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Randy Prasse Went From Photographing Rock Stars to Operating Kentucky’s Largest Bourbon Occasion

It’s been 25 years since a devastating hearth ripped by way of Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky., however Randy Prasse nonetheless stays in awe of what occurred as quickly because the whiskey producer went up in flames.

Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam — their greatest opponents — had been there whereas hearth vans had been nonetheless placing flames out, providing their manufacturing services in order that Heaven Hill may proceed making whiskey,” says Prasse, president and COO of the Kentucky Bourbon Pageant. “I consider Chrysler versus Ford or Coke versus Pepsi and if a kind of crops caught hearth, their opponents would roast marshmallows on the fireplace. However this business’s so collaborative and supportive. They not solely assist one another get began, however after they’re down, they maintain one another alive moderately than placing a gravestone on their grave. I don’t know every other business prefer it.”

That “collaborative spirit” is what Prasse hopes to showcase on the 2022 Kentucky Bourbon Pageant, the place an estimated 8,000 whiskey lovers will converge between Sept. 15 and 18. Prasse joined the competition’s workforce as Covid-19 hit, promptly reworking 2020’s deliberate occasion right into a digital competition, then working a smaller-scale reside model in 2021. Nonetheless, 2022 marks a brand new chapter, with legislation adjustments enabling company (round 75 % of whom will come from out of state) to pattern and purchase whiskey for the primary time within the competition’s 31-year historical past.

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Days out from opening, Prasse is juggling infinite last-minute hiccups, however 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 holidays, so my household by no means had holidays or weekends on the seaside,” he says. “As a lot as I resented it after I was youthful, it has served me properly within the festivals enterprise as a result of it’s quite a lot of weekends, evenings, and holidays.”

Drawn to the humanities, Prasse started volunteering as a live performance photographer as an adolescent, then labored for Fender Guitars, capturing musical idols like late Eddie Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash the identical evening Prasse photographed him.

Whereas he studied advertising and journalism, the occasions business saved luring Prasse again. The 54-year-old father of three has labored for Milwaukee’s Bastille Days, the Wisconsin State Honest, the a hundred and fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Kentucky Derby.

Prasse talked to VinePair about bringing the Kentucky Bourbon Pageant to life beneath a brand new imaginative and prescient, how craft distillers are shaking up the bourbon business, and the facility of collaboration over competitiveness.

1. You’ve labored quite a lot of totally different roles within the occasions business. What was it about festivals and occasions that drew you in from such a younger age?

First, it was the entry. What 20-year-old wouldn’t love going backstage or having an all-access go at a music competition? It was within the ‘80s and ‘90s when all my favourite bands had been on tour. However all through my profession, what actually makes it worthwhile is seeing the grins on folks’s faces. No matter what the occasion is, it’s a enjoyable business. Even on its worst day, it’s extra enjoyable producing a competition than different jobs.

2. How had been you launched to bourbon?

I received concerned within the spirits business by producing craft beer festivals, however I’ve joked how the day I accepted this place, I had one collectors’ bottle of Woodford Reserve — as a result of they sponsor the Kentucky Derby — which I didn’t drink. Now I’ve received 80 bottles in my home and 60 in my workplace. It wasn’t one thing I wanted to accumulate a style to; it’s simply one thing I didn’t assume to get pleasure from. I might come residence after a protracted day and crack a pleasant chilly beer, however I’ve realized you possibly can have that very same rest and pleasure with a pleasant whiskey cocktail.

3. How a lot do you assume spirits customers have additionally opened up extra to whiskey in recent times?

Once we began this occasion, the distilleries joked you couldn’t give away whiskey — folks weren’t shopping for bourbon. Craft beer was getting fashionable within the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, however very small sections of retail shelving was devoted to bourbon. Over the past 15, 20 years, it has exploded, largely due to craft distilling. Shoppers have additionally turn into extra refined. That has meant extra whiskey festivals and occasions competing for the eye of distilleries and customers, so we’ve needed to get severe about what we wish this occasion to be. We examined each exercise to make choices about what to hold ahead with our new imaginative and prescient for the competition.

