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Story by Steve Coomes

Just because the Kentucky Bourbon Festival celebrates Kentucky’s whiskey’s history, heritage, and culture, that’s not stopping the festival itself from modernizing many of its events and programs.

Yet as Jill Hawkins describes it, the 26-year-old festival isn’t getting a facelift or overhaul. Rather, organizers are improving on what already works well by expanding on those ideas and sprinkling in some new notions.

Very Old Barton – one of the offerings at last year’s Bottled in Bond Fire event.

“Part of our mission is to support the overall community, and we take that to mean the literal location of the festival and the broader (Bourbon) industry,” said Hawkins, executive director of the Bardstown, Kentucky-based festival. This year’s event is set for Sept. 11-17. That means pulling more events into historic Spalding Hall, home of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, and focusing on more Bourbon education events, such as Bottled In Bond Fire. “We’re changing up some of our programs and flipping them on their ear. It’s time to add some new twists.”

From gussying-up the space long-home to the A Loft VIP Experience, to moving the Bourbon Cocktail Mixology class to the Spalding Hall, one aim is to draw more visitors to the Getz Museum, located inside Spalding Hall.

“From a tourism perspective, the Getz Museum is one of our hidden gems that doesn’t receive the attention its collection deserves,” said Dawn Pryzstal, vice president of tourism for Bardstown and Nelson County.

Over the past 50 years, the museum has amassed a collection of rare artifacts and documents centered on American whiskey from pre-Colonial days to post-Prohibition years. The museum includes authentic moonshine stills, antique bottles and jugs, medicinal whiskey bottles, unique advertising art, novelty whiskey containers, and much more.

“We’re very excited to have the festival on board to generate programming that supports the museum,” Pryzstal added.

Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.

Spalding Hall’s renovated penthouse will again serve as the festival’s cushy Bourbon oasis, the A Loft VIP Experience. The relaxed, air-conditioned retreat offers a private bar with premium spirits and classic Kentucky cuisine served throughout the day, Wi-Fi access, private restrooms and view of the grounds from six stories up. Single-day passes (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday) cost $125 each, while a four-day pass is $400. Ticketholders must be 21 or older.

“Having that space renovated and turned into a single, large room makes it more interactive for guests and gives us the opportunity to look at year-round programming,” Hawkins said.

Several new features will greet visitors to the 2017 festival, including Bourbontowne. Located on the Great Lawn outside Spalding Hall and within the legendary Spirits Garden, Bourbontowne will be a tented experience designed to feel more like a lounge, Hawkins said. Visitors will have the opportunity sip premium Bourbons.

“We found that some Spirit Garden guests wanted a little more, an in-between level that gave them more choices,” Pryzstal said. Acknowledging that Bourbontowne adds a premium edge to the outdoor Spirits Garden experience, Pryzstal added, “It doesn’t take away from what we’ve always done there, it just gives people more options.”

Hawkins also said Louisville-based Moonshine University will host several whiskey-centered educational classes, though as of early August, specifics weren’t determined.

Some other new events to consider:

Punches and Parties: Punches may sound quaint in this cocktail-crazed drinking culture, but they’re making a comeback. At this class, you’ll learn how to craft punches of your own and pair them with delicious foods. Expect some adult sips and apps to be passed. The event will be held at My Old Kentucky Dinner Train Depot 602 N. Third Street, 1-3 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15.

Sip and Savor: This longstanding Festival favorite is now two separate classes: one featuring a whiskey and chocolate pairing, the other a whiskey and cured ham matchup. In both cases, you’ll learn by tasting why each delicacy pairs well with whiskey. Both classes are held outdoors under the shade of the Farmer’s Market Pavilion on 200 East Flaget Ave. Bourbon and Country Ham is at 2-4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15; and Bourbon and Chocolate is at 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16.

A sampling lineup from the 2016 Bourbon Cocktail Mixology event.

Bourbon Cocktail Mixology: This high-demand, instructional cocktail class is now hosted over four days during the Festival, though each day features a different cocktail and a different start time. It begins with Old Fashioned, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2-4 p.m.; Manhattan, Thursday, Sept. 14, 12-2 p.m.; Art of the Julep, Friday, Sept. 15, 12-2 p.m.; and Brunch Cocktails, Saturday, Sept. 16, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. All classes held in the Chapel at Spalding Hall, 114 North 5th St.

Bottled in Bond Fire: Bourbon Women and its president, Susan Reigler, will host this event at historic Wickland. Cozy up to evening bonfires while learning about and enjoying Bottled-in-Bond Bourbons, those 100-proof (at least), four-year-old (at least) whiskeys that often are difficult to find outside Kentucky. Wickland is at 550 Bloomfield Road, and the event runs from 7-11 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 16.

For a complete lineup of Bourbon Festival events, ticket prices and dates, click here.

And remember, should you visit, follow Hawkins’ well-worn mantra cum festival slogan, “Bourbon is a good thing. Too much Bourbon, not a good thing. Consume with care,” she said.

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