When ardent music fans descend on Louisville this weekend for the annual Forecastle Festival, they might be coming for Outkast, Jack White or Beck, but they get serious exposure to Kentucky bourbon, too.
"We call it the fourth headliner," said Jeff Cuellar, of the Bourbon Lodge.
Cuellar, vice president of strategic partnerships for AC Entertainment, which puts on the music festival, said this year fans will be transported to a "bourbon universe."
Cuellar helped create the Bourbon Lodge, a separate ticketed bourbon bar on the festival grounds that has introduced thousands to some of Kentucky's best pours.
"The Bourbon Lodge is my baby — I was kind of inspired by my attendance of other events, capitalizing on regional festivals, how can they differentiate themselves," Cuellar said. "What's more important in Louisville and Kentucky than bourbon? Not much."
His goal was to create something "so over the top and fun, that when we draw people from outside they get an experience, a real taste of bourbon culture."
According to Adam Johnson, director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the lodge has succeeded beyond the Kentucky Distillers' Association's wildest dreams as a way to entice music fans onto the trail.
"What I was most pleased about was people talking about extending their trips on either side — I talked to people at my hotel who were staying extra days to visit distilleries," Johnson said.
An economic impact study done by the festival for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer showed that in 2013, attendees made 9,500 visits to area tourist attractions, including Kentucky distilleries. Overall, the three-day festival had more than $14 million in impact, including $1.46 million at area bars and restaurants.
Last year, spirits journalist and author Fred Minnick called Forecastle "bourbon's most important festival for new consumers."
And not just new consumers, but future connoisseurs: "There were 75,000 virgin whiskey drinkers here, and the Bourbon Lounge was their passport to America's Spirit. This is a welcomed change in how brands have been marketing to younger crowds," Minnick wrote.
Part of the success was the opportunity to not only taste bourbon but interact with people who know bourbon and can educate newcomers on everything from barrels to grains.
"I can't tell you how many people were going around, tasting, saying 'I've never really tasted bourbon,'" Minnick said. "That shows me the concert-going 20-something wants to learn about bourbon. It's not a fluke. This is a very important moment for the bourbon industry and really hope they can capitalize on it."
They are trying: this year there will be Fireside Chats on topics like the making of bourbon, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the history of the spirit, and "meet and greets" with master distillers.
There also will be celebrity bartenders — members of Spoon, Spanish Gold, and JJ Grey & Mofro who will serve drinks made with the Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Woodford Reserve bourbons they selected. Sales of their drinks will raise money for the Forecastle Foundation, to benefit ecological projects, including the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust.
How much influence could the bourbon lodge have?
Well, other spirits are already taking note: This year Ole Smoky Moonshine of Gatlinburg, Tenn., has signed on as the "official moonshine" and will have a "mini-holler" featuring several Ole Smoky Moonshine flavors.
And the Kentucky Landing will debut, with craft beer and wine (including Against the Grain, Bluegrass Brewing Company, Falls City Beer, Kentucky Ale and West Sixth Brewing and Kentucky Proud wines Old 502 Winery), local food trucks and hand-made crafts.
How big a hit will it be with fans?
Last year, the lodge offered a special branded "mug" that let patrons come in, enjoy the air conditioning and real bathrooms, and use tickets for drinks or food. More than 4,000 mugs sold out completely before Sunday.
"I could not have anticipated that. I was blown away by that," the KDA's Johnson said of the popularity of the lodge last year.
So they will have more mugs this year, Cuellar said, along with more food offerings from Louisville restaurants Hammerheads, Game and Loop 22.
And more bourbon.
"We had over 10,000 pours last year of 13 different brands, and within them were multiple varietals," Cuellar said.
There will be at least 24 labels this year, according to the web site.
The lodge is partnered with the Kentucky Distillers' Association, so it includes brands from only KDA member distillers, such as Maker's Mark, Heaven Hill, Woodford Reserve, Michter's, Four Roses, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam and more.
But the lineup is extensive enough to cover a lot of tastes.
"It is a major draw for consumers, because it allows an authentic experience they can't get anywhere else," he said. "I think what it's doing is providing an opportunity for bourbon to get in the hands of influencers and a different audience. ... change the tastes of people who may have only had beer, who may not understand the complexities of bourbon. We're providing easy access to fans that want to grow their palate."