4. What’s that new imaginative and prescient?

For years, it was a free group competition for residents and also you couldn’t really drink whiskey. Nonetheless, it grew to become evident that it wanted to be greater than a enjoyable group gathering. We’re now centered on this competition being about whiskey and the individuals who make it. It’s about placing distillers in contact with [whiskey lovers], and if it doesn’t match into that, you gained’t expertise it right here. There are not any bouncy castles, beer gardens, or automobile exhibits.

A key a part of our competition can be the academic elements. We’ve received entry to each main grasp distiller and model ambassador at our fingertips, so we’ve recommitted to training and the power for company to return and take heed to the rock stars of the business.

We had began engaged on that imaginative and prescient pre-Covid, then when Covid hit, all we did was inform the audio system we had lined up, “As an alternative of being on a stage in entrance of tons of of individuals, we’ll do it in entrance of cameras then put it on YouTube.” That opened us as much as a brand new viewers of bourbon fanatics who didn’t know we existed and now they’re coming to the competition. A silver lining of the pandemic!

5. What else will probably be totally different concerning the competition now that it’s again on a bigger scale beneath your new imaginative and prescient?

The largest change is that it’s a 21-plus occasion. In 2019, we had 11 main distilleries, however you couldn’t drink whiskey on the competition due to Kentucky legal guidelines. In 2022, we’ve received 48 distilleries, sampling is authorized, and you should purchase bourbon.

You go to a wine competition and style a glass and in the event you prefer it, you purchase it, nevertheless it took us 31 years in Kentucky to do this with bourbon! The legal guidelines weren’t advantageous to distilleries or festivals, however they lately modified and it’s a recreation changer.

6. You talked about how craft distilleries have advanced the business. How is that this mirrored on the competition?

You could have the large manufacturers who’re fearful about consistency, barrel manufacturing, and filling cabinets as quick as they will. However craft distilleries are taking their time, studying their craft and innovating. Craft distillers’ innovation is making the bigger legacy manufacturers notice they, too, need to be revolutionary. So, we’re seeing extra of those worldwide manufacturers innovating and making an attempt issues with secondary barrel finishes or totally different variants, whereas they was once like, “We simply must make 1,000,000 barrels a yr and every barrel must style the identical as a barrel from 10 years in the past.”

That’s the place the competition is available in. Of the brand new distilleries this yr, 26 are craft distillers. We by no means used to incorporate craft distilleries, however they’re making names for themselves and thrilling customers. And the large distilleries welcome craft distilleries as a result of excessive tide floats all boats. If extra individuals are getting enthusiastic about whiskey, or if somebody’s consuming whiskey now they usually weren’t 5 years in the past, that’s a plus for the entire business. So, our function is to not solely work with the avid fanatic, however open the venue up for brand new folks to find whiskey.

7. You’ve additionally got down to spotlight the collaborative nature of the business. How so?

We hardly ever do an academic piece that solely options one model. We’d have a Woodford Reserve consultant sitting on stage subsequent to somebody from Maker’s Mark and it’s about showcasing that collaborative nature.

When small distilleries need to get into the business, oftentimes they go to the legacy distilleries for recommendation — they usually get it. Giant distilleries may flick them away like a fly, however they make investments time to make sure craft distilleries rise up and working as a result of they notice perhaps they’ll do one thing that may introduce new folks into bourbon consuming. It’s a novel and enjoyable dynamic and we’re fostering that cool vibe at this competition.

8. What does your day seem like proper now and what’s retaining you up at evening because the opening creeps nearer?

That’s a tremendous query as a result of in the event you’d requested me at 8 a.m. this morning, I might’ve had a unique reply. Within the final two weeks, I’ve had one in every of our tent firms withdraw, we virtually misplaced our caterer, and our electricians aren’t in a position to do our arrange — satirically, as a result of distilleries are so busy with building initiatives that the electricians are busy working there.

The three a.m. wake-up is extra about questioning if my sponsors have their tickets or if we have now the fitting variety of tents. However I by no means complain. It’s the life I selected and it’s in my blood. I want I wasn’t stressed proper now, however when the competition’s over, I really get into a bit little bit of a funk and interval despair as a result of I thrive on the adrenaline rush a lot. I don’t bounce out of airplanes to get my adrenaline — I produce festivals!



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