems to be much more consumer focused, albeit consumers with a heck of a love and knowledge of America’s national spirit, about 45,000 of them.
Over several days in September a series of events around Lexington & Louisville take place, run or supported by the various distilleries in the surrounding areas. Four Roses have a big part to play in proceedings with ‘Dashing’ Jim Rutledge, the Four Roses Master Distiller, a key figure on the organising committee.
One tradition is for Four Roses to host the launch breakfast event at the Four Roses Distillery each year, which we of course attended. I will introduce you to our little merry gang as we go along but you won’t be surprised to hear that the night before the breakfast we’d been out enjoying the local hospitality and for the first (but certainly not the last) time on this trip a few people were feeling a little fragile.
There was no time for that sort of behaviour however with a bourbon tasting taking place after we had consumed enough grits from the breakfast buffet to see Norfolk’s roads through the worst of winters.
‘Dashing’ Jim not only makes a hell of a drop of whiskey but is a thoroughly entertaining speaker and had the crowd enthralled as he talked about Bourbon, Distilling and Four Roses. However for our fearless leader Mr Dan Priseman, Four Roses European Brand Ambassador, it was a more hands on experience as he was asked to join Jim on stage and concoct his own Four Roses blend.
Those of you who know Dan will not be surprised to hear these three facts:
- He was pretty hungover
- He manned up
- He made a damn good blend (so good in fact he had to make more after the sampling panel drank it all)
The events at Bourbon Festival run around a big outdoor market/fairground/booze up in the grounds of the Bourbon Museum. The blue ribbon event every year is the hard fought Barrel Rolling competition which see’s various distillery workers pitting themselves against each other in an obstacle course style competition of….. well rolling barrels. Think It’s A Knockout meets Dueling Banjo’s.
As ropey as some were feeling the previous day at the breakfast this day saw some epic hangovers, in particular from the two Naomi’s. Unfortunately for them that is not how they were known during our adventures, you see they made a rookie trip error.
On the first night, realising they shared the same name, which they felt may become confusing, they decided to give themselves nicknames based on their surnames – dubbing themselves Swifty and Fletch. Giving yourself a nickname is not allowed and as such they were quickly renamed by the group. So please let me introduce you to Stiffy and Feltch (if you want to go in and annoy them they work at Blues Kitchen and Hawksmoor respectively).
To help them through their fuzzy heads Dan decided to introduce them to a local delicacy called the Corn Dog (a hotdog on a stick dipped in thick corn batter and deep fried). Judging by their reactions a Corn Dog is very much an acquired taste as this picture of Stiffy eating hers will testify.
I would love to tell you who won the Barrel Rolling competition but to be honest I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. What I can tell you is that the Bourbon Museum is genuinely fascinating and full of fantastic prohibition era artifacts.
The finally of the Bourbon Festival is a swanky awards dinner and cocktail reception full of the great and good of the Bourbon industry plus on this occasion a dozen or so mischief causing UK guests.
Once again the distilleries were out in force with their own bars knocking out signature serves and samples to the penguin suited crowd. They had also all donated various goodies to a silent auction, our gang were very keen on several of the items but it appears our bids were a smidge below the eventual selling price (often by a naught or two) and we came home empty handed.
However we weren’t to leave the event without making an impact, thanks in large to Tatiana from BarChick.com. Four Roses were, as well as handing out delicious drinks, handing out transfer tattoos of the Four Roses logo.
After the dinner and a drink or two we decided that not enough people were taking advantage of this opportunity so set up an impromptu tattoo parlour. It appears that middle aged American men can’t say no to a pretty blonde girl with an English accent and there was soon a queue forming to have their Four Roses tattoos applied by Tatiana using Four Roses instead of water!
The After Party
Whilst the Bourbon Festival was the reason for our trip there was a whole lot more on the agenda. As I have eluded too our nights were not entirely spent reading Shakespeare whilst sipping Cocoa and as we discovered Lexington and Louisville have some pretty full on drinking dens. The star of the show without any shadow of a doubt however was Fourth Street Live! in Louisville.
