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Bourbon burgeons

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The kentucky Bourbon Festival, first uncorked in 1992 as a gathering of 250 enthusiasts of the whiskey, is playing a key role in the beverage's resurgence by drawing more than 20,000 attendees from around the world.

Bourbon aficionados as well as families flocked to Kentucky earlier this month for the annual event, which attracts a large number of participants from Japan and the U.K., where consumption of premium bourbons is booming.

Although sales of bourbon as a whole increased only 1% to $2 billion in the U.S. last year, sales of high-end brands are on a more dramatic upswing. Distillers say the festival is helping them boost premium brands to an upscale, influential audience.

TASTINGS, COOKING DEMOS

"Kentucky" and "bourbon" seem almost synonymous -- the state once boasted 500 bourbon distilleries, but today that number has dwindled to nine, most located around Bardstown, where the festival is staged. The event is run by the non-profit Kentucky Bourbon Festival Inc., which promotes the state and its bourbon whiskey.

The festival includes tasting events, cooking demonstrations with recipes using bourbon, competitions and historic displays of how bourbon has been made in the U.S. since the mid-1700s. Admission to the festival is free, though many of events within the festival charge a fee.

"People around the world travel to this weeklong event giving us an opportunity to showcase our flagship brand, Jim Beam, and our Small Batch Bourbon Collection -- Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek and Basil Hayden's," said Nancy Lintner, VP-marketing at Jim Beam Brands Co.

Jim Beam this year built a "front porch" display for the festival with its master distiller seated in a rocking chair to take questions from visitors.

A highlight of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival was the Bourbon Relay, with distillery employees racing while rolling 500-pound barrels filled with water instead of whiskey. The competition was judged on speed and the accuracy of the final positioning of bungs (openings) in the barrels.

VENERABLE AND NEW BRANDS

Other main events were the Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala, drawing 1,250 attendees at $125 a ticket, and the Bourbon, Cigars & Jazz event, at $60 a ticket.

Other activities included the Bourbon Olympics, a bartending and serving competition among restaurant personnel; Bourbon Barbecue Cook-Off among professional chefs; and several concerts featuring local bluegrass music. There was even an area at the festival especially for kids.

Other companies with a major presence at the festival included Barton Brands, Four Roses Distillery, Heaven Hill Distillery and Maker's Mark Distillery.

Marketers say the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is helping elevate their kind of whiskey to a more elite level among enthusiasts, and it's also helping new brands establish a following.

New brands using the festival to help launch their products have included Buffalo Trace Distillery, renamed last year from Ancient Age Distillery, whose flagship Buffalo Trace brand was introduced in 1999 with "excellent reception" at the festival, said Chris McCrory, brand director.

BUFFALO TRACE EXPANSION

Primarily through word of mouth, Buffalo Trace sales have been spreading beyond Kentucky, and next year the company plans to gradually expand distribution elsewhere in the U.S. and overseas.

"Buffalo Trace sells for about $18 for a 750-milliliter bottle, which means we're affordable yet we also consider ourselves a premium brand," Mr. McCrory said.

Brown-Forman Corp.'s Labrot & Graham subsidiary also used the Kentucky Bourbon Festival to spread the word among connoisseurs about its Woodford Reserve brand, introduced in 1996 when bourbon sales began to rebound.

"We're bringing in a lot of gourmet writers from the U.K. and Germany for the festival to help influence people in other markets about upper-end bourbon," said Bill Creason, VP-general manager of Labrot & Graham.

Woodford Reserve is made at a distillery established in 1812 that lay dormant for 25 years before Brown-Forman bought it and spent $14 million refurbishing it. The bourbon made there now goes for about $27 a bottle, and sales this year are up an average of 60%, Mr. Creason said.

EDUCATING CONSUMERS

Authenticity is crucial to marketing bourbon, and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival helps educate consumers about its roots as the only liquor invented in America and the unique nature of the calcium-rich Kentucky water used in the distilling process, Mr. Creason added.

"We've built a conference center with a kitchen staffed by professional chefs to help demonstrate the role of bourbon in gourmet entertaining . . . having people come here to see all this firsthand is a powerful experience," he said.

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