Brown-Forman makes a splash with its Bourbon Immersion

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March has been a mighty busy month. I am slowly recovering from my ten-flights-in-ten-days US odyssey, which began with a cracking time in California (courtesy of Wonderful Pistachios); continued with a transfer to Orlando to attend this year’s IAADFS Duty Free Show of the Americas; and concluded with a “Bourbon Immersion” in Kentucky, hosted in serious style by Brown-Forman. It was one heck of a finale.

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The lucky ‘Bourbon Immersion’ 2014 participants

The Brown-Forman travel retail team laid on the most tremendous press trip, which included a visit to Churchill Downs Racetrack (home of the Kentucky Derby), a tour of the Brown-Forman Cooperage and a bourbon tasting with Master Distiller Chris Morris. During the course of the two days I fell head over heels in love with Louisville; developed a serious grits habit (delicious!); and discovered the delights of the Mint Julep cocktail, much to the detriment of my waistline and my liver. Plus I have GOT to stop saying ‘Y’all’…

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Above: the famous Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby; below: a selection of Derby Day hats on display in the Kentucky Derby Museum

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After transferring to Kentucky via Atlanta – and a brief check-in at the amazing 21C Museum Hotel – the Bourbon Immersion began in earnest with a private tour of Churchill Downs Racetrack and the Kentucky Derby Museum.

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Race day’s traditional Mint Julep cocktail, made with Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve – the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby

Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, and we conscientiously sampled it on arrival, in the form of the race day’s traditional Mint Julep. I’ve always been a Martini Mann (and something of a gin connoisseur) but in one fell swoop that cocktail converted me to the beauty of bourbon and reader, I haven’t looked back since.

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Horsing around: The Moodie Report’s Rebecca Mann saddles up for a bourbon-fuelled virtual circuit of the Kentucky Derby race track
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Below: the stunning view of the winning post from Brown-Forman’s suite
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The Museum welcomes over 200,000 guests each year, and gives each and every one of them a unique insight into the Kentucky Derby and everything it encompasses. Highlights include “It’s My Derby” (a collection of favourite Derby memories, famous and flamboyant hats, and outfits worn to the festivities); “The Greatest Race” (a 360-degree feature film highlighting Derby day from dawn to dusk) and “Riders Up” (an interactive exhibit where visitors can “race” a horse, using their thumbs to manoeuvre their mount, while maintaining the ‘bottoms up’ position). You know where I’m going with this, right? Buoyed by Mint Juleps, three of us were persuaded to saddle up and race each other. Much to my chagrin, I came in second, beaten soundly by Travel Markets Insider’s Michael Pasternak. I blame the bourbon…

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Master Distiller Chris Morris outside the Brown-Forman Cooperage

On leaving the Museum, we were treated to a fascinating tour of the Racetrack, including Millionaires’ Row and the Brown-Forman Suite, with its phenomenal view of the track and the winning post. Day one ended with pre-dinner cocktails (bourbon-based, natch) and a divine dinner at St Charles Exchange Restaurant.

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Raising barrels: Brown-Forman is the only spirits company that makes its own
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Day two began with a tour of Brown-Forman’s Cooperage, following a talk by Master Distiller Chris Morris, who is a remarkable and humbling authority on absolutely any subject you can think of – including bourbon. I have never met anyone more knowledgeable in my life, and it was a privilege to spend time with him and be educated a little, about so many different things.

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Charring barrels is an important part of the cooperage process

I discovered, for example, that Brown-Forman is the only spirits company in the world to make its own barrels (created from American White Oak). I learned that one ‘raises’, not builds, a barrel, which is made from 33 staves. Chris explained about seasoning, steaming, toasting, charring and bung holes. Above all, I learned that the barrel is an integral ingredient of a whisk(e)y – much more than a mere container – responsible for all of its colour, and a good part of its flavour. It was fascinating.

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The power of five: the quintet of key flavour sources intrinsic to making bourbon

We then enjoyed an exclusive tour of the cooperage, from the lumber yard to the barrel assembly and beyond. The sights and smells of the wood and the fires – and the skills of the coopers, who can raise up to 250 barrels a day – were simply spectacular.

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The bourbon bubbles away at the Woodford Reserve Distillery

The cooperage was a hard act to follow, but somehow Brown-Forman managed it, laying on a comprehensive tour of the group’s historic main campus and corporate headquarters, and a lavish lunch in Brown-Forman’s Bourbon Street Café, in the company of top B-F executives.

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The eye-catching whiskey stills

Then it was back onto the bus (I say bus: sleek, black, executive transporter, complete with onboard refreshments, would be far more accurate), for our visit to the Woodford Reserve Distillery.

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Extracting whiskey ahead of some sampling

We were then treated to a tour that de-mystified the mechanical, chemical, technical and sensory aspects of bourbon production, and examined the five sources of flavour intrinsic to the bourbon-making process.

Last – but definitely not least – we sat down for an unforgettable bourbon tasting. Choosing a favourite proved nigh on impossible (though I was typically thorough in my efforts, and guided expertly by Chris). Ultimately, the exquisite Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Maple Wood Finish just edged it: ambrosial in every respect. I silently toasted my late father – a true whisk(e)y lover, who would have adored every second of this trip – with my final dram.

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The Master at work: Chris Morris leads the bourbon tasting

Our last supper in Louisville was another convivial affair, taken in the 21C Hotel restaurant, Proof on Main (Weisenberger grits this time! Served with goat’s cheese, scallions, lemon and olive oil). Normally I hate goat’s cheese but these are so sublime I’d demolish them for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week straight. Y’all eat there if you can (oops). Fly there specially if you must.

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Rebecca Mann endures another tough day at the office…

A huge and heartfelt thank you to the Brown-Forman team (especially Liz Bingham, Rick Bubenhofer, Jim Perry and Chris Morris) for their wit, warmth and hospitality during one of the most informative and enjoyable press trips I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. I will be wallowing happily in the memories of Brown-Forman’s Bourbon Immersion for a very long time to come.

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