Kentucky Bourbon Festival starts (virtually) today!

2020 sucks … blah blah blah … everything is canceled.

But that’s not always true, especially when you have a team of creative thinkers planning an entire festival outside the box — or, rather, inside the box of your computer or phone screen.

The 29th annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival will commence today, Oct. 15, and run through Sunday, Oct. 18, with a series of free virtual sessions you can attend in the comfort and safety of your own home.

Yes, it doesn’t hold a flame to actually being in Bardstown, Ky., this time of year and rubbing shoulders with distillers and fellow bourbon buddies, but you gotta do what you gotta do this year, right?

One of my favorite memories from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival was taking a photo with the venerable Russell family (Wild Turkey) at the Bourbon All-Star Event where you sip the night away and also chat with master distillers.

Sara Havens and the Russell family
I think I fit right in! Call me Sara Russell!

Of course I had a few sips before asking for this marvelous photo, but the Russells were gracious and down for it!

The festival is offering nearly 20 “Spirits Education Seminars” that feature master distillers, master tasters, bartenders, chefs, etc. And all of these seminars take place in the evening, so you can settle in after dinner, grab some bourbon, and learn a thing or two from the industry’s top experts on a variety of topics.

Take a look at the schedule here.

Below are some of the sessions that caught my eye:

• “Supermarket Cocktails” with the awesome and talented Thomas Bolton, distillery diplomat of Maker’s Mark (Thursday, Oct. 15, 7 p.m.).

• ” From the Shadows to the Spotlight: Barton 1792 and Four Roses” with Barton’s Josh Hollifield and Four Roses’ Brent Elliott (Thursday, Oct. 15, 8:30 p.m.).

• “Why Bottled-in-Bond” with Heaven Hill’s Bernie Lubbers and Buffalo Trace’s Beau Beckman (Friday, Oct. 16, 6 p.m.).

• “The Art of Making Bourbon” (Several Sessions throughout the weekend) with Danny Kahn (Barton 1792) and Steve Nally (Bardstown Bourbon Co.) in Part 1, and Denny Potter (Maker’s Mark) and Conor O’Driscoll (Heaven Hill) in Part 2 (Part 1: Friday, Oct. 16, 7:15 p.m.; Part 2: Friday, Oct. 16, 8 p.m.).

• “Cocktail Quickie” with Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s Samantha Montgomery (Friday, Oct. 16, 7:45 p.m.).

• “Adventures in Food & Whiskey Pairing” with Michter’s Andrea Wilson and freelance writer Steve Coomes (Saturday, Oct. 17, 5:30 p.m.)

• “Cocktail Quickie” with Jim Beam’s Beth Burrows (Saturday, Oct. 17, 6:45 p.m.).

OK, OK, I’m just going to stop here. Basically ALL of the sessions look interesting to me, so just go click on that link above and read more about all of them.

I know where I’ll be this weekend — glued to my computer screen!

Kentucky Bourbon Festival glasses
Line ’em up! | Courtesy of KBF

One last thing to mention. If you want to get in on the Kentucky Bourbon Festival VIP action, tickets are $150 and include sweet swag like two KBF Glencairn glasses, easy access to the virtual sessions, and two three-day general admission passes to next year’s festival, which will hopefully be held in Bardstown.

You also get entered to win one of 14 bottles of bourbon signed by distillery pros that are featured in the sessions and also a chance to win a stay in Bardstown during next year’s festival as well.

VIP tickets are $150 and can be bought here; or you can just log on to this weekend’s sessions and watch for free.

Food & Dining Magazine

Last Call 2020: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here

In my latest column in Food & Dining Magazine, I discuss the last few crazy months and how I’ve managed to survive on Bud Light, bourbon and basic bitchery.

You can pick up the Food & Dining publication for free at our very finest locally owned restaurants and bars.

Or you can click on this link here and read it online.

Food & Dining issue

Here’s an excerpt:

I hereby declare 2020 the White Claw of years. 

It took us all by surprise, and it brought nothing to the table. Its vapid, virus-y flavors robbed us of all our joy, all our plans for an enjoyable summer and fall, and for a time, we couldn’t even find solace with our buddies at the neighborhood bar!

