American bourbon labels

Bourbon headlining an event this close to the Mason-Dixon line? Happily, yes. The Fifth Annual Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival takes place this weekend, starting Friday, March 23, at Timonium Fairgrounds.

The festival features 40 bourbons — among the 60 beers and pits of BBQ — all available for sampling.  The menu of bourbon includes classics such as 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Booker’s. However, options like the Evan Williams Cherry Reserve and Red Stag Honey Tea reflect a recent trend in bourbon expansion, flavor infusions. Larry Kass, spokesman for Heaven Hill Distilleries, which includes the Evan Williams brand, has called the flavored bourbons, “a gateway-type product into the category.”

Expansion risks are paying off. Festivals like this one just outside Baltimore (which won 2011 Best of Baltimore-Festivals) are successful in part because of bourbon’s increasing popularity. At the Brown-Forman (brands include Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s) cooperage in Louisville, the daily handcrafting and charring of oak barrels is up more than fifty percent in a decade.  According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, bourbon makes up 70 percent of the $1.1 billion in spirits the U.S. exports annually.

While 95 percent of bourbons are distilled in my old Kentucky home, Kentucky origin is surprisingly not one of the official requirements that elevate bourbon’s taste above your standard whisky.Like most things in life, bourbon is believed to improve naturally with age. Its resurgence is undiluted proof of that philosophy.