The Bourbon Sampler takes place Saturday, March 25, in Bardstown. | Courtesy of Kentucky Bourbon Festival

Before there were bourbon affairs, mixers, classics, bowties and beyond, there was the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF), an annual event held in September in Bardstown celebrating the past, present and future of the bourbon industry. Now in its 26th year, there’s certainly no slowing down for the KBF, and in fact, organizers say they’re expanding their repertoire, starting with the Bourbon Sampler on Saturday.

The Sampler is not entirely new to the festival, but it has been bumped up to no longer coincide with Derby activities in late April, and this year, a mixed drink competition among area bartenders has been added to the festivities.

“Last year we celebrated 25 years, so we decided we are going to start off the next 25 years with a bang,” KBF executive director Jill Hawkins tells Insider. “We’re really building up to a big festival this year. We’ve got all kinds of surprises up our sleeves.”

The KBF started in 1992.

The date of this year’s Bourbon Fest is Sept. 11-17, but we can expect a few more new events to surface this summer. Hawkins wouldn’t give us any hints, but she did say there would be more educational seminars, new presenters and, of course, new events altogether.

“We will be coming out with a special announcement after Derby,” she says. “Very exciting things are going on. But what I can tell you is the events won’t stop with the Sampler.”

We’re hoping we can pry some information out of Hawkins on Saturday after a few sips of bourbon, so stay tuned. But let’s get back to the details on the Sampler.

General admission is $60, which is quite affordable for these types of events where tickets usually start at $100 or more. If you opt for the VIP route, at $75, you get in early at 5:30 p.m. to be a part of the Mixed Drink Challenge.

Bartenders from all over the state will compete to make the best-tasting bourbon cocktail that will become the official drink of the KBF in September. A panel of judges will sample the cocktails and vote, and there will be a People’s Choice winner, too.

At 7 p.m., the Bourbon Sampler begins, featuring brands both big and small — from Four Roses and Woodford Reserve to Michter’s and Maker’s (and dozens more) — allowing you to sample their products, meet their master distillers and mingle with like-minded bourbon aficionados.

Food will be provided by Louisville’s Ladyfingers Catering, and there will be live music and a silent auction.

The Mixed Drink Challenge features bartenders from all over the state. | Courtesy of Kentucky Bourbon Festival

What’s fun about these types of events is they give you the opportunity to try all the offerings from a particular distillery side by side, without having to pay a hefty tab at the end. For example, it’s interesting to try regular Maker’s Mark followed by Maker’s 46 to truly learn and taste the differences between the two. Then you add Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and you get an even deeper understanding of the brand.

The Bourbon Sampler will be held on Saturday, March 25, at 7 p.m. at the Guthrie Opportunity Center in Bardstown, 900 Nutter Drive. VIP ticket holders get early entry at 5:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.