We had to grieve 6 feet apart as our worlds were turned upside down. Some, like me, lost employment. Everyone else had to transform their man caves and broad bunkers into makeshift offices while also playing teacher, preacher, chef, maid and count jester to those in their quarantine pods

Woodford Reserve Baccarat bottle

What you need to know about this $2,000 bottle of Woodford Reserve

Before you roll those eyes and cringe at the $2,000 price tag on the latest finished bourbon release by Woodford Reserve, just take a minute to hear me out about why it’s such a hefty chunk of change.

First of all, before we even get to the juice inside, this is the first American whiskey to be bottled in a pristine Baccarat crystal bottle.

For those of you who don’t travel on your own private jet or rub elbows with the housewives of Beverly Hills, Baccarat is a market-leading designer, manufacturer and retailer of luxury crystal products. Based in Paris, the company dates back to 1764.

The fancy decanter — which takes a crystal artist about five days to make — is engraved with both Woodford and Baccarat, and it comes with a fancy crystal stopper. So the idea is that you’d keep this bottle in your collection even after you’ve drank all the precious whiskey inside.

Woodford Reserve Baccarat
Fancy pants!

And speaking of whiskey, let’s dip our toes into the details.

The Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition takes fully mature Woodford Reserve bourbon and finishes it for an additional three years in high-end XO cognac casks from France.

Cognac barrels are much larger than bourbon barrels, and they’re toasted, not charred, like our oak barrels. Woodford isn’t the first company to finish whiskey in cognac barrels, but, as Master Distiller Chris Morris pointed out Monday afternoon during a virtual press conference, there is a distinct cognac note found in Woodford Reserve bourbon that made it a natural partnership.

Morris added that Woodford has been experimenting with finished bourbons for quite some time now, dating back to 2007 with a chardonnay finish. The goal of finishing his bourbon, he said, is to both highlight and intensify the flavors already found in Woodford Reserve.

“If you can’t taste Woodford in the finish, it’s not something we’re going to release,” he noted.

Morris said Woodford, which is owned by Brown-Forman, secured several brands of cognac barrels for the project, which will continue to be released yearly in a limited amount.

Many of these $2,000 bottles can be found in the duty-free shops inside airports or at high-end bars, most likely sitting next to even more expensive bottles of scotch, brandy, cognac, etc.

The 2020 limited release has about 2,000 bottles for the U.S. market, which came from 16 casks.

Those of us in Monday’s press conference were given a sample of Woodford Baccarat and led through a tasting with Master Taster Elizabeth McCall. From first sniff to the long finish, you could tell this was interesting stuff.

It’s fruit and spice forward, with notes of red apples, vanilla and baking spices waltzing around your tastebuds. There is a hint of dark chocolate, and on the finish you get orange peel, spice and a drizzle of honey.

It’s creamy, and it’s quite dreamy.

But would I shell out $2,000 for it? Seeing that I don’t have a full-time job at the moment nor do I DM with Erika Jayne, that’s a definite no.

Maybe I’ll win the lottery someday. You gotta have goals.

Pappy Van Winkle bottle lineup

Here come the 2020 Van Winkles!

Good news: There will be more Old Rip Van Winkle Rye this year! Bad news: There will be less 20- and 23-year-old Pappys.

Yes, this year has been one we’d all like to forget. But the show must go on, and Pappy will be released in November, like in years past.

Everyone wants a Pappy in their collection, and I’m no different. (Quick fact: You should only refer to the Van Winkles as a “Pappy” if you’re talking about 15, 20 or 23 Year. All the others are simply called “Van Winkles.”)

And yes, you’re going to pay over asking price just about anywhere you go, if you’re even lucky enough to find one on a shelf. According to the news release that went out this morning, here are the suggested retail prices:

  • $69.99 — Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon 10 Year Old 107 proof
  • $79.99 — Old Rip Van Winkle Special Reserve Bourbon 12 Year Old 
  • $119.99 — Old Rip Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year Old 
  • $119.99 — Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 15 Year Old
  • $199.99 — Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 20 Year Old
  • $299.99 — Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year Old
Pappy Van Winkle bottle lineup
Pappy fever!

