What’s better than bourbon? Bourbon and barbecue, of course. Both were on display at the first ever Hemming Park Bourbon and Barbecue Festival in downtown Jacksonville, FL April 23rd.

Nineteen different distilleries offering 28 examples of their bourbons and whiskeys were available to unlimited sampling for the surprisingly low price of $35 per person. VIP tastings which included Buffalo Trace’s Stagg brand as well as Pappy Van Winkle were offered at additional cost. Four 1-ounce samples of various Pappy Van Winkle brand expressions could be had for $100. I am a bourbon novice with enthusiasm for learning more about the spirit, but not at a level yet where I can justify that expense. I found more than enough to enjoy on the entry level.

As I sampled one great whiskey after another, I began to wonder who put this tasting lineup together?

“I personally worked with one of our alcohol distributors to select the bourbons and whiskeys,” Jim

Webb, special events coordinator for Hemming Park, said. “We wanted a wide spectrum of the various styles that are out there.”

Webb did a fantastic job.

He couldn’t have asked for a better night to host the event. A perfect mid-70 degree evening greeted the roughly 3,000 event attendees. Webb estimated 300 of those attendees bought a tasting package.

Living on Amelia Island, roughly an hour from Hemming Park, it isn’t easy convincing me to make the trip on a weekend; I make a similar drive to my Monday-through-Friday job. But I do want to support the revitalization taking place downtown. That continuing revitalization and similar events hosted previously encouraged Webb to believe a bourbon and barbecue event could succeed.

“We have had great success with food truck festivals in the park in the past,” Webb said. “Last year we had a Brew-B- Que where we had local beers and barbecue. This year I thought we’d amp things up a bit with bourbon.

“We also wanted to include some of our neighbors in the festival, so we invited bartenders from four

local craft cocktail bars to make drinks at the festival. We also brought in some specialty beers from Bold City Brewery that were aged in bourbon barrels.”

I’m glad I went. The festival became one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve yet spent in Jacksonville.

My favorites

Sitting on my couch debating with my wife Saturday afternoon whether or not to attend, learning that Breckenridge Distillery would be on hand put me over the top. My wife and I loved our visit to the distillery on a trip to Colorado last summer, recently running out of the whiskey we purchased on-site – this seemed like a sign.

Considering my bias for Breckenridge Distillery, I’m going to remove them from my reviews. Rest

assured, I did enjoy a few samples and found it as delicious as ever.

Upon returning to my notes after the event, I realize that I have “starred,” highlighted or otherwise lauded more of the offerings than I could relay here and be taken seriously. I didn’t intend to be the teacher who gives everyone an “A,” but that’s how it came out.

The best of the best was 1792. I found 1792 to be the smoothest of the smooth, the easiest of the easy; it caressed my tongue and mouth and seduced its way down my throat. 1792, like many of my favorites this night, was a rye whiskey. I’ve never made that connection before and will keep it in mind moving forward.

The ability to sample and compare so many different variations, learning what you like and what you don’t, makes these tasting events true educational experiences. These shindigs masquerade as a big party, and they are, but for the want-to- be connoisseurs among us, they provide an unmatched opportunity to broaden our horizons.

As delightfully easy as I found 1792, I found Garrison Brothers Distillery Fall 2015 to be as equally delightfully challenging. This spirit was more aggressive. The bartender told me to look for notes of peanut butter, which I did not find, but the taste was complex, surprising. I went back for another. And another.

Have you ever driven a sports car without power steering? Wrestling the wheel, controlling the power, shifting through the gears is not easy, but the instant you turn the ignition off, you want to go back for more.

Garrison Brothers Distillery is located in tiny Hye, TX west of Austin in the Hill Country. I had never heard of it before. It’s doubtful I’ll ever come across it again – although I’ll be looking. I find magic in being able to sample these obscure brands from across the country. My taste buds travelled to Colorado, Texas, Kentucky – we stayed a long time in Kentucky – before finally returning home to Florida.

The last selection I’ll highlight comes from right here in the Sunshine State. Wild Buck Rye is hand crafted by NJoy Spirits Distillery in the very Florida-y town of Weeki Wachee. I picked up flavors of grape and licorice in this unusual offering. Could that be a combination of the ginger bread the distillers claim in their tasting notes?

The owners of the distillery, Natalie Joy and Kevin S. Goff were on hand at the event to share their whiskey. The degree to which having the distiller on site at these tastings to discuss their products and processes cannot be underestimated.

In fact, my only disappointment with the event was that more of the distillers, or brand representatives knowledgeable about the product, were unable to attend. I understand the costs which would be involved with that, but these experiences are exponentially heightened when someone is there to guide you through what you’re tasting.

I’m not an expert. An art museum without a guide to me is just looking at pictures and, too often, spirit tastings without an expert in the brand becomes simply drinking good whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with that, but drinking good whiskey can be elevated to an experience and memory to last a lifetime with the right guiding hand.

Palm Ridge Distillery located in Umatilla, FL 30 miles north of Orlando was another in-state distillery on hand. I especially enjoyed its Palm Ridge Rye. There’s that word again. I was happy to learn that craft distilling of whiskey is taking place in Florida and between NJoy, Palm Ridge, Marlin and Barrel in my hometown of Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine Distillery, my wife and I have begun planning our own Florida distillery tour.

My hat is off to everyone at Hemming Park who put the event together and all of the brands which provided samples.

“We hope to learn from this event and put on an even bigger and better event again next year,” Webb said.

I’ll be there.

Originally published on Microshiner