Story: Steve Coomes
Photos Courtesy of Blade and Bow
Louisvillians are generally an easy-going lot—until you mess with Kentucky Derby week. In the run-up to the first Saturday in May, we place unrealistically high expectations on truly unpredictable things like fickle and pampered steeds and on-time restaurant reservations.
We’re even worse about Derby Week weather, claiming entitlement to a cool morning and sundrenched afternoon as an essential backdrop to the Run for the Roses.
And the month of May actually did begin according to the scripted warm, mild weather. Yet by Thursday, May 4, the change was on. Seamless blue skies became a rumpled dome of grey flannel, temperatures plummeted lower than President Trump’s approval rating and rain fell in chilly sheets. Beautiful Bourbon Country had morphed into bone-chilling Scottish Highlands, and Louisvillians were ticked. Shaking their fists at the leaden heavens, they and their myriad out-of-town guests made hasty trips to malls to buy anything to repel the cold rain on Kentucky Oaks Day.
But by the time Abel Tasman had garnered her garland of lilies that evening, 150 guests were arriving at the hallowed grounds of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, where the meteorological madness was missing. A golden swath of sunset divided the onyx cloud bank and the horizon, and the rain and wind diminished. The second-annual Stitzel-Weller Affair was on—albeit inside a heated tent shielding a straw-covered lawn—and no one seemed to care whether ladies dressed to the nines wore Manolo Blahniks or muck boots. With a Blade & Bow mint julep in hand, all was well. As it should have been. Tickets to this grand event were $500 each.
Save for its elegant brick and columned Jeffersonian welcome center, Stitzel-Weller is, especially by day, industrial and raw; the metal skins of its 82-year-old rickhouses coarsened and colored by decades of rust and whiskey mold. By night when the grounds are barely lit, it’s elegant and modestly haunting. When the cacophony of distilling ended 25 years ago, the campus was left with a ponderous and peaceful silence of sleeping whiskey. On this evening, only the sounds of a happy crowd and soloist Ben Fold’s beleaguered cello broke the hush.
Doug Kragel, DIAGEO’s North American whiskey ambassador, greeted the crowd and reminded them they were there for the privilege of tasting the second release of its 92-proof Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The initial 2015 release sold quickly, commanding prices well above the $149.99 suggested retail price, and Kragel’s confidence that this whiskey was due for a repeat was evident.
But that pour would come later, well after a multi-course meal that began with a dram of the younger 6 to 7-year B&B, costing about one-third the price of its aged sibling. A toast was offered, whiskey tipped back and the feasting began.
Atlanta celeb chef Ford Fry seemed a tad giddy just to be there, laughing at his own remarks about his Kentucky experience thus far. Perhaps he, too, had imbibed a julep or a New Fashioned, a cocktail of bourbon, St. Germaine and muddled orange circulating during a pleasantly extended cocktail hour. After a merciful 30-second overview of the evening’s menu, the owner of such restaurants as Jct. Kitchen, No. 246, The Optimist and Oyster Bar, King + Duke, and St. Cecilia credited the caterer, Louisville’s Wiltshire Pantry, for doing the bulk of the work, and announced his plan to have some fun. His words let loose a stream of servers bearing food-laden platters to dinner tables where guests waited, silverware in their clutches.
Such moments are times when any reasonable person should have mercy on the bourbon glitterati, people like Julian Van Winkle, who fought graciously to enjoy his dinner in relative peace. Perhaps the Pappy Van Winkle president’s trim figure is attributable to such meal-time interruptions, which came steadily and often throughout the night.
Kragel’s wife, Marcella, suffered similarly but from the opposite affliction: a lack of attention from her oft-distracted husband. A charming conversationalist, Mrs. Kragel, who is an event planner in addition to being a mother of three, seemed unfazed by her husband’s sudden and sometimes lengthy disappearances from the dinner table. He had work to do, and she acknowledged that he’s paid to be interrupted at such affairs.
Vegetable salads, grilled meats, mashed potatoes and much more were passed by the platter between guests who were ready for sustenance more serious than the day’s race track food. Ford’s menu didn’t disappoint. Some diners welcomed the break from bourbon by switching to wine with dinner, while others walked to the bar for new cocktails or Blade and Bow on the rocks. Still others chose all three, and hopefully a cab home as well.
When dessert arrived—traditional chocolate and pecan pie known colloquially as Derby Pie, but defended in court as a trademarked name owned by Kern’s Kitchen—large trays of Blade & Bow 22-year were brought to the front of the tent. Motioning toward the trays, Kragel said, in essence, “Come and get it,” and guests wasted no time fetching their own snifters rather than waiting for the more elegant server retrieval. The pours were healthy, generously too-large for a mere bottoms-up indulgence, so the crowd sipped appreciatively. (It’s a good whiskey: mature and sturdy with oak softened by vanilla, a bit of caramel and dark fruit. It was a fine accompaniment to the pie.)
And just as a sense of post-repast, alcohol-induced ease set in, the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage and wasted no time pouring their high-energy mod-billy-grass tunes onto the crowd. The sonic transition from the din of human voices to an amplified stage show was sudden and striking. And surely the sleeping whiskey aging across the Stitzel-Weller campus felt it.