But don’t blame producer Buffalo Trace Distillery or the Van Winkles for the crazy secondary prices.

“Unfortunately even though we suggest what we believe to be a very low and fair MSRP, we cannot control the price retailers charge, and some retailers mark it up even though we and the distributors that those retailers buy from ask them not to,” said Julian Van Winkle, president of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, in the release. “We are committed to releasing quality whiskey at a reasonable cost and we hope retailers will honor what we suggest as a fair retail price.”

Your best bet is getting in on a lottery of some sort, so just keep your eyes peeled for those.

In the meantime, there is no cure for your Pappy fever.

Gold Rush Cider Owner Kari Williams

Alcohol Professor: Gold Rush Cider — It’s All About ‘Dem Apples!

Since I’m on the cider beat at Alcohol Professor, I’m learning a lot more about cider than I ever imagined. For instance, just like grapes for wine, there are just as many varieties of apples used for making cider.

Gold Rush Cider

Some are good, and some are better. When I talked with Snow Capped Cider co-owner Kari Williams, she helped explain the differences between culinary apples (the ones at the grocery store) and cider apples:

“The difference between making hard cider with cider apples rather than culinary apples is like making wine with a table grape as opposed to a wine grape. They’re just not as readily available, so that’s one of the reasons we named it Gold Rush—finding a cider apple is like finding gold. It’s a very rare thing to find for a cider maker. There is much more acidity, more tannins to these apples, and the flavor profiles are intense to ferment and make cider from.”

Read more about their latest product, Gold Rush, and more about the Colorado cidery that sits at an elevation of 6,130 feet.

READ MORE HERE

Old Forester 150 release

Once, twice, three times a bourbon: Old Forester celebrates 150 years with a trifecta release

Old Forester, the venerable and faithful Louisville-based bourbon brand, turns 150 this year, and they’re going big for their big anniversary. Fresh off the release of the highly coveted Birthday Bourbon, here comes — count ’em — one, two and three different batches of the Old Forester 150th Anniversary Bourbon.

Old Forester 150 Batch 1

Batch 1, baby!

As if you have endless room on that bar shelf!

The limited-edition release honors the early process that founder George Garvin Brown used to batch barrels and sell the world’s first bottled bourbon unfiltered and at batch proof.

Each of the three bathes has vastly different tasting notes and will come in a fancy tube similar to parent company Brown-Forman’s King of Kentucky release.

“My great-great grandfather had quite the vision for his whisky,” said Campbell Brown, Old Forester president and fifth-generation Brown family member, in a news release.

“He was bringing something to the market that had previously not existed, and today, we instill his legacy of ingenuity in everything we do — especially in the halls at Old Forester Distilling Co., in the same building George ran the business in the early days of the company.”

I attended a media conference call on Monday hosted by Campbell Brown and Master Taster Jackie Zykan, and I learned that these 150 barrels had been set aside more than half-a-dozen years ago by Master Distiller Chris Morris and were then batched together by Zykan in late 2019. The barrels were all filled the same day and aged together in the rick house.

Because Old Forester heat-cycles their rick houses, the angel’s share was definitely a factor in how much bourbon actually came out of each barrel. Zykan said that at least three or four barrels they opened for this product were completely empty!

George’s angels must be damn thirsty!

But anyway, working on such an important commemorative project was both “terrifying and an honor” said Zykan.

So let’s get to the three musketeers, amigos or blind mice — whatever you want to call ’em. (Below details come straight from the news release.)