The only way I can describe Fourth Street Live! is a shopping centre where all the shops have been replaced by bars, restaurants and nightclubs. We had arrived via a party Limo complete with dance floor and disco lights which Tatiana had acquired for us on the street by telling the driver it was her birthday, a tactic which continued during the evening resulting in a house band singing Happy Birthday to her (it was of course not her birthday).
Our first port of call was the superbly named Howling At The Moon – a bar and ‘live’ music venue (I put live in inverted comma’s as at one point the bassist fell off the stage and dropped his guitar yet his ‘live’ bass line didn’t miss a beat). The venue was squarely aimed at the big university presence in town and it felt like stepping onto the set of an American Pie movie.
The highlight of the night came when standing at the bar with Triffo, Dan and a couple of the other boys Eitenne Pansengrauw, Ian Goodman and Stephen Chan we were approached by an American college girl straight out of my 17 year old self’s fantasy world, who informed us it was her birthday and asked if we would like to buy her a shot?
At the time I am pretty sure someone in the group replied ‘Certainly young lady on the auspicious occasion of the celebration of your birth and as visitors to your fine and majestic country it would be our honour… ney our privilege to purchase you a shot of your choosing’. However in the cold light of day I think we actually stared wide eyed at her and as a group muttered something along the lines of ‘Urrrghhbrfffyhhhtyysnffhsndbfj OK’.
Either way she asked for a ‘Ray Charles’. It is rare with a group of bartenders that no-one has heard of any given drink, but the blank looks said it all. We felt we had let England down, that was until we discovered what it was, and we then adopted it for the rest of the trip.
The Ray Charles, blonde lovely girl showed us, is remarkably simple and simply remarkable. You get three ice cubes from the bartender, turn your back to the bar and throw each ice cube over your shoulder blind (hence the name) into the back bar. Whichever three bottles you hit are poured into a shot glass and there you have the Ray Charles. The girl was a genius!
Next up was a bar named PBR (which I was later to find out stands for Professional Bull Riders) which is described with no hint of irony as ‘Cowboy Cool meets Urban Chic’. All you really need to know is that it features a Mechanical Bull, which in a giant two fingers to the health and safety Nazi’s you can ride after a gallon of bourbon.
In our case the bourbon was accentuated by not one but two vodka red bulls after Triffo’s accent (he is Canadian after all) confused the bartender. This was a mistake not to be replicated and ended up with a few of us getting a cab into the middle of buttfuck nowhere to drink in a bar, which had no-one in it. I have no idea what it was called but unlike The Jackson’s, I blame it on the red bull.
All Play And No Work
You may be under the impression that we just drank and messed around for a week but no, not at all, we were there to learn as well, and learn we did in two fascinating tours.
First up was the Four Roses Distillery which is a truly beautiful set up, full of majestic old buildings and a sense of history which is palpable, intermingled with the modern industrial shiny metal aspects which are required to produce the volume for a global brand.
We were guided around the distillery and got to stick our noses into the huge fermenters and beer wells which occupy the upper level of the wood beam filled room. The whole room was filled with the intoxicating smells emanating from these fermenting vats.
As is generally the way with distilleries in this part of the world it was hot. I mean really hot. Even our local guide was sweating buckets and the hangovers were in full force leading to a few rather wobbly looking group members. This was short lived as soon we were allowed to taste some product straight from the still. It was strong. It was intense. It was tasty. It was just what we needed to soften the edges of our self-inflicted pain.
From the heat and intensity of the distillery we were ushered to the glory of an air-conditioned room for a tasting of the full Four Roses range and it was here we learnt what makes Four Roses such an interesting and complex Bourbon brand.
Four Roses use not only 2 different Mash Bills (the E-Mashbill comprising of 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley and the B-Mashbill 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley) but also 5 Proprietary Yeast Strains. These two are combined to create 10 distinctive bourbon recipes, which are all distilled and aged separately.
