Bourbon big-wigs gather in Louisville to make a black-tie break from bourbon's blue-collar past

A view from behind the tasting bar at opening, Kentucky Bourbon Affair. Photo courtesy of The Bourbon Mafia, @dukebru. 

Yes, there is a bourbon shortage. And no you wouldn't have ever guessed if you found yourself in Louisville Wednesday night for the kickoff of the first Kentucky Bourbon Affair. The opening event, moved inside 21c Museum Hotel on account of the rain, featured tastings from some 150 Kentucky spirits. 

We have our Kentucky editor, Kevin R. Hyde (@kevinrhyde) roaming the city this week and he will bring you his take on the goings-on later this weekend. Meanwhile keep an eye on twitter (@bourbonstory) and watch out for  @DDGWilcox of Beacon, our publishing platform and partner in the launch of Bourbon Story Magazine. He's arriving Friday to take the scene and is making his first visit to Bourbontown. (If you see our number on the caller ID, we're calling for bail money.)

The events are clearly top-shelf, and together represent a black-tie answer to the folksier Kentucky Bourbon Festival held each fall in Bardstown, Nelson County -- right in the real heart of the distillery country.

That distinction -- boots versus black-tie -- is not accidental. When bourbon crashed in the 1970s and 80s, it fell hard. Whatever Rat Pack appeal it had once had, quickly faded. By the time teh 1980s were turning into the 1990s, bourbon was the cheap booze your kid brother snuck into the movie theater or passed around the bonfire. In Nelson County, the distilleries were troubled and in Louisville, there no such things as a craft cocktail bar. A bourbon list of 20 options was generous. 

Things had begun to change, as Bill Samuels Jr. returned from law school with a promise to work for his dad at Maker's Mark. He told Bourbon Story this spring during a visit to Kentucky that he didn't have much to add in making the whiskey. What he knew was marketing, and that's what he did. He began selling his father's winter-wheat whiskey one barkeeper at a time, urging its adoption in upscale bars in big cities. With a push from The Wall Street Journal, it worked. And in doing so, Samuels helped create the domestic premium bourbon category.

It's worth noting now that nowadays, premium bourbon is the second-cheapest category, as super-premium and high-end premium are the categories with the fastest growth. 

As interest in the bourbons grew, Samuels and the other heads of Kentucky distilleries banded together to form the Kentucky Bourbon Trial, a tour of distilleries across central Kentucky. A wonderful museum opened in Bardstown and every year in the fall, the distillers would hold a festival.

A few years ago, Louisville started thinking it was missing out. After all, the city had its own wonderful, rich and old old history of bourbon involvement to tout. Investment has flowed in by the tens of millions -- $50 million in capital projects alone -- and jobs followed. 

Jefferson County is one of the biggest winners in the Bourbon renaissance, with the signature industry providing 4,200 jobs, $263 million in payroll, $32 million in tax revenue and $50 million in capital projects in 2012, Mayor Greg Fischer announced today.

These days, more than a score of bars and restaurants have joined the Urban Bourbon Trail, with each one offering 50 or more bourbons. 

So really, this week's Kentucky Bourbon Affair is about two things. The Kentucky bourbon industry is putting on its formal wear to take a bow -- and, with aged bourbon selling for unheard of prices, who could blame them? -- and the city of Louisville is raising its hand to make a claim as the real heart of the bourbon industry in Kentucky.

But no matter what, it looks like a fabulous time in Louisville this weekend. (BourbonStory recommends eating at Jack Fry's and Bourbons Bistro and having a drink at the Garage Bar and Jack's Lounge.) Take a look below at the package of photos from the first night, compiled below on our Storify account. Cheers! 


Michael Lindenberger

Michael Lindenberger is a 2012-13 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where he will spend a year developing a business model for blogs that looks beyond advertising and subscriptions for revenue. He is on leave from The Dallas Morning News, where he is a senior reporter writing about the nexus between the politics and policy of transportation on the local, state and national level. He is founder and co-author with Rodger Jones of the Dallas Transportation Blog. His print journalism was recognized in 2012 as the previous year's best example at The News of work that brings perspective, interpretation and analysis to bear on difficult topics. Also in 2012, the newspaper nominated his work for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. A 2006 graduate of the night program at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, Michael also is a contributing national legal affairs writer for and a former adjunct professor of media law at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism. His work has appeared in newspapers, wire reports and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, Reuters, The ABA Journal, Robb Report Magazine and others.