Batch 1

125.6 proof/62.8% ABV, comprised of 46 barrels; fruit bomb

Nose: maple syrup and perfectly ripe orchard fruits, apricot and plum

Mid: açaí and black current

Finish: graham cracker, subtle peppermint, long well-rounded spice, moderately dry

Batch 2

126.4 proof/63.2% ABV, comprised of 48 barrels; sweet and spry

Nose: cherry cordial and raspberry preserves

Mid: French toast and chocolate malt

Finish: brilliant and perky spice at the front of the palate, touch of cedar, mildly dry

Batch 3

126.8 proof/63.4% ABV, comprised of 53 barrels; green and spice

Nose: dill and bright orange peel, hint of light brown sugar

Mid: sweetens in the middle to melon and pine

Finish: medium dry, tingling green peppercorns, rosemary, grapefruit peel, and lingering anise 

Each of us in that conference call was sent a different batch to sample, and I was fortunate to get Batch 1 — the “Fruit Bomb,” Zykan named. It was thick and viscous and had serious dark fruit notes like fig and plum. It didn’t seem hot being at 125.6 proof, and the delicious, caramel-y finish lasted quite a long time.

I’m curious now to try the other two batches, but I suppose I’ll have to wait like the rest of you!

The Old Forester 150th Anniversary Bourbon should hit store shelves (if you’re lucky to find it) in October, and each batch retails for $150.

Let the hunting begin!

Bourbon Brief: Elijah Craig Toasted, Old Fitz, Michter’s 10 and more, oh my!

Folks, I’ve let things pile up on the Bar Belle news desk these past few weeks, so it’s time I get my butt in gear and update you on bourbon releases that might be popping up at your local liquor store — if you’re lucky.

We’re knee-deep in the great Bourbon Release Season, so let’s get to it!

Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel

Elijah Craig ToastedI admit, I’m a huge toasted barrel fan, and I love that more and more distilleries are jumping on the toasted bandwagon. The more s’mores-infused flavors we can get into whiskey, the better! And a great toasted finish is just that — marshmallow, caramel, chocolate, soft baking spices, graham cracker.

My mouth is watering.

This new Elijah Craig offering takes fully mature small batch Elijah Craig, and then puts it into new toasted and flash-charred barrels that were air-dried for 18 months.

The 94-proof juice retains that familiar Elijah Craig spice, but the toasted notes of rich caramel, creamy vanilla and marshmallow make it a delightful sip, all the way through the pleasant finish.

It’s like sipping on a liquid version of a Caramel Cream.

This Heaven Hill-produced bottle is priced at a very affordable $49.99.

Old Fitzgerald 14 — Fall 2020

Old Fitzgerald Fall 2020Another from the Heaven Hill rickhouse, this is the bi-annual Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond (BIB) release that comes in this fall at 14 years. The ages for the other releases have been anywhere from 9 to 16, and all of them are delicious trophies most people clamor for because the bottle — and the bourbon — are stunning.

This decanter BIB series started in 2018, making this one the sixth national release. And as the rules state for BIB products, it is bottled at 100 proof.

Old Fitz is a wheated bourbon, but given the mature age of this release, it’s not something you want to serve Grandma before bed. It’s fire, it’s oaky (in the best ways) and it’s frickin’ fabulous!

I received a sample of this whiskey, and I might have to say that this is one of my favorites of the series so far. It’s so well-balanced, the Libra in me is doing cartwheels. It’s breakfast and it’s dessert. At first sip, you get a party of flavor — from baked cherries and black pepper spice to those familiar caramels and thick vanillas.

I would sip this by a campfire if I camped. But I don’t do bugs, so I’ll settle for sipping it in front of a fireplace.

The retail price on this should be around $140, and you might want to go check the gift shop for this one.

Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon & 10 Year Rye

Michter's 10 Year Bourbon and RyeI’m so behind on announcing these two new releases that I should be punished, but since I’m my only boss, I’ll let it slide this time. Each year, the fine folks at Michter’s in Louisville, Ky., release some 10 Year Bourbon and 10 Year Rye. Both are always amazing, tasty products, and naturally, the 2020 iterations don’t disappoint.

The bourbon dropped in May, while the rye came out in July (see, I told you I was behind!), and according to the press release, this will be the only 10-year rye release because, well, everyone knows their juice is good, which means everyone wants it.

“This will be the only release of our 10 Year Rye this year because we continue to be in a position where we need to allocate our whiskeys,” said Michter’s President Joe Magliocco in the press release.