The 5 yeast strains are given letter codes and each have their own unique flavour profile to bring to the bourbon (V – Delicate Fruitiness, K – Slight Spice, O – Rich Fruitiness, Q – Floral Essence and F – Herbal Essence). Armed with this knowledge during the tasting you could really see where the different strains had been used to alter the flavours of the various bourbons on offer.
Bung Hole Filler
The second of our ‘educational’ trips saw a first for BarLifeUK, and most of the group, as we were given a special behind the scenes tour of a barrel producer. Now as I am sure you all know used bourbon barrels are recycled all around the world in the aging of various spirits and as such they have a huge impact on the spirits industry. Despite that the thought of wandering around a factory that makes them didn’t fill us with huge excitement.
How wrong we were. As it turned out the Independent Stave Company tour was a fascinating couple of hours AND full of more innuendo’s than you would believe. The Independent Stave Company makes around 75% of all barrels used by bourbon distilleries and as such is a hell of an operation.
During the tour we were shown how the wood is treated, the barrels constructed, the charring implemented and the holes filled (by a guy officially called a ‘Bung Hole Filler’). Now I’m aware that this doesn’t make it sound overly exciting but trust us and if you find yourself in that neck of the woods get down there and you get to wear headphones like pilots which is great fun.
One of the highlights of the trip for BarLifeUK saw a childhood dream come true. Since sitting in front of Channel 4 on rainy Sunday mornings watching the NFL highlights as a kid, seeing a live American Football game has been a long held ambition. An ambition Four Roses turned into a reality when we watched the Cincinnati Bengals take on the New England Patriots.
Now not everyone on the trip was quite as au fait with the rules of this national game however luckily we had Triffo on hand to explain the rules to those thirsting for knowledge such as Piyush Chavda, Charles Marshall and Laura Foster. As it turns out Triffo isn’t great at explaining things, especially with BarLifeUK and Dan asking really annoying questions and making sure everyone had plenty of bourbon inside them.
It would be remise of me to not let you know that this explanation took place on route to the stadium in our coach for the week. This wasn’t just any old coach, this coach is used by Hugh Hefner when he’s in town, we were pretty cool.
The game was an absolute corker with touchdowns galore, sacks, punt returns, missed field goals and a dramatic 4th quarter win for the home team. However it was the atmosphere of the crowd that really made the day with the rival fans mingling, chatting, singing and plenty of gentle banter. The availability of beer throughout also helped.
So it came that as the sun set and we made our way down stream on a paddleboat after the match the idea of the game of pick up football came to mind. Before that there was an old score to settle however, and the setting was perfect.
Last time we had been on a paddleboat had been a year earlier, also hosted by Four Roses at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. During that boat ride a quick hand of poker was played (we were on the Mississippi after all) the stakes were high, $10 I think, and the action was fierce. The victor on that day was one Andrea Montague. She was on the trip. She liked to remind me of that win. Often. Revenge was on the cards.
A few stragglers joined the game but it was only Andrea’s money that interested me. The cards were dealt. The flop was laid. The river came. Andrea won. Stupid game.
The next stop was the hotel, the pick up game in the car park and time to reflect on what had been an epic trip with a superb bunch of people. There is much I haven’t been able to mention from Dan making me laugh so hard that jalapeño juice and melted cheese came out of my right nostril, Feltch‘s own brand of rum, David looking just like Karl Pilkington, Stiffy’s other nicknames (Old Lady and Tactical for the record), the stupid throwing hacky sacks game, how ‘Dashing’ Jim got his name, alcoholic whipped cream…. the list is endless.
A huge thank you to the whole Four Roses and Spirits Cartel teams for looking after us so well and being so understanding on many occasions. Special thanks to David and Marek for keeping us on track and making sure we were never without liquid lubrication. It must be time for a reunion now right?