Barrel racers roll for hometown bragging rights

Local competition fuels our distilleries at world championships

By Kevin Wheatley Published:

Pushing a 500-pound barrel of bourbon around a rectangular track takes some oomph.

Just ask Heidi Land, a shipper for Jim Beam distillery who won the women’s individual bourbon barrel relay at last year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. Over the past 10 years, she’s won five relays and finished in the top three nine times.

“We’ve had some girls help us, new ones that come in, and they say that first time they think it’s easy,” Land said during a recent practice at the Jim Beam distillery off Georgetown Road.

“Then they go to push and it’s like, it doesn’t want to move.”

Teams with Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace have been practicing for this year’s World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay in Bardstown Saturday. The race, a timed event for teams and individuals from a number of Kentucky distilleries, is a featured part of the bourbon festival.

Both local distilleries have practiced using barrels filled with 500 pounds of water on their own on-site, regulation-size tracks, and they expect a strong showing next week.

The hometown team, Heaven Hill Distilleries of Bardstown, has dominated both the men’s and women’s team competitions in recent years.

“I’m hoping to win,” said Matt Calvert, warehouse team leader at Buffalo Trace who’s rolled in the competition since 2007. “We shoot to win the team every year. We’ve won individuals, and Heaven Hill beats us every year on the team event, so we’re looking forward to hopefully beating them at least once before I can’t roll any more.

“They’ve beaten us every year I’ve rolled.”

The competition is rooted in speed and accuracy. Teams of four – men and women have separate teams – must roll 10 barrels around a 40-foot by 28-foot railed track, and one person, known as the “ricker,” sends the barrels down a rick similar to those in bourbon warehouses.

Another person outside the rick helps position the barrels, which is key. The barrel’s hole, called a bung, must point straight up or within two diameters. Ten seconds are subtracted if a bung is in its proper place, and the lowest time wins.

Individually, men and women only roll one barrel through the track, but men rick 10 barrels while women rick five.

Team winners get $175 apiece while first place individuals win $500 with $200 for the ricker, $200 for second place and $100 for third. Barrel-top trophies have also been made for winners.

Last year, Land and Melissa Huff of Jim Beam placed first and second individually, Jim Beam won the women’s team competition, and Buffalo Trace’s women’s team finished third.

On the men’s side, Timmy Hudnall of Buffalo Trace won the single barrel roll-off, Lee Drew Stivers of Buffalo Trace placed third individually, and Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam finished second and third in the team event, respectively.

Though it’s a friendly event, competition can be fierce. Patrick Clouse, aging warehouse manager for Buffalo Trace, said some would-be rollers will be caught in a numbers game and cut.

“I have several former champions coming to knock the king of the hill off, so that’s our plan,” Clouse said.

“… I put a sheet up, and these guys have the desire and the want. We actually have to cut some folks because I’ve got so much interest.”

Rocky Hamilton, who works at Jim Beam and was a member of the Buffalo Trace team, has already guaranteed a victory over Buffalo Trace.

Others on Jim Beam’s squad shared the sentiment.

“If we don’t beat anybody else, we want to beat Buffalo,” said Randy Bullock, a truck driver.

Calvert, the warehouse team leader at Buffalo Trace, laughed when told of Hamilton’s guarantee.

“Hey, I’d like to see it. I think we got ‘em last year,” he said. “… It’s a lot of fun talking trash with ol’ Rocky.”

A little smack talk is part of the friendly competition.

But the festival, which starts Tuesday and ends next Sunday, isn’t all about the bourbon barrel relay.

Each day has a number of events planned, including a concert headlined by country singer Dierks Bentley Friday; a Kentucky Bourbon Breakfast Saturday and Sunday mornings; and a sampling of bourbons through the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Wednesday.

“It’s just a blast,” Bullock said. “… We meet other distilleries, have a little competition, then when it’s all over go have a drink.”

The festival also provides marketing opportunities for the distilleries.

“We get some good publicity out of it, and we publicize bourbon for the whole state,” said Gary Johnson, safety supervisor at Jim Beam. “That’s the whole foundation of the bourbon festival – make sure people get a chance to come out and try bourbon and enjoy it.”

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