I sampled both of these new releases so much during quarantine that they’re both below half full. (Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about it, because I just can’t stop sipping!)

The bourbon is a nice medley of candy corn, baked apples and butterscotch, while the rye has that warming spice up front, followed by sweet and sultry flavors like nutmeg, graham cracker and, of course, that vanilla and caramel from the barrel.

The bourbon retails for about $130, while the rye goes for $160.

Little Book Chapter 4: “Lessons Honored” 

Little Book Chapter 4The 2020 Little Book release is dedicated to Freddie Noe’s father, Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. Little Book is a blending experiment spearheaded by Freddie, and each edition has been as interesting and tasty as the other.

One time he used Canadian whisky, and another used a blend of older and finer Jim Beam products, as an example.

(For those who don’t know, Freddie Noe is the grandson of Booker Noe, and they say he has a nose and a palate similar to Booker’s — hence his nickname, Little Book.)

This one used three whiskeys: a 4-year-old Kentucky Straight Brown Rice Bourbon, an 8-year-old Kentucky Straight “high rye” Rye Whiskey, and a 7-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

I didn’t get a sample of this one, but the tasting notes in the press release say: “full-bodied vanilla balanced by notes of rich charred wood and dried cherries.”

The bottle retails for $124.99 and is 122.8 proof.

Rabbit Hole Cask Strength Boxergrail Rye Whiskey

Rabbit Hole BoxergrailRabbit Hole has just announced a new Founder’s Collection series with the launch of this limited-edition Cask Strength Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. The juice is 114.6 proof and 6 years old.

“With this and future Founder’s Collection releases, we will hand select barrels that embody perfection,” explained Rabbit Hole founder Kaveh Zamanian in a press release. “These ‘honey barrels’ will be bottled in numbered editions and offered at cask strength to ensure that connoisseurs experience the liquid as it’s meant to be, untouched.”

I’d love to get a taste of this, because I can imagine it’s even better than their standard Boxergrail. But I’m gonna have a hard time finding it, as there are only 1,315 bottles being released. Yikes!

The bottle will retail for $195, and if you want to throw your name into a lottery that’ll be drawn on Sept. 24 for a bottle, click here.

Sara Havens at a competition

Wish me luck and tune in tonight for Bardstown Bourbon Company’s Top Whiskey Taster competition

Whiskey Taster contest photo

Let’s go!

The time is here and the training is over. The World’s Top Whiskey Taster regionals for the Kentucky market will take place tonight at 6 p.m., and yours truly will be shitting her pants as she competes against five other badass bourbonites.

You can tune in for free at the Bardstown Bourbon Company‘s Facebook page or YouTube channel.

I’ve gotta answer four questions about mystery samples I’ve been sent, and then present a flight of three whiskeys to the judges with a three-minute time limit.

Just hoping nerves won’t get the best of me.

I’ve gotta go big, or else I’ll go home … well, I’ll stay at home actually. I’ll already be at home. OK, never mind.

Wish me luck!

2020 Antique Collection

But wait … here comes the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection!

2020 Antique Collection

I want x 5!

And just like that, here comes the Buffalo Trace stampede that is the 2020 Antique Collection!

I would be one happy girl if any of these showed up in my stocking on Christmas morning, but they remain as elusive to me as chiseled abs, a million dollars and leprechauns.

The fab five that are part of this annual release go by the names of George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas H. Handy, Eagle Rare 17, and Sazerac Rye 18. They’ll be released in late September/early October for a suggested retail price of $99 (yeah right!).

I’ve been searching for a W.L. Weller for many years. It’s my white whale, you could say, or rather amber whale.

Here are the details of each from the press release that went out this morning:

George T. Stagg

The proverbial powerhouse favorite of the Antique Collection, George T. Stagg, comes in at 130.4 proof this year.  Last year’s release was awarded 97 points in the 2020 Ultimate Spirits Collection, and fans will find the familiar Stagg taste profile they know and love with cinnamon, caramel and cherries on the nose, and a creamy vanilla with lightly smoked oak on the palate.  The finish is black coffee, dark cherries and herbs.

This year’s release contains bourbon from barrels filled in the spring of 2005.  Storage location of these barrels varied across warehouses L, K and Q. The evaporation loss for this year’s batch was 59%, a bit higher than the last few year’s releases.

William Larue Weller

The Antique Collection’s uncut, unfiltered, wheated recipe bourbon is William Larue Weller. Previous editions of this wheater have won many accolades, including the 2019 release receiving a Gold Medal at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition and also named 2nd finest whiskey in the world in the esteemed “Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible.”

The 2020 release was distilled in the winter of 2008 and aged in Warehouses I and C.  This bourbon registers at 134.5 proof.  Flavors of a soft caramel chew, spearmint and cinnamon can be found on the palate in this year’s offering.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye

Thomas H. Handy is the uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. Last year’s release earned The Chairman’s Trophy, scoring 99 points at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge and was also named 3rd finest whiskey in the world in “Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible.”  This year’s Handy was distilled in the spring of 2014; aged in warehouses K, M, and N, and weighs in at 129.0 proof.  The flavor profile includes cinnamon, anise and honey.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old

This 101 proof whiskey was distilled in Spring of 2002 and aged on the first floor of Warehouse P.  The 2019 release of this bourbon was named “Best of Category” at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition.  This bourbon has a nose of ripe cherries, vanilla cream and oak, followed by a taste of caramel and coffee and a long finish of oak, pepper and fresh herbs.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old

The previous edition of Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old was named “Best Rye Whiskey Aged 11 Years and Over” by “Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.”  This 2020 straight rye whiskey release has notable flavors of oak, caramel and dark chocolate, with a finish of coffee, black pepper and cherries. The barrels for this whiskey were filled in the spring of 2002 and it rested on the third floor of Warehouse K.  It is bottled at 90 proof.

King of Kentucky will make its 2020 debut very soon

Bourbon huntin’ season is officially upon us, and each week brings welcomed announcements for highly sought-after releases.

King of Kentucky 2020Today, it’s King of Kentucky’s time to shine, as word of the 2020 batch spreads like wildfires.

Here’s what we know: The 2020 release comes from 37 barrels that were aged 14 years. Since Brown-Forman heat-cycles their rick houses, many of these barrels were only half full, or even less.

That resulted in 1,900 bottles total for the markets of Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois (the latter two new this year).

This is the third iteration of King of Kentucky, which features barrel-strength, minimally-filtered, single-barrel bourbon. (If you’re curious about the brand, I wrote about its relaunch in 2018.)

“The King of Kentucky continues to teach us about the impact that long-term heat-cycled maturation has on barrel yield and flavor presentation,” said Master Distiller Chris Morris in a news release. “Some barrels yield as little as one case of King but are not over wooded or astringent — in fact they are incredibly complex and flavorful. This is another stellar release of rich, dark Kentucky bourbon flavor at its best.”

The suggested retail price (if you can find it on a shelf) remains $249.99, and the proof will range between 125 and 135. Each release has been in that same range of proof, however the 2019 batch came from 15-year-old barrels, while the 2018 was 14 years old.

So how’s it taste???

Damn good! How’s that for an answer?

I’ve been a huge King of Kentucky fan since the relaunched get-go, and it’s always been in my top 5 of the year. Now, 2020 has been a shit-kicker of a year, but the KoK doesn’t disappoint. It’s got that big vanilla and baked cherry bouquet on the nose, and those sweet, sweet flavors bring even more vanilla, with sprinkles of caramel, pancakes, that famous Brown-Forman banana note and baking spices.

It’s actually quite complex and nuanced, and the more I let it sit, the more deep those notes get.

This does not burn like a typical whiskey would at 130 proof (the proof of my sample), but instead it coats the mouth with warmth and familiar flavors, like biting into a big, juicy caramel apple covered in peanuts, and then having a bite of a chocolate covered banana.

The pleasant, sweet finish lingers a long time, and when it’s gone, your taste buds beg for more.

The 2020 King of Kentucky will be out soon, so keep your eyes peeled. And don’t ask me how to score a bottle, because I’m not going to tell you. I want all 1,900 for myself.