It’s been 25 years since a devastating fire ripped through Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky., but Randy Prasse still remains in awe of what happened as soon as the whiskey producer went up in flames.
“Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam — their biggest competitors — were there while fire trucks were still putting flames out, offering their production facilities so that Heaven Hill could continue making whiskey,” says Prasse, president and COO of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. “I think of Chrysler versus Ford or Coke versus Pepsi and if one of those plants caught fire, their competitors would roast marshmallows on the fire. But this industry’s so collaborative and supportive. They not only help each other get started, but when they’re down, they keep each other alive rather than putting a headstone on their grave. I don’t know any other industry like it.”
That “collaborative spirit” is what Prasse hopes to showcase at the 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Festival, where an estimated 8,000 whiskey lovers will converge between Sept. 15 and 18. Prasse joined the festival’s team as Covid-19 hit, promptly transforming 2020’s planned event into a virtual festival, then running a smaller-scale live version in 2021. However, 2022 marks a new chapter, with law changes enabling guests (around 75 percent of whom will come from out of state) to sample and buy whiskey for the first time in the festival’s 31-year history.
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Days out from opening, Prasse is juggling endless last-minute hiccups, but thrives on the chaos. And having grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, he’s accustomed to the 24/7 nature of the job. “Cows don’t take vacations, so my family never had vacations or weekends at the beach,” he says. “As much as I resented it when I was younger, it has served me well in the festivals business because it’s a lot of weekends, evenings, and holidays.”
Drawn to the arts, Prasse began volunteering as a concert photographer as a teenager, then worked for Fender Guitars, shooting musical idols like late Eddie Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash the same night Prasse photographed him.
While he studied marketing and journalism, the events industry kept luring Prasse back. The 54-year-old father of three has worked for Milwaukee’s Bastille Days, the Wisconsin State Fair, the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Kentucky Derby.
Prasse talked to VinePair about bringing the Kentucky Bourbon Festival to life under a new vision, how craft distillers are shaking up the bourbon industry, and the power of collaboration over competitiveness.
1. You’ve worked a lot of different roles in the events industry. What was it about festivals and events that drew you in from such a young age?
First, it was the access. What 20-year-old wouldn’t love going backstage or having an all-access pass at a music festival? It was in the ‘80s and ‘90s when all my favorite bands were on tour. But throughout my career, what really makes it worthwhile is seeing the smiles on people’s faces. Regardless of what the event is, it’s a fun industry. Even on its worst day, it’s more fun producing a festival than other jobs.
2. How were you introduced to bourbon?
I got involved in the spirits industry by producing craft beer festivals, but I’ve joked how the day I accepted this position, I had one collectors’ bottle of Woodford Reserve — because they sponsor the Kentucky Derby — which I didn’t drink. Now I’ve got 80 bottles in my house and 60 in my office. It wasn’t something I needed to acquire a taste to; it’s just something I didn’t think to enjoy. I would come home after a long day and crack a nice cold beer, but I’ve learned you can have that same relaxation and enjoyment with a nice whiskey cocktail.
3. How much do you think spirits consumers have also opened up more to whiskey in recent years?
When we started this event, the distilleries joked you couldn’t give away whiskey — people weren’t buying bourbon. Craft beer was getting trendy in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, but very small sections of retail shelving was dedicated to bourbon. Over the last 15, 20 years, it has exploded, largely thanks to craft distilling. Consumers have also become more sophisticated. That has meant more whiskey festivals and events competing for the attention of distilleries and consumers, so we’ve had to get serious about what we want this event to be. We tested every activity to make decisions about what to carry forward with our new vision for the festival.
4. What’s that new vision?
For years, it was a free community festival for residents and you couldn’t actually drink whiskey. However, it became evident that it needed to be more than a fun community gathering. We’re now focused on this festival being about whiskey and the people who make it. It’s about putting distillers in touch with [whiskey lovers], and if it doesn’t fit into that, you won’t experience it here. There are no bouncy castles, beer gardens, or car shows.
A key part of our festival is also the educational components. We’ve got access to every major master distiller and brand ambassador at our fingertips, so we’ve recommitted to education and the ability for guests to come and listen to the rock stars of the industry.
We had started working on that vision pre-Covid, then when Covid hit, all we did was tell the speakers we had lined up, “Instead of being on a stage in front of hundreds of people, we’ll do it in front of cameras then put it on YouTube.” That opened us up to a new audience of bourbon enthusiasts who didn’t know we existed and now they’re coming to the festival. A silver lining of the pandemic!
5. What else will be different about the festival now that it’s back on a larger scale under your new vision?
The biggest change is that it’s a 21-plus event. In 2019, we had 11 major distilleries, but you couldn’t drink whiskey at the festival because of Kentucky laws. In 2022, we’ve got 48 distilleries, sampling is legal, and you can buy bourbon.
You go to a wine festival and taste a glass and if you like it, you buy it, but it took us 31 years in Kentucky to do that with bourbon! The laws weren’t advantageous to distilleries or festivals, but they recently changed and it’s a game changer.
6. You mentioned how craft distilleries have evolved the industry. How is this reflected at the festival?
You have the big brands who are worried about consistency, barrel production, and filling shelves as fast as they can. But craft distilleries are taking their time, learning their craft and innovating. Craft distillers’ innovation is making the larger legacy brands realize they, too, have to be innovative. So, we’re seeing more of these international brands innovating and trying things with secondary barrel finishes or different variants, whereas they used to be like, “We just need to make a million barrels a year and each barrel needs to taste the same as a barrel from 10 years ago.”
That’s where the festival comes in. Of the new distilleries this year, 26 are craft distillers. We never used to include craft distilleries, but they’re making names for themselves and exciting consumers. And the big distilleries welcome craft distilleries because high tide floats all boats. If more people are getting excited about whiskey, or if someone’s drinking whiskey now and they weren’t five years ago, that’s a plus for the whole industry. So, our role is to not only work with the avid enthusiast, but open the venue up for new people to discover whiskey.
7. You’ve also set out to highlight the collaborative nature of the industry. How so?
We rarely do an educational piece that only features one brand. We might have a Woodford Reserve representative sitting on stage next to someone from Maker’s Mark and it’s about showcasing that collaborative nature.
When small distilleries are looking to get into the industry, oftentimes they go to the legacy distilleries for advice — and they get it. Large distilleries could flick them away like a fly, but they invest time to ensure craft distilleries get up and running because they realize maybe they’ll do something that will introduce new people into bourbon drinking. It’s a unique and fun dynamic and we’re fostering that cool vibe at this festival.
8. What does your day look like right now and what’s keeping you up at night as the opening creeps closer?
That’s an amazing question because if you’d asked me at 8 a.m. this morning, I would’ve had a different answer. In the last two weeks, I’ve had one of our tent companies withdraw, we almost lost our caterer, and our electricians aren’t able to do our set up — ironically, because distilleries are so busy with construction projects that the electricians are busy working there.
The 3 a.m. wake-up is more about wondering if my sponsors have their tickets or if we have the right number of tents. But I never complain. It’s the life I chose and it’s in my blood. I wish I wasn’t stressed out right now, but when the festival’s over, I actually get into a little bit of a funk and period depression because I thrive on the adrenaline rush so much. I don’t jump out of airplanes to get my adrenaline — I produce festivals!