Bar Belle: What’s the secret of a good bourbon? Master distillers spill the beans

Woodford Reserve and Old Forester master distiller Chris Morris | Photo by Sara Havens

Woodford Reserve and Old Forester master distiller Chris Morris | Photo by Sara Havens

Some people geek out at ComicCons, “Star Trek” conventions or Spice Girl reunions, but for me, my inner nerd surfaces when I get to meet the men and women responsible for making good bourbon. My dream is to spend a night with them (platonically, of course) in a rick house and listen to stories about the olden days, intricate processes and their inner most secrets.

Wednesday night, at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival‘s All-Star Sampler, I came as close as I possibly could to making that dream come true. Nearly all of the industry’s master distillers and makers were under one roof, offering up samples of their bourbons and whiskeys, shaking hands, signing bottles and answering silly questions from someone who calls herself the Bar Belle.

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell | Photo by Sara Havens

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell | Photo by Sara Havens

When I got through the doors of Bardstown’s Guthrie Opportunity Center and shook off the heavy September humidity, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. Lining the perimeter of the large room were booths from each major distillery (except Buffalo Trace), as well as the newest craft distillers and even Louisville’s own Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery.

The event was sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which runs the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and organizers made sure attendees had plenty of time to sip, schmooze and sample everything.

I was given a bag and a Bourbon Festival poster, and told to go along my merry way. I felt like I was 7 and had finally grasped the concept of trick-or-treating. By saying a couple magic words — “Can I have a (fill in the blank) neat?” — the friendly folks behind each booth would give you an ounce or two of their liquid candy in a glass you got to keep! Let’s just say I wasted no time filling up my bag, and when it comes to bourbon, every piece is a Reece’s Cup. No raisins, Smarties or pennies at this party!

But long before my bag was full, actually while I was waiting in line at the first booth for Maker’s Mark, I spotted Maker’s master distiller Greg Davis. My knees grew weak. I nervously looked away, hoping a few sips of Cask Strength would calm my butterflies.

This same situation unfolded over and over, as each master distiller or distillery representative was stationed by his or her booth. It was like sitting down to play blackjack at a Vegas casino and realizing the Rat Pack was running the table.

Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe with the nerdiest writer for Insider Louisville

Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe with the nerdiest writer for Insider Louisville

Fred Noe, Jimmy Russell, Chris Morris, Brent Elliott, Charlie Downs — I was as giddy as a pimply tween at a One Direction concert. Thankfully, though, I’m old enough to drink, and I sampled their bourbons before attempting to exchange dialogue with them. Woodford Double Oaked, Baker’s, Four Roses Small Batch, Elijah Craig … you name it, I had it.

In an effort not to look foolish or say something stupid like, “My friends say hi,” I came prepared with one single question I’d ask them all: “In two words or less, what’s the secret to a good bourbon?” I also had them sign my festival poster because, well, I’m just a nerd. But I wasn’t the only one — people brought hats, bats, staves, bottles and even flasks for the esteemed bourbon makers to autograph. I finally had found my people at this BourbonCon.

My friends say hi.

My friends say hi.

The distillers didn’t seem annoyed by my question, thank goodness, and all had vastly different answers — a true testament to just how magical the bourbon industry is. Most of these guys have been making bourbon for decades, long before distillers were viewed as celebrities. And most probably would prefer to tinker with a still rather than stand still for a photo, but as bourbon booms, so does its crew.

So, what is the secret to a good bourbon? Here are their answers, some of which are more than two words. Who’s gonna argue with Eddie Russell? Not me.

Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve/Old Forester: “Confidence.”

Fred Noe, master distiller of Jim Beam: “Good ingredients.”

Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey: “Flavor and body.”

Eddie Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey: “Patience and doing it the right way.”

Brent Elliott, master distiller of Four Roses: “Craft and passion.”

Pam Heilmann, distiller of Michter’s: “Mouthfeel and flavor.”

Greg Davis, master distiller of Maker’s Mark: “Flavor-forward finish.”

Charlie Downs, artisanal distiller of Evan Williams: “The person enjoying it.”

Drew Kulsveen, master distiller of Willett: “Taste.”

Mark Coffman, master distiller of Town Branch: “Passion and desire.”

Stephanie Preston, assistant distiller of Bulleit Bourbon: “Love and passion.”

Bernie Lubbers, brand ambassador of Heaven Hill: “Age